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The LIV Golf question that the PGA Tour must answer

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Richard Heathcote

February 08, 2024

Golf’s civil war is near its endgame and those deciding its fate are down to two roads. One is paved by principle, where ego is checked at the door for a journey that will be difficult yet whose direction is ultimately true. The other … well, the travelers may have their reasons for this path, some of which are staked in virtue. But the real guide here is pride, and forging down this way will only lead to another crossroads, if not a cliff. The problem for those making this decision is many have these roads confused for one another.

Those hoping for long-awaited unification in the professional game were likely disappointed with last week’s announcement that the PGA Tour would be partnering with private equity. The door remains open for future rapport with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, also known as the financial backer that spurred golf’s schism, although those talks have gone cold, multiple sources have told Golf Digest. While the deal with the Strategic Sports Group was made with future PIF involvement in mind, some of the tour’s player leaders are telegraphing they’re just fine if PIF—and more specifically, PIF’s LIV Golf and LIV players—remain on the outs. And that is a problem, because a schism remains a schism unless the sport is made whole.

“I don’t think that it’s needed,” said tour board member Jordan Spieth last week. “I think the positive [of a deal with PIF] would be a unification [of PGA Tour and LIV players], but I just think it's something that is almost not even worth talking about right this second. The idea is that we have a strategic partner that allows the PGA Tour to go forward the way that it's operating right now without anything else.”

Adam Scott was more blunt in his assessment: “We don’t need it purely from a financial standpoint.”

Financially they are not wrong. Adding $1.5 billion to its coffers, with another $1.5 billion in the wings, provides the tour a stability that wasn’t there just weeks ago. Although the $930 million in player equity shares will not prevent other players from eventually defecting—because greed and entitlement cannot be alleviated by any dollar amount—it should buy the tour some time.

Conversely, that is viewed solely through the prism of business, which is problematic because the tour is not battling another company but a foreign kingdom, one willing to bankroll its LIV project for reasons other than economic viability and willing to confer an endless runway until those goals are reached. Forget the hundreds of millions bestowed to Jon Rahm; PIF can hand out $75 million contracts to players who haven’t won in years and not think twice. Three billion for the tour is a lot but it's still less than a blank check.

Spieth and Scott, Tiger Woods, Patrick Cantlay and others involved in the tour’s direction know this, or should know this. As is often the case with riches in professional sports, it’s not about the money. It’s what the money means. To paraphrase Phil Mickelson, it’s all about leverage, and for the first time in nearly two years the tour’s constituents feel like they have the upper hand. That they, not LIV Golf, dictate their future. Or at least, they can remain on the tour side and be wealthier for it.

However, if this schism and its consequences could be distilled to one concept, it’s that a majority of stars have worried more about their bank accounts rather than where the cost of those transactions were taking the sport. Aside from a handful of individuals, this whole mess has lacked adults in the room. That presence is needed more than ever, because what comes next for the tour and its players is the hard part.

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Darren Carroll/PGA of America

An avenue for LIV players to return to the PGA Tour remains low on the negotiation priority list, multiple sources familiar with the talks tell Golf Digest. Part of that low priority is due to the contentious nature of the issue. PIF is arguing for both LIV integration into the PGA Tour schedule, and for LIV players to compete in tour events. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who described his secret deal with PIF as a chance “to take the competitor off the board,” wants several LIV players under the tour umbrella, albeit with LIV shut down. Most of the top PGA Tour players do not want LIV players back without some sort of penalty or retribution. The player faction has made those intentions public in the past two weeks following Rory McIlroy’s comments that he wants the game unified again. Among those who have spoken out against a seamless homecoming for LIV members are Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Scottie Scheffler. Two player sources tell Golf Digest that Woods is also against LIV players receiving a free pass.

"I think there's a lot of us that made sacrifices and were very ... whether it's true to our word or what we believe in or just didn't make that decision, and I totally understand that things are changing and things are getting better, but it just would ... I would have a hard time with it,” Thomas said this week, “and I think a lot of guys would have a hard time with it, and I'm sure we don't need to convince you why we would have a hard time with it. I think there's a scenario somewhere, whatever it is, down the road of some kind of version of some guys being back. But when and what that is, I have no idea."

Added Scheffler: "I think there's a different level of player that left. You had some guys that left our tour and then sued our tour. That wasn't really in great taste. Then you had some other guys that just left and they wanted to do something different. Everybody made their own decision, and I have no bad blood towards the guys that left. But a path towards coming back, I think it wouldn't be a very popular decision, I think, if they just came back like nothing ever happened. I think there should be a pathway back for them, but they definitely shouldn't be able to come back without any sort of contribution to the tour, if that makes sense."

It’s easy to empathize with this view. How do you reconcile a theoretical return to tour membership, that those who left for tens of millions in guaranteed money—money the tour warned had consequences—if consequences are not enforced? This is especially true of the LIV players that sued the PGA Tour, a lawsuit that put the tour in a vulnerable financial position. How do you reconcile the return to fans, many of whom harbor hard feelings to LIV players for causing this war? How do you reconcile partnering with those who sided with a regime accused of human rights atrocities?

However, how are those dilemmas weighed against the reality of letting the last two years continue?

This is not PIF’s decision; for all the things money can buy, it can’t purchase a conscience. This is not Monahan’s decision; he put the tour in this can’t-win scenario. Ideally the fans would be the North Star; alas, while fans will ultimately decide if golf is headed in the right way, they are not the ones behind the wheel. The choice belongs to the players who stayed on the PGA Tour. They are the ones who stayed, whose careers were and are on the line, who did what they believed was right, yet are now forced to judge those that wronged them.

Tour players may think their stance against LIV players returning is one of principle. In truth, it’s pride. Because it takes swallowing one’s pride to welcome back the prodigal son. To let others think they’ve won. To think your sacrifices were for naught. To risk the appearance of going back on what you originally stood against. But to not welcome back LIV players, to keep this war going … there’s a reason pride comes before the fall.