How the PGA Tour’s nightmare week suddenly got a dream ending
Jay Monahan said it himself.
“It’s been an unfortunate week created by some unfortunate decisions,” he said.
The PGA Tour commissioner was talking to Jim Nantz on the CBS broadcast. He was projecting strength, theoretically. But even he had to admit that this particular stretch hasn’t gone as planned.
The “week” Monahan is referring to began with a group of PGA Tour pros — headlined by Dustin Johnson — being announced among the competitors for LIV’s inaugural event in London, defying Monahan’s orders. This was open insubordination. The rift was beginning.
The initial set of names had been floated for months, but it was still jarring to see them in print. This meant the end of a Ryder Cup era as we know it, with an entire class of aging European legends — Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia among them — joining LIV. Talor Gooch’s name signaled that there were promising PGA Tour talents interested in the venture, too. And the inclusion of multiple talented amateurs suggested Norman’s focus includes a younger set of players, too.
It got worse when Phil Mickelson, the second-best and second-most recognizable golfer of a generation, announced that he, too, was jumping ship to Norman’s Saudi-backed enterprise. This represented a new type of existential threat. Even if Mickelson’s LIV appearance was most notable for his meme-worthy red-carpet appearance at the Tuesday draft party, where he arrived wide-eyed, scruffy and leather-jacketed, he’s still Phil Mickelson. That was a serious blow.
No single step of LIV’s launch was wholly unexpected. What was jarring about it was just that it happened at all. For years, the league has been what USGA CEO Mike Whan referred to as a “Powerpoint presentation.” It gained momentum, then lost it just as quickly. Mickelson’s comments about the league’s Saudi backers, which were published in February, cast its future into the unknown. But here, several months later, was Mickelson at LIV, and the Powerpoint was come to life.
The way LIV flaunted its war chest proved to be more bad news for the PGA Tour. Bryson DeChambeau was planning to stay on the PGA Tour until he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse. Suddenly DeChambeau — one of the Tour’s biggest personalities, best players and most significant characters — was gone, too. Money was proving no object. Patrick Reed followed soon thereafter. He and Pat Perez were each announced during Saturday’s livestream.
Worse yet: More names are coming. Big names.
How, then, could the PGA Tour respond?
Rather than fuel the fight, Monahan chose to stay out of the public eye. When LIV’s shotgun start kicked off Thursday, he was ready with a release that announced immediate and indefinite player suspensions for the 17 Tour members involved. But this wasn’t any sort of win, as it was unclear how much those players — or others like DeChambeau, who are announced but not yet suspended — even cared. The big names have signed multi-year deals. The majority resigned their Tour memberships. Johnson seemed resigned to playing just LIV’s limited schedule plus the majors.
“Obviously at this time it’s hard to speak on what the consequences will be, but for right now, I resigned my membership from the Tour,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m going to play here for now, and that’s the plan.”
All the while, PGA Tour pros geared up for an event of their own, the first RBC Canadian Open since 2019. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas were sent out to face the media and address the departure of their peers. They did so gamely and ably. But the event was overshadowed by its London counterpart. Was the Tour’s foundation suddenly crumbling?
Not so fast. Despite LIV’s livestream gaining more traction than expected (the YouTube portion peaked at over 100,000 viewers) during Thursday’s opening round, a targeted announcement from Golf Channel reminded everyone that its opening-round coverage, despite lacking the fanfare of LIV’s debut, averaged a record 385,000 viewers. Any talk of the Tour’s decline would reflect a storyline rather than reality.
A few other weekend moments served as reminders of the Tour’s clout. There was Forbes‘ assessment that Tiger Woods — both the architect and beneficiary of the league’s success — is officially a billionaire. There was Rocket Mortgage dropping DeChambeau and doubling down on its commitment to the Tour, similar to RBC’s treatment of Johnson and McDowell. And at St. George’s Golf and Country Club, an intriguing leaderboard was emerging.
Come Sunday, the Tour had its absolute dream scenario. Its two unofficial spokesmen, Thomas and McIlroy, were in the day’s final group alongside fan-favorite and mega-talent Tony Finau. LIV had wrapped up on Saturday without much fanfare; Mickelson fell outside the top 30 while journeyman (and former Masters champ) Charl Schwartzel emerged the new owner of $4.75 million. The stage was cleared for Canadian chaos.
St. George’s proved the perfect site for daytime fireworks. McIlroy birdied the first hole of the day. Thomas and Finau birdied the second. That set the tone for what was to come. Thomas nearly made an ace at the par-3 6th; McIlroy followed with a chip-in and a fist-pump, celebrating a stolen stroke. The two of them went out in five-under 29; Finau shot 31.
Up ahead, Justin Rose was on 59 watch. He’d holed out at No. 1 and proceeded two make two more eagles throughout the day. He reached 11 under on the par-70 layout with three holes to play. The top-heavy leaderboard featured other top-tier talent, too: Sam Burns lurked at the edge of the top five, with Shane Lowry and Matthew Fitzpatrick not far behind. Tension built and storylines developed, as happens on the Tour’s best Sundays.
Thomas turned on the jets midway through the round, making six birdies in a row from No. 6 to No. 11. But he gained just a single shot; McIlroy birdied five of those holes, too. His 40-foot birdie bomb at No. 12 seemed like proof that there was Tour-approved wizardry in the air.
Midway through this birdie barrage, Monahan made his CBS appearance.
How’d he do? It’s complicated.
On the one hand, he did project strength. He reiterated that there was no end in sight for LIV golfers’ suspensions from the PGA Tour. He was dismissive of Norman’s product as “exhibitions.” And he recognized the strings attached to LIV’s controversial Saudi backing.
“Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” he asked rhetorically.
All were points well taken. At the same time, Monahan didn’t articulate any changes the Tour would be making to compete with the new startup. There’s no way to compete with a bottomless bucket of cash, of course, but many fans have wondered if competition will spur the Tour to change. It’s clear that for now, Monahan is relying on the power of status quo. It was up to the golfers and on-site fans to prove that the on-course action would be enough.
It sure was. McIlroy’s 12th-hole birdie extended his lead to a seemingly insurmountable three strokes, but then it quickly proved surmountable when he missed a four-footer at 13 and a three-footer at 15, then added a bogey at 16. He’d slipped from 59 watch back into a tie for the lead. Suddenly it was McIlroy and Thomas at 17 under with Finau just a single shot back.
“For the Canadian Open, a national championship, to have a week like it’s had, three of the best players in the world going at it down the stretch, trying to win in front of those crowds and that atmosphere — that’s what I talked about last week at Memorial, talking about a proper golf tournament,” McIlroy said post-round. “Like that was just — that’s as top-notch as you’re going to get.”
That’s where the Tour King took over for good.
Thomas found himself in trouble off the tee at 17, while McIlroy drew a relatively clear lie in the second cut on the left. He judged his approach perfectly, trundling a wedge shot onto the front of the green, where it rolled out to two feet. His lead was two. He striped his drive down the 18th fairway. As he walked after it, the Canadian crowd walked after him. And when his approach shot settled, once again, inside five feet, they breached the ropes. By the time he’d reached the green they’d established a ring around that green. When Finau canned a 42-footer for birdie, cementing second place, the crowd when wild. When McIlroy finished off a birdie of his own, they roared. This was a celebration of their national open and it was a celebration of the Tour’s vitality.
“It was pretty raucous out there, but it’s really cool,” McIlroy said, harkening back to the famous scene at Tiger Woods’ 2018 Tour Championship victory, when the crowds flooded the 18th fairway and nearly enveloped McIlroy (Woods’ playing partner) in the process. That was one of the Tour’s defining moments in recent history. This felt important in an entirely different way.
“Whenever that happens and you can enjoy your walk and you know you’ve got the tournament sewed up you can take it in and really relish it and enjoy it and it was a cool scene on 18.”
There’s a big, uncomfortable, crucially important question about the entire scene: Does it matter? Does the adoration of thousands of fans, the context of history, the cache of a PGA Tour win — does all of that trump the promise of fewer events, guaranteed money and much more of it? Do the personal appeals and admonishments of Jay Monahan and the examples set by McIlroy and Thomas serve as convincing enough testimony for the Tour’s top talents to stick around rather than chasing quick cash?
It won’t matter to everybody. More names are sure to follow the Mickelsons and DeChambeaus and Johnsons; their names will be floated in the coming days and they’ll appear in Portland at the next LIV event, suspensions be damned.
But there are other pros for whom this scene and its implications do matter. For all its faults — too many tournaments, confusing implications for viewers, a lack of opportunities for its top stars to face off — the PGA Tour provides one hard-to-match opportunity: It’s a week-in, week-out test to help gauge the title of the world’s best golfer. That’s the title belt most of these golfers want to compete for. That’s something you can’t yet get on LIV. And while that best-golfer test leans heavily on the Tour’s cooperation with the four majors, those alliances still seem sturdy.
That’s an operative phrase these days. For now. We determine golf’s champions through 72 holes of stroke play. The game’s best golfers are all still on the PGA Tour. That makes the Tour the golf circuit of record. For now, for now, for now.
Rory McIlroy’s coronation was a small victory for his Tour. His post-round jab at Norman raised the next battle’s stakes. Now we’re on to the U.S. Open, where LIV commits and Tour loyalists will congregate and face a slew of awkward questions.
Their answers are guaranteed to make one thing clear: The war for golf’s future is just beginning.