FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Where do we go from here?
LIV Golf and the PGA Tour appear here to stay, which makes it a good time to assess the future of the pro game.
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
The male of the species—Homo sapiens—likes to compete. You may have noticed. Also, fix things. Oh, yes: The male of the species is quite sure of his ability to fix things, no how-to manual required.
Enter Phil Mickelson, with his famous statement to Alan Shipnuck in the fall of 2021: “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” His first this is a reference to the long and tragic history of human-rights abuses at the hands of the Saudi ruling class. The second is Mickelson’s ultimate decision to go LIV. He’s not looking back. From here on out, over the next decade or so, you’ll see Mickelson at the Masters, the PGA Championship, the British Open, and that’s about it, for golf’s grand stages.
Enter Tiger Woods, about 18 months after Mickelson’s move, and Tiger’s decision to join the PGA Tour’s policy board. Woods might seem like the coldest and most calculating warrior-athlete you could ever imagine, and he most likely is. But on a more basic level than even that, everything is personal to him. Michael Corleone had it only half correct when he said, “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” To the greatest of the greats, it’s both.
Woods’s golfing life is rooted in the racism his father endured in these United States. It is his jet fuel. Tiger has understandable and immense pride in his career on the PGA Tour, an American sporting and corporate institution, one that is a pure meritocracy. Now he will look to bury Phil’s get-richer-now dreams, bury Greg Norman’s global-golf-village aspirations, bury the PIF’s we-own-golf ambitions. I wouldn’t bet against him.
Woods, like Arnold and Jack—and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan before them—is about as Buy American as a person can be. The PGA Tour is American. It just is. Seve came to America and didn’t like it, save for one week a year. Norman came to America and did. But both were here on passports in every sense of the word. Tiger’s goal, as a Tour board member, will be to preserve the Tour’s status as an American institution to which the best golfers in the world aspire. Thereby his records will endure.
It’s clear, through little crystal-ball statements here and there, that both LIV Golf and the PGA Tour are not going anywhere. They cannot co-exist in a partnership. In other words, this framework agreement, about which we have heard so much? Between the politics and the legal framework and the public-relations optics and the rest, I don’t see it happening. It may not die on the vine, but I just don’t see how this partnership flies. Hostile takeovers are one thing. One group owns the other, and the conquered party has no choice. Hostile partnerships are another.
As a starting point the inherent issue of co-existence, there are not enough weeks in the year to accommodate both LIV Golf and the PGA Tour schedule. And even more to the point, there just isn’t enough global interest in golf. Cam Smith, native Aussie, can draw in Adelaide, in South Australia, but not at the Greenbrier, the West Virginia resort where the LIVsters gathered last week.
And that’s not a dig on Smith. Justin Thomas, native son of Kentucky, can draw in Greensboro, N.C., but could go a week at the Sydney Opera House and not be recognized.
Lucas Glover and his lodge brothers assembled last week in old Greensboro, for the Greater Greensboro Open, which now goes by the noble name of the Wyndham Championship. (We tip the cap to anybody willing to write checks and keep tradition alive.) Snead won the first GGO in ’38. Hogan won it in ’40 and Nelson in ’41. Tiger has studied the swings and lives of all three men. We all have. They started the tour. Not the PGA Tour in all its bloated registered trademark excess. The tour. The circuit. The circus. “We were gypsies,” Raymond Floyd once told me.
Most sports leagues and sporting competitions are parochial. What makes the Olympics the Olympics is how irregular it is, plus all those fringe sports that get a rare turn. The four Grand Slam events in tennis bring the tennis world together four times a year, and that’s enough. The four major events in men’s professional golf, the same.
Quick note 1: It hurts to see golf shoot itself in its FootJoys over this golf-ball debate. Yes, the modern golf ball, in conjunction with modern equipment, goes ridiculous distances when struck by superb athletes, who threaten Golden Age course design and have upended the notion of the par-5. But for now, all the governing bodies need to do is come up with a ball for exclusive use at the four men’s majors, so that Augusta National and Merion and the Old Course and Medinah and the East Course at PGA Frisco don’t have to grow longer and longer each time the show comes to town. The MGB ball. The Major Golf Ball ball. Yes, repetition for emphasis.
If the PGA Tour wants to come in, to use the MGB for the Players, then come on in and watch your status rise. TPC Sawgrass can stay right where it is at 7,200 yards. Elite golfers will aspire to using the MGB ball, just as elite amateur baseball players aspire to stepping into the batter’s box with a wooden bat.
The batter’s box. The batter’s box! The first tee. The 18th green. The clubhouse. The dugout. The scorecard. The scoreboard! What’s real in sports endures.
All sports evolve, of course. But what’s real endures. That pitch shot Tiger played on 16, at Augusta one year. Does it matter what year? The shot transcends time. The second shot Phil played on the last hole of that U.S. Open at Winged Foot, with the tents in his backswing. Victory was so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. I never saw a more gracious runner-up, not in person. You can use the word loser if you wish. Tiger would. I would not.
Nobody cares how far the players hit it week in and week out on the PGA Tour, in college events or in men’s match-play USGA amateur events. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t threaten anything. Just start with the MGB ball for four or five events a year. All the manufacturers can make them, if they like, and if they don’t the tournaments can hand out balls to the competitors, just as the tennis events do. No biggie. A ball that maxes out at 300 yards. In other words, a radically shorter ball. Yes, the players will have to adjust. Part of the challenge. May the best man win.
Quick note 2: Sam Snead must be spinning in his grave, right about now. He was the longtime golf pro at the Greenbrier. He won Greensboro eight times. Of course Snead had some show-me-the-money in him. Who among us does not? But there are limits, and one basic-decency litmus test would be this: When you enter into any kind of contract or exchange of goods, you want it to be a good deal all the way around. Right? It’s the simple math of long-term success. Snead knew that. His relationships—with Wilson, with the Greenbrier, with Golf Digest—went on and on and on.
The PIF money is funny money. The new, elevated PGA Tour events, with their elevated purses, an effort to stem the tide of defections, is funny money, and is not sustainable. Golf isn’t big enough to support $25 million purses a dozen or so times a year. If Patrick Cantlay wanted to go LIV, the Tour should have just said bye-bye. He’s a smart person and he has a beautiful putting stroke but nobody is paying good money to watch him play golf. But people will pay good money to see what player can emerge from the 144 or so assembled in any given week. Martin Kaymer has won two majors. He was once one of the best golfers in the world. He plays LIV Golf now. He’s the captain of the Cleeks. Do you know anybody who cares? When was the last time his name came up in one of your golf chats?
Tiger became Tiger because he beat everybody, sometimes with a scowl on his face. Phil became Phil because he beat almost everybody, and had a good time doing it.
So now Tiger Woods has a chance to try to beat Phil Mickelson one more time, and Greg Norman and the PIF threat while he’s at it. He will play a significant role in attracting new investors to the PGA Tour. How they will make money from such an investment is not at all obvious. As a starting point, the PGA Tour will most likely need to give up its not-for-profit status, just as Major League Baseball and the NFL have done.
My friend Neil Oxman, a political consultant who caddied for Tom Watson after the death of Bruce Edwards, offered a wish-list of potential investors in the PGA Tour. That is, American saviors of an American institution: Michael Bloomberg, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
“It’s easy to suggest to other people what to do with their money and even three guys as wealthy as Bloomberg, Buffett and Gates might have to pause for a few minutes before they ponied up $500 million-plus apiece,” Neil wrote in an email. “But they would look like heroes, underwrite the Tour’s financial stability for probably a couple of decades and [table] the backlash that has emerged since the announcement of the merger.”
Ownership of baseball teams works not because owners make money year after year, in good times and bad. It works because the franchises increase in value over time and when owners sell they cash out and before they sell they can borrow against the value of their teams.
The franchises of the PGA Tour could be the long-standing tournaments: Hawaii I, Hawaii II; Torrey Pines and L.A. and Pebble; Bay Hill and Memorial; Colonial and Hilton Head and the old Western Open. The bidding starts at $100 million. You want to be the big person on campus? Raise your hand.
Anybody who wants to go LIV, go LIV. You’ll make money. But you’ll never become a Tiger or a Phil. You won’t become a Seve or a Norman. You won’t even become a Martin Kaymer. Well, let me amend that. You will, if you can win a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship, as he did. Good luck with the MGB ball. You’re going to need it.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com