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On LIV, player discontent, entitlement: Mackenzie Hughes has a lot to say

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Mackenzie Hughes is playing in this week's The Sentry, thanks to Jon Rahm leaving the PGA Tour for LIV Golf.

Alex Slitz

January 02, 2024

KAPALUA, Hawaii — Mackenzie Hughes wasn’t supposed to be at the PGA Tour's season-opening Sentry tournament, having come out on the bumpy side of hard math when he finished 51st in the FedEx Cup Playoffs last August in the first campaign where the top 50 earned a trips into the PGA Tour's signature events. It was a particularly cruel fate given the 33-year-old was inside the magic number every week of the 2023 season except the one where it mattered most, in Memphis, a T-58 finish dropping him from 47th to outside the fire. But it is Kapalua week, and Hughes, starting his eighth season on tour, is in the field thanks to a rules provision. Jon Rahm’s departure to LIV Golf dropped him out of the rankings, moving Hughes inside the cutoff and proving that while meritocracy may reign in golf, bureaucracy isn’t far behind. And now that Hughes is here, he has plenty to say.

Hughes, you may recall, went viral with a Twitter thread in December following Rahm’s defection. “Men’s professional golf is in a sad place. The direction it's headed right now isn't healthy or good for the sport,” the Canadian wrote. “And I know many of you are upset with the recent developments—I would be too.” Greed was the throughline to the series of tweets, the belief it was turning the sport into something many did not recognize with the worry that golf was heading in a direction that threatened no return. On Tuesday at Kapalua, Hughes was asked about that tweet, and what followed was an informed, raw, cathartic response to the past two years of turbulence in golf.

On what inspired Hughes’ tweet

“I'm of the belief that golf in 2019, to me was like the peak of professional golf,” Hughes explained when speaking to the media. “Since then—I think we did really well through COVID. We were one of the first sports back. I think that was a highlight, for sure. It was still COVID, so how do you have a highlight through a pandemic? It was kind of tough.

“2019 was all about golf, you know? Our economic model was sustainable. The LIV threat came along and all of a sudden we started to double the purses, and we're asking sponsors to double their investment, and we're giving them the same product.”

In Hughes’ opinion, he felt the advent of LIV and the tour’s response seemed to be solely about money, and that focus, he worried, made fans question if players “love playing golf anymore."

“All these guys going to LIV have made it pretty clear that it's all about money. I mean, ‘growing the game,’ but also money,” Hughes said, a nod to LIV players’ ubiquitous talking point when explaining their decision to bounce. “So, to me, that's disappointing. ... Like, in 2019, I didn't pick a schedule based on a purse. But now that I'm qualified for these events [such as The Sentry], obviously it would be silly for me not to play in these events. They are great opportunities. But I just don't think it's right. ... Again, we have the same product that we had in 2019, yet we want this, like, increased investment, not just increased, but increased in a big way.”

The problem, Hughes said, is the upshot resulted in a diluted product, and an environment that left fans “scratching their head.”

“They don't know where certain guys are playing and there's spats between the LIV and the PGA Tour, and it's not unified in any way, shape or form,” Hughes said. “There's negotiations going on that are unclear, they have been dragged on for a long time. The fan just wants to watch golf. I think you watch sports for an escape from other nonsense, but I think golf has brought a lot of nonsense onto its plate, and now you don't get just golf, you get a lot of other stuff going on. It's a bit of a circus.”

That’s why Hughes felt compelled to speak. He wanted to let fans know that not everyone is thinking about the dollar sign when teeing it up.

The problem, of course, is that many do, including on the PGA Tour. That was Hughes’ next target.

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Sam Greenwood

On entitlement

One of the ongoing discussions between the tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund revolves around the matter of compensating players who stayed with the tour rather than jump at LIV's contract offers. It’s something commissioner Jay Monahan has mentioned in multiple memos to membership and something that many players are expecting to now happen.

Hughes isn’t one of them.

“I think that also there's a lot of guys that feel entitled out here. Like, you start to see all these big amounts of money flying around and this offer and that offer and people think, ‘Oh, well I stayed loyal, like, where's my money?’” Hughes said. “You're not entitled to play the PGA Tour. You have the right and you have a privilege to play out here, and it's an opportunity, but it's not like anyone owes you anything. No one's forcing your hand. You don't have to stay; you can go play over there if you want.

“So, this whole 'the-tour-owes-me-something' attitude, I don't like either.”

Hughes said he hoped for the tour and LIV to coexist without “a hugh rift between ‘em.” In that same breath, Hughes was also adamant that not everyone on LIV should be exempt to return to the tour, a likely nod to the players who brought an antitrust lawsuit against the tour and its players.

“But, you know, the tour obviously misses guys like Brooks Koepka, Phil, DJ, Cam Smith, like there's no doubt that the tour is stronger with those guys playing,” Hughes said. “I think that I would love to see a way for those guys to play again, but how do you justify to a guy like, like, I'm sure the Spieths, and the JTs and the Rorys and Scotties and Will Zalatorises, who were offered major amounts of money and decided not to go and stayed, and then the guys that left, and they maybe played two years of LIV, and then you make your way back to the tour, and it's like all things are good again? I think those are the guys you have to worry about making the most upset.

“Like, if Brooks came back tomorrow, I would be, like, all right. Because I wasn't offered a huge amount of money to go play on LIV, and nor was I interested. But there were other guys that seriously entertained it and were probably told, ‘Hey, stay put. It's going to be fine over here. This is where you should be.’ Then now we're doing a deal with the PIF and it's, like, maybe those guys should have just done it.”

On being in the know

A universal shout from players following the surprise June 6 framework agreement was the secrecy surrounding the deal. According to Hughes—who sits on the tour’s Player Advisory Council—the cloud of smoke that hangs over the negotiations hasn’t changed in the past six months.

“I think there were a lot of times that we sat in those meetings thinking that we were having good, meaningful discussions, and then a month later something would happen and you would be like, ‘Wait, we didn't even really decide on this yet, and the tour is just going ahead.' Like, 'we're just going to go ahead and do it anyways,' even though we had no real unanimous sort of buy-in to an idea,” Hughes said. “I know the elevated event idea, for an example, limited fields, was a topic of discussion at the Farmers last January. We discussed it and, of all the guys on the PAC, it was a 50/50 split. Guys were all over on their opinions on it. The tour was pretty steadfast in saying that they felt their data and their research backed up the fact that these were going to be better events, better products for the tour to sell going forward. But there was just not buy-in across the board for guys in that meeting.

“Then we got to Bay Hill, and I remember it came out that, ‘Oh, we have eight new signature events for 2024, and they're going to be limited-field events with no cut.’ Everyone on the PAC was like, ‘Wait, what?' We talked about this a month and a half ago, and there was no discussion or no real final decision on that. Then, all of a sudden, out of the blue, we just have this final outcome."

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Tim Heitman

Hughes said he was frustrated. Why was he spending his time on board meetings when, in his opinion, those hours were for nothing? “If I'm not being heard, then I'm just not going to speak.” Though Hughes said things have gotten better, he has “no idea” about anything going on with the PIF negotiations.

“Maybe it's not my job to know that,” Hughes conceded. “I'm told that it can't happen that way. I'm told that the negotiations are just going to be slowed down by that. If the tour members know, obviously it's more than the tour members now, because people talk. I would like to know. I would like to know what the specifics of what is the final outcome that they're after. I don't know what that is. I don't know what they want from the PIF. I don't know what they want in regards to how does LIV coexist after this deal gets done. What do they want LIV to be. I don't know what Jay wants for those players. Does Jay want Brooks back, does Jay not? PGA Tour Enterprises is a for-profit business. So, if I'm a for-profit business, I want the best product, and the best product is now including Brooks, Cam Smith, Bryson, all those guys help create the best product. So, now is that part of the goal? I don't know."

On the divide

Professional golf, at least at this level, is not about the haves and have-nots. It’s about the haves and haves-more, and that expanse has only widened over the past two years. It’s also no secret that the rank-and-file are not happy that the tour is catering to the stars who remain on its roster.

Hughes is between those two ends of the spectrum. He’s consistently a top-70 player, but his name is not one plastered on marquees. Still, Hughes explained that the players-only meeting in Delaware at the 2022 BMW Championship—a meeting that spurred changes to the tour’s infrastructure—told him whose opinion mattered.

“There were 70 PGA Tour players there and they thought only 25 or 30 of them were good enough for that meeting? Bit of a slap in the face,” Hughes said. “You got 70 of the best players on the PGA Tour that season, and you're going to tell me I can't sit in that meeting and at least listen? You can just put me in the back and say, ‘Hey, Mac, don't speak, but you can at least listen to what we're saying.’ It was like this closed-doors meeting for the who's who of the tour.

“I'm not saying that you should make a decision based on what I think, but it would be nice to even just to put your two cents in or to hear what's going on, to be involved, to feel like you're part of it. Because I'm not a star of the PGA Tour, but I'm not a chump, either.”

Hughes said he understands why the tour would listen more to its top attractions, especially given the threat of defection. “They're listening to those guys because of where we are, and they're making accommodations and doing things based on what these guys want,” Hughes said. “I don't love it, but I get it.”

Of course, the beautiful thing about golf, even during its civil war, is that players can still go out and prove their mettle. That includes Hughes, who has a chance to represent Canada in the Olympics this summer in Paris and to appear for the International team for this fall’s Presidents Cup in his home country. Mackenzie Hughes would like his clubs to do the talking in 2024, starting this week.

“Obviously, it wasn't for the circumstances I would have liked to have been here for, but we are here nonetheless," Hughes said, "and I'm hopefully going to try and take advantage of the opportunities."