At the PGA Championship, golf’s most controversial invite has a lot to say

talor gooch stares at the PGA Championship in a white hat and blue shirt

Talor Gooch said his omission from the Masters could leave an "asterisk" on Rory McIlroy's grand slam.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The crowd following Talor Gooch’s group on Thursday at the PGA Championship was sparse, but it featured one notable addition. A uniformed Louisville police officer.

Security details are not unusual during major championship weeks, where the best players in the world are thrust in front of throngs of adoring — and occasionally overeager — fans. But those details are usually restricted to the biggest-name players, and even an aggressive estimate of the smattering of onlookers who followed Gooch, Cameron Davis and Harris English from the 14th tee box to the 18th green early Thursday evening might have numbered in the low single-digits.

So what inspired the presence of one of those onlookers, the police officer, inside the ropes with this group?

“That guy right there,” the officer said, pointing from off the 18th fairway.

Talor Gooch?

“Yup,” the officer said. “I’m staying with him alllll week.”

The officer did not know why Gooch had been assigned a detail, but it did not take a security expert to make an educated guess. Gooch, the generally mild-mannered pro who has lived mostly in the grey area between golf irrelevance and notoriety, has become a controversial figure. And, thanks to receiving a surprising exemption just days ago from the PGA of America, he might well be the controversial figure of PGA Championship week. So even though the crowds who watched him on Thursday seemed to feel nothing more than passing affection for the 32-year-old’s untoward-sounding last name, the officer walked each step of Gooch’s round close to his shadow.

The reason for Gooch’s sudden lightning rod status is golf’s most important popularity contest: the invites to the sport’s major championships. Gooch’s absence from the majors, his debatable comments about his absence and his willingness to keep saying them have contributed to his near-universal dunking on the internet, where Gooch is a pariah. But back in the real world things aren’t quite as simple. Using its unilateral authority to grant special exemptions, the PGA of America invited Gooch to compete in this year’s PGA Championship — a significant victory for the 32-year-old. And though that might not sound like much in this divisive era in golf, it is apparently enough to warrant a security detail at Valhalla.

“I just think that the best thing for the majors to continue to be the upper-echelon of professional golf is to figure out how to get the best players in the world in the field,” he told on Thursday, the same day he shot an even-par 71 in the first round of the PGA Championship. “I think the PGA did a great thing in inviting me, and hopefully it’ll open a door to what the future looks like.”

The major championship future is a loaded question for Gooch — and he has much to say about what it portends for him and his employer, LIV Golf. But the major championship past is perhaps even more important to the story.

In May 2022, Gooch was playing the best golf of his professional career when he announced his decision to join LIV. The cost was steep for what was then the 35th-ranked golfer in the world — a reported $30 million signing bonus — but so was the risk from Gooch’s side. Unlike many of LIV’s other high-profile defections, Gooch was still in the prime of his playing career, and critically, his lack of major championship success left him without the guaranteed exemptions into golf’s biggest events shared by most of his counterparts. With LIV failing to secure entry into the Official World Golf Ranking — a points system used to determine major championship eligibility, among other things — guaranteed exemptions were the only secure path for the league’s players to earn entrance into the majors.

In other words, Gooch was taking the money with the explicit knowledge that his major championship future was in serious jeopardy. In some ways, his offer was so valuable because his major championship future was in serious jeopardy. And he elected to take the money anyway. Which, he recognizes, is why what came next was so controversial.

In February, Gooch set the golf world ablaze when he told Australian Golf Digest that he felt a Rory McIlroy grand-slam-completing victory at the Masters would have an “asterisk.” The problem, Gooch said, was that Augusta National had failed to invite LIV’s top non-exempt players, himself included.

“If Rory McIlroy goes and completes his grand slam without some of the best players in the world, there’s just going to be an asterisk,” he said then. “It’s just the reality. I think everybody wins whenever the majors figure out a way to get the best players in the world there.”

Gooch was raked over the coals for his comments almost immediately, including by PGA Tour pros like Justin Thomas, who viewed Gooch’s insistence on being gifted an invitation to the majors as the latest example of pro golf’s rampant have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too phenomenon.

“I know what you mean in terms of how the World Ranking works and guys that aren’t on the Tour anymore, but that’s just kind of the reality of what they’ve put themselves in,” Thomas said. “I’m not going to have an asterisk next to my name for winning this because the field wasn’t too good.”

As Thomas and (many) others alluded, there are a number of reasons why the governing bodies have not opened exemption pathways to LIV. LIV has not, for example, aligned with the OWGR’s requirements, and its modified competitive structure (no cuts, only 54 holes) makes it difficult to determine how players compare across the tours. Who’s to say that the 10th-best non-exempt LIV player deserves a major exemption, but not the 11th-best? Where and how does a governing body draw the line fairly?

Gooch says he’s not looking to get in the weeds about ranking points and playing pathways. His argument isn’t driven by personal desire so much as it is by principle. He was the 35th-best golfer in the world, he left for another Tour filled with star golfers and won three times in 2023. If the point of the majors is to showcase the best golfers in the world, then he should be included.

“They’re all gonna be different,” he said Thursday. “But I just think what’s best for everybody is to figure out how to include LIV.”

talor gooch looks on at a liv golf tournament
Talor Gooch: Why Rory McIlroy Masters win would warrant asterisk
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There’s some merit to Gooch’s argument, but it’s hard to square that away with the rest of his comments. Two months after the “asterisk” debacle, he threw himself onto the golf chopping block again when he admitted in a press conference at LIV Singapore that he would not participate in U.S. Open qualifying. The player with the biggest axe to grind over his failure to qualify for major championships wasn’t willing to try via open competition. Was that not in itself disqualifying?

From Valhalla on Thursday evening, Gooch says he’s heard the critique … and agrees with it.

“I get it,” he says. “I get why people would say that.”

But he claims his reasoning for not going to qualifying was schedule-related.

“Look, the last time I tried to qualify was in 2019,” he said. “I’ve just decided not to do it. If it works out better in the schedule next year then I might do it. But it’s just the way the schedule worked out.”

There has been some suggestion that Gooch’s aversion to U.S. Open qualifying stems from a disagreement with the governing body dating back to early last year, when the USGA announced a slight shift to its automatic exemption criteria. No longer were players “who qualified” for the Tour Championship able to receive a U.S. Open exemption into LACC (a group that included Gooch). Now only players “who qualified and were eligible for the season-ending 2022 Tour Championship” were able to receive an exemption. There was only one player in the world whose U.S. Open eligibility was affected by the change: Talor Gooch.

But on Thursday at the PGA, Gooch insisted that his decision not to compete in the qualifier has nothing to do with any outstanding beef with the USGA.

“I don’t have any ill will for what they’re doing,” he said. “There’s no vendetta, it’s just the way the scheduling worked out.”

Gooch can be stubborn, and on this topic he admits he is stubborn. He could earn his way into the majors and Ryder Cup by playing on the DP World Tour and Asian Tour, or through qualifying events. He thinks it’s wonderful that LIV teammates like Joaquin Niemann and David Puig have committed to playing a worldwide schedule, and thinks their respective invites into golf’s majors in 2024 from those efforts are well-earned. It’s just not for him.

“If you’re Joaco or David, and you’re not married with kids and your schedule is flexible, that’s a different topic of discussion,” Gooch said. “People kinda forget that part of why I chose the LIV path was that I have two young kids. I don’t want to be on the road 28 weeks a year, grinding. We’ll see what the future holds, but as of now, I didn’t choose that path.”

As he reaches the range at Valhalla, I wonder if Talor Gooch views himself as something of a martyr. He’s been willing to sacrifice a handful of his life’s precious few chances at major championship glory for a battle of principle he’s almost certain to lose. Is he stubborn … or just foolish?

“You know, I thought about it,” he says, pausing slightly. “It wasn’t out of spite or to try to piss people off. It’s just … it’s just the path I’ve chosen.”

Gooch’s path has brought him to the PGA Championship again, where on Thursday evening he finished his first round with a brilliant eagle on the 18th. He seemed grateful after his round was over, happy even, pausing to drink in the amphitheater surrounding the 18th at Valhalla for a few long seconds. And then he was gone, walking with his uniformed police officer from the 18th green to the scorer’s tent. Chatting with him like an old friend, too.

“People take this so seriously — this isn’t heart surgery,” he says. “We all love the game, and we love the passion of it, but man, it’s still a game.”

And isn’t that the whole point? The truth has many shades. It is a game, and it is serious. Just like Gooch can be both wrong and a little right, stubborn and a little foolish. 

It is a shame the truth isn’t absolute, because there’s little doubt it’d be easier that way. Talor Gooch would have one thing less to fight for, and the PGA Championship would have one fewer security detail.

James Colgan Editor

James Colgan is a news and features editor at GOLF, writing stories for the website and magazine. He manages the Hot Mic, GOLF’s media vertical, and utilizes his on-camera experience across the brand’s platforms. Prior to joining GOLF, James graduated from Syracuse University, during which time he was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from. He can be reached at

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