Rory McIlroy’s latest LIV comments suggest the discussion is changing

Rory McIlroy at the JP McManus Pro-Am.

Rory McIlroy at the JP McManus Pro-Am.

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As the breakaway LIV league has emerged as a legitimate threat to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, different figures have emerged as spokespeople for their respective parties. While some big-name pros have fled for the new tour, others have doubled down on their decision to stay. On the PGA Tour that has meant the emergence of pseudo-spokesmen like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm speaking out on its behalf.

Until this point, the PGA Tour has taken a black-and-white stance on the matter and its top pros have supported that stance. Pros who teed it up in the first LIV event were considered to have crossed a line in the sand. They were suspended, immediately and indefinitely, from playing in future Tour events. Commissioner Jay Monahan has continually expressed no interest in partnering or cooperating with Greg Norman’s new Saudi-backed venture.

So when McIlroy suggested to BBC Sport this week that golf’s governing bodies ought to cooperate to find a solution, that marked a significant change in messaging.

“I think so,” he said at the JP McManus Pro-Am. “I think that needs to happen.”

It’s possible McIlroy was just answering a question in the moment and will clarify his intentions later. But if we take him at his word, McIlroy’s stance has evolved. He has admitted, after all, that he didn’t think that it would get this far. He has expressed regret at his suggestion that LIV was “dead in the water” back in February. LIV has picked up momentum ever since, having claimed some of golf’s biggest talents and biggest names as its own. More names are expected to come down following next week’s Open Championship.

“Yeah it’s unfortunate, it’s messy, I wish it hadn’t have got that messy and in hindsight I think there were probably steps that were missed that wouldn’t have made it that messy,” McIlroy said.

His comments are a reminder that LIV has leapt over many of the hurdles that establishment figures expected would stand in its way. It was easy to dismiss this as just another Powerpoint presentation, as one leader did. The idea of a global tour disrupting the PGA Tour has been around for a quarter-century, after all. Skepticism seemed reasonable: Players won’t ditch the PGA Tour. LIV won’t be able to put on real events. Nobody will watch. Nobody will attend.

LIV’s Portland event dispelled many of those. While it’s easy to laugh off Talor Gooch’s comments that the final round felt like a Ryder Cup, Tour loyalists can’t laugh it all off. There were people in attendance. Tournament organizers pulled off a successful broadcast. Things ran smoothly. Players and caddies and coaches and agents spoke highly of their experience. LIV’s product may not be for everyone, but those hoping for incompetence in execution haven’t found it.

The PGA Tour has already responded by increasing the purse sizes of its own premier events. They’re adding more events, too, which will serve as a reward to top performers. McIlroy and others have praised those changes.

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“I said this back at the very start in 2020, I think in the long term it will make the game better because I think it will force the tours to adapt and change and make the product better, and focus on maybe the fan engagement side of things and focus on maybe some stuff that they’ve been neglecting over the years,” McIlroy said.

It’s a nice thought and may prove true. But there’s no simple way out at the moment. Not for any of the entangled tours. Even for McIlroy, the PGA Tour’s de facto spokesman, no part of LIV is as easy to dismiss anymore — not event LIV’s controversial source of funding, the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund.

“Look, there’s so much chat about where the money’s coming from and Saudi and everything else, look — they sponsor so many other things and they’re all over sport,” he said. McIlroy is among those who has been critical of pros accepting the Saudi money in the past, so this was him striking a different note.

“Aramco [the Saudi government’s oil company] are big sponsors of Formula One, the Aramco Ladies Series in golf, which has actually been really good for the ladies in terms of big prize funds and so on, so I understand people’s reservations with everything,” he said. “But at the same time, if these people are serious about investing billions of dollars into golf, I think ultimately that’s a good thing.

“But it has to be done the right way and I think if they were to invest, having it be invested inside the existing structures.

That marks a significant change; McIlroy has either come around to the reality of Saudi involvement or has come to terms with its inevitability. If that money is entering golf, McIlroy would prefer it boosts the game’s existing powers.

“I think that’s the thing I have tried to advocate for the last few months,” he said. “I think at this point if people are wanting to spend that much money into golf that’s wonderful, I just wish that we could have spent that much money within the structure that has existed for many decades in golf instead of being a big disruptor.”

On Tuesday, the Aramco Team Series presented by PIF (yeah, the same PIF) announced that Nelly and Jessica Korda have committed to its August event in Spain. Those directing the fund are determined to embed in the professional golf world. They’ve already had plenty of wins, some more high-profile than others.

McIlroy’s suggestion that the Saudis could get involved via golf’s “existing structures” echoes DP World Tour head Keith Pelley’s assertion last week that the Saudis could invest “inside the ecosystem.”

Following that logic, things will only get thornier. There was a moral argument against LIV which went something like this: Don’t take the PIF money because that means you’re doing PR for the Saudi government and glossing over its human rights abuses. That argument had a simple conclusion, too: players shouldn’t take the money. But if the money itself isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker, as Pelley and McIlroy are suggesting, we’re left in a gray area. A compromise with other tours becomes more palatable, but the rest of the argument against LIV becomes somewhat less obvious. So does pro golf’s path forward.

It’s possible McIlroy has been spending more time recently hearing the cases made by his longtime friends and Ryder Cup teammates who have defected to LIV, a group that includes Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell — and could continue to grow.

“I understand why guys went, especially the guys that are sort of in the latter stages of their career and if I was in their position, I’d serious have to think about doing the same thing,” he said.

It’s not clear what compromise would look like. Nor is it clear which parties are most incentivized to compromise. LIV has momentum and money on its side (the latter more powerful than the former). It has big-name players, too. But the PGA Tour has powerful existing infrastructure — history, legacy, world ranking points, TV contracts and the current crop of best golfers in the world — that still hold significant value. Middle ground won’t come easily. What would a satisfying deal even look like? As both sides dig in, compromise will demand larger and larger concessions.

And don’t mistake McIlroy’s softening stance as a full-throated endorsement for defectors’ decisions nor for LIV itself. He still made it clear he doesn’t think golfers who leave should be able to get full access to the tours they deserted.

“It’s the younger guys to me that I find hard to understand because they’re losing years of their competitive career for monetary reasons. We all make decisions for different purpose. That’s fine. It’s different to what I’d do,” he said. “Is there resentment? I played in Ryder Cup teams with these guys. Is there a difference of opinion? Yes. There is a difference of opinion and I would have done things differently.

“Just go over there, don’t try and come back and play over here again. That’s the tricky part and that’s where the resentment is coming from. For me, I don’t resent anyone. These guys are my friends, regardless of the decisions they make.”

It’s decision-making season. McIlroy is continuing to think through the best path forward. So are the tours on which he has made his career. The only thing clear at the moment is that none of this will be resolved quickly.

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.

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