DUBLIN, Ohio — James Piot just wants to be a professional golfer, so he has taken free gobs of money from Greg Norman’s minions at LIV Golf—because the designation of “pro” equates to doing something for pay—and will compete in next week’s first LIV Invitational series event outside London.
Free gobs of money sounds rather enticing to a 23-year-old fresh out of college who made only his second pro start this past week at the Memorial. Then again, it proved to be enticing to a myriad collection of golfers of varying experience and levels of success, many of whom are finding the most important thing about the money they are receiving is its richness and not its origins. Those origins are not just questionable but unseemly, tied to the Public Investment Fund, which happens to be under the auspices of the government of Saudi Arabia.
Golf already has ties to Saudi Arabia, so hand wringing over this is a bit late, though not unwarranted. But set that aside.
Rail thin, and with a nasal voice embellishing his earnestness, Piot is no bad guy for doing what he thinks is the best avenue to pursue his professional career. A recent fifth-year graduate of Michigan State, he is, in fact, probably in the best possible position to take the route he has chosen—the road not taken, not available until now, in fact, and a road with fewer obstacles, frankly.
“For me, the offer was, you know, you’re going to play golf and you’re going to have status somewhere … so for me, I thought it was fantastic,” Piot said after shooting 75-78 at Muirfield Village Golf Club to miss the cut at the Memorial.
Piot won last year’s U.S. Amateur at storied Oakmont Country Club and because of that has enjoyed exemptions into five PGA Tour events this year, including the Masters. He also earned a spot in the U.S. Open in two weeks at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. Had he played well in those events, he might have earned his way onto the PGA Tour. Of course, few young players have been exceptional enough to take advantage of the opportunity, and Piot not only has not made the cut in any of the five events, but has yet to break par. His best effort was a first-round even-par 71 at the RBC Heritage.
Until LIV golf came along, Piot would have been looking at mini-tours, the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying tournament, maybe the Challenge Tour in Europe and other even less attractive options, all while figuring out how to scrape together a living. Plenty of today’s top PGA Tour players did their apprentice on the Korn Ferry Tour. Brooks Koepka, winner of four majors, cut his teeth on the Challenge Tour.
Instead, Piot, who leaves Sunday for London and the first LIV Golf event, is going to leap right into the fire against Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood, among others, while also dangling his feet into a pot of gold. Indeed, he received money up front—very good money, perhaps $1 million or more—so his trial by fire will be soothed with the balm of solvency.
“End of the day, it’s an opportunity to play golf and have status somewhere,” he said. “That’s kind of what I viewed it as. Obviously, money is a factor, but at the same time, it’s an exciting format and there’s an opportunity to learn from the greats. Being around those guys—there’s so many major championship winners, it’s tough not to learn and get better when you’re in that environment.”
While it is unknown what the ramifications will be for tour members like Johnson, Garcia and others—fines, suspension and bans from the PGA Tour are likely on the table—Piot is a trailblazer in another way, perhaps being the first of many top collegiate players who choose to delay their bid for the PGA Tour and major championships to build an early nest egg.
“I can definitely see this being a factor for guys coming out of college, younger players who can make maybe three times more playing X number of events and then maybe moving on,” said Jordan Spieth. “That might be one of the bigger threats to the PGA Tour if the younger guys opt for that other tour.”
Of course, if LIV Golf grows and gains a significant footing, how many spots would be available to the collegiate All-American types who are unproven at the pro level? The pickings might be slim going forward.
Piot's U.S. Amateur win at Oakmont has him exempt into the U.S. Open at Brookline.
So, Piot’s timing seems rather fortuitous. Not that it has been an easy decision. He said he stayed off social media in the last several days after the list of entrants for the first LIV Golf event was released on Tuesday. OK, he took a peek, saw reactions, and decided that the “most stressful six, seven months of my life, ever, since winning the Am,” probably didn’t need enhancements.
“The things people are retweeting and, you know, people, you don't even know, making judgments, stuff like that,” Piot said. “But at the end of the day, I tell people, you know, it's about playing golf and it's what I want to do with my life.
“So, for me, a part of the decision is like I said, just developing, playing with great players and you learn [whether] it’s PGA Tour, LIV Tour, wherever you're at, you're around golf greats. And we'll see where it takes me.”
He still hopes that one day it will lead him back to the PGA Tour. He even hopes that he might receive more sponsor’s exemptions this year, which sounds a bit naïve. As a non-member of the tour, he certainly faces no penalties for playing in the LIV series. They can’t keep him from trying to Monday qualify.
But will tour events be willing to grant him an exemption after his LIV involvement? A legitimate question.
In the meantime, he is taking things one event at a time, though his goal is to qualify for the LIV Golf tour championship. Even on an upstart circuit, in a field that, were it to award World Ranking points, wouldn’t measure up to a Korn Ferry Tour event, he’s got his work cut out for him.
“At the end of the day, it’s just golf,” he said.
No, it’s more than that. It’s professional golf, the thing he wants, but there is also a political element, and social ones, too. So he's going to get a lot of different experiences, and he’s likely going to get them, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, good and hard.