Tour Confidential: Phil’s PGA Tour gripes, LIV’s successes and failures

Phil Mickelson spoke at this week's LIV event more extensively than he had in weeks.

Phil Mickelson spoke at this week's LIV event more extensively than he had in weeks.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss LIV’s progress, Phil Mickelson’s PGA Tour gripes, confusing golf tips and more. 

1. LIV Golf’s third event wrapped up on Sunday afternoon at Trump Bedminster, with Henrik Stenson winning in his first event since trading his Ryder Cup captaincy for a slot in LIV. Three events in, what’s working — and what isn’t?

Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): The money is working! The money has allowed LIV to make an initial splash and then continue to make ripples every week. They’ve continued to add new features, whether they’re pushing the schedule up, adding new players, or just flexing on more gaudy activations at the events. The money is working. The golf really isn’t. Henrik Stenson played well, sure! But was it exciting? Was Turk Pettit’s top 10 finish meaningful? It’s hard to draw any stories from this other than The Money. That gets old. 

Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): It’s working as spectacle and a conversation-starter and it has certainly prompted changes from the PGA Tour. The problem with LIV is that it’s an unnatural market. We can pretend that there’s a giant viewing audience out there dying to watch (insert name of your favorite anonymous professional golfer here). But is there really? In that sense, LIV golf has demonstrated something similar to what the Tour’s wrap-around season has shown — that the calendar could probably use less golf, not more.

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James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): The recruiting tactics are working! Turns out, pro golfers REALLY like seeing tens of millions appear in their bank accounts out of thin air (who woulda thought?!). The team aspect gets an incomplete grade from me. I’ll give the entertainment product a C. It seems like people are enjoying attending the events, and the broadcast product is undoubtedly fast … there just aren’t that many people actually consuming it.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): Player recruitment is working better than I would have expected, and they’ve siphoned (and will continue to siphon) some of the PGA Tour’s biggest names, if not its most in-form talents. Honestly, it’s all working somewhat better than I’d expected. Since LIV’s near-demise in February, when Phil Mickelson’s remarks were released to the public, there haven’t been many significant hurdles in LIV’s way. And the checks are clearing, even if the golf feels relatively inconsequential. Inconsequential except for the prize money, of course.

2. Phil Mickelson made his most expansive remarks since the U.S. Open and criticized the PGA Tour on two fronts: failure to bring the game to an international stage and its failure to target a younger audience. What did you make of Mickelson’s remarks — and does he have a point?

Zak: I think Mickelson is a bit off when it comes to the international stage. The Tour is hosting events in Europe, Mexico, Canada, Japan and Bermuda this year. They’ve repeatedly visited China in the past. Is LIV being so much more international by visiting the country that is putting up all the money? I don’t buy that, pun intended. Should the Tour have annual event(s) in Australia and South Africa? Probably. But let’s not act like Mickelson was actively campaigning for those extra trips over the past decade. As for the younger generation, he probably has a point. But it’s not like LIV has snapped their fingers and automatically solved that dilemma, too. We’ll need a significant body of data before we can deduce a youth movement in golf viewing habits. 

Sens: I think there’s merit to a lot of Mickelson’s criticism. What undermines the impact of his complaints is what Sean points to — they don’t come off as issues that have long been near and dear to him. More like his  justifications for having joined a rival circuit that could help bail him out of a mess he appears to have created on his own.

Phil Mickelson has 2 reasons why LIV Golf works. Neither is about money.
By: James Colgan

Colgan: I’m not sure having a neon-green colorway automatically qualifies you to speak with authority about what young people like, but I do think LIV is smart to target both of these groups. Simply “being” in Europe, Mexico, Canada, Japan and Bermuda for a week doesn’t mean you’ve made an earnest effort to grow the sport or its audience there. I think there’s a real opportunity for growth in those markets, but the skeptic in me wonders if LIV is truly invested in growing the game — racially, socioeconomically and across gender and generation lines — or if they’re simply brushing with a neon-shaded coat of paint.

Dethier: In my mind, LIV’s best selling point is its scarcity. Only 14 events in a season means that if people are excited for said events then each one, on its own, is a big deal. That’s the model for Formula 1 races, after all, and F1 is clearly the league from which they’ve drawn the most inspiration. But that’s a big “if” and everything else — the international spread and the younger audience — will happen only if they’re able to make these must-see events.

3. Presidents Cup captain Davis Love III, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, reiterated that LIV players would not be eligible for his September roster and face an uncertain future. He also floated the possibility of PGA Tour players boycotting majors if LIV pros were also in the field. Do you think boycotts are a realistic possibility for pro golf’s future? Where does the PGA Tour/LIV divide go from here?

Zak: I would put the chances of a boycott at about 1%. Basically zero. The whole reason this entity exists is because it’s damn near impossible to get dozens and dozens of Tour pros to spring to action. You think 40 of the 2023 Masters invitees, their caddies, their families, their agents and coaches, etc. are ready to say “Nope, not playing!” Good luck. September will be the key month, I predict. We’ve seen plenty of smokey rumors around Australian players, and with LIV thus far, when there’s smoke there’s almost always been a fire. The Aussies probably wouldn’t commit to LIV until after the Presidents Cup, which takes place mid-September. The post-FedEx Cup, pre-October calendar could be filled with LIV news. 

Sens: I don’t see boycotts. Increasingly, where this divide seems headed is a world where pro golf is a lot like pro tennis, with a small handful of events having all the cachet.

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By: Sean Zak

Colgan: It’d be a hell of a move by the PGA Tour if they did stage a boycott — and a decidedly savvy Hail Mary. It’s also the exact sort of thing a group of mostly self-interested professionals would have absolutely zero (0) interest in doing.

Dethier: Boycotts? No. Where does the divide go from here? Into uncertainty and limbo. More high-caliber pros will leave, the core of the PGA Tour’s best will stick around, and LIV players will slowly see their world rankings sink while some number of them remain exempt for major championships. I understand why plenty of players are pushing for cooperation between LIV and the PGA Tour but at the moment I’m not sure I see much incentive for either side to sit down. LIV’s goal is to make the Tour irrelevant, no matter what they say.

4. Tony Finau won the Rocket Mortgage Classic to notch the Midwest Double after his victory at last week’s 3M Open, too. For a man plagued by “can’t-win” accusations his entire career, what do these two victories mean?

Zak: They mean he’s finally delivered on what many, many people believed: he’s among the most talented on the planet. Between his power, his game and his demeanor, he has always seemed like the total package. Him winning makes so much sense that all his runner-up finishes have been frustrating. What we never know about individual flashes like this is if this is an individual’s peak. Is this Finau’s peak? Winning a couple events while many of the best in the world take vacation? I hope not. I’d love to see him win a major championship. But we never know. It could be his peak. 

Sens: Sean has pretty much nailed it. It would be great if these lower-wattage wins signal even bigger things to come. I can’t imagine there’s a fan out there who wouldn’t be glad to see it.

Colgan: The two wins mean that Tony’s career won’t be included in one of those “best players never to win 3 professional events” lists. Who knows what that means for his chances at a big-time event, but also who cares? He sure doesn’t.

Dethier: How dare y’all come in here dumping cold water on Tony’s victory party? I can only imagine the relief he feels. Granted, his win in last year’s playoffs was monumental (up to that point he’d only won the Puerto Rico Open) but last week was a nice reminder that he can close and this week was a validation of last week, another testament to his closing ability and brings his win total to a very respectable four. More to come, no doubt. Though he may lose an event at some point.

5. DP World Tour pro Eddie Pepperell revealed on last week’s Drop Zone podcast that his key to playing better tournament golf has been playing less golf. “Ironically, lately I’ve tried to go back to what I used to do and that’s very little,” he said. “Basically since March I haven’t played a practice round.” He finished second to Sean Crocker on Sunday for his best result since 2020. What do you make of Pepperell’s strategy, and can you think of other counterintuitive golf tips that are so crazy they just might work?

Zak: Love the strategy, for no reason other than a change of pace. Tour pros need changes of pace. Their plodding schedule of picking things up from one event and dropping them in another state, doing the same routine, eating at the same time, practicing in the same way — if it doesn’t deliver results, why not change it? Oh, and golf is littered with counterintuitive tips. Like swinging outward on the ball to hit a draw. Sheesh! 

Sens: Different strokes for different folks. Something tells me that mothballing the clubs wouldn’t have worked for a guy like Vijay Singh. That said, for the average golfer, I think a good way to play better to play faster. If you doubt this, try playing speed golf sometime and watch how much better you hit it. I guarantee you will. I would like to see the pros try a similar experiment. Many of them point to the huge purses as justification for playing at a glacial pace. But I wonder if all those grinding habits they’ve learned actually make them better.

Colgan: I genuinely believe that if I swung one of those old-school persimmon drivers for 6 months, I’d be a better player off the tee at the end of it.

Dethier: Do it, James! In addition to eliminating practice rounds, I’m all for eliminating practice swings. They’re a hoax! An unhelpful security blanket! Get a little feel for your stance and get to work — in most typical cases the extra swing is a detriment rather than a boost.

6. This week marks the final major of the year: the top female golfers in the world are teeing it up at Muirfield in the AIG Women’s Open. (Ayaka Furue fired a record-setting 62 on Sunday to win the Women’s Scottish Open in the final lead-up.) What storyline are you most looking forward to from Gullane, Scotland?

Zak: The history of women playing at Muirfield. We cannot forget the various clubs who were pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and Muirfield was one of them. Is it okay for gender-exclusive clubs to exist? I’m not really into that, but it’s not for me to govern their place in the game. That’s up to the game’s governing bodies, and the R&A did the right thing ripping Muirfield from the Open rota until the club allowed female members. Anyway, I’m rambling. This is the first professional women’s event at Muirfield. It’s a huge deal and long overdue. I’ll enjoy it. 

Colgan: Retweet, Seany. Golf’s history isn’t always a pretty one, and it’s important not to overlook the significance of this event at this course.

Sens: When I played Muirfield many years ago, there were a few dog bowls filled with water outside the clubhouse and the young forward-thinking member who was hosting me pointed to them and said, ‘See, the membership here cares more about their dogs than their wives.” Harsh. As Sean and James say, it’s a big deal. As for other storylines, Lydia Ko. Always Lydia Ko. The easiest player to root for on any tour.

Dethier: I’m excited to see how Minjee Lee caps off her major championship season. The hottest player in the game backed up her U.S. Women’s Open win with a T2 at the KPMG Women’s PGA and, despite a down week at the Evian, enters this week at No. 2 in the world and her sights set on No. 1. What happens next?

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