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PGA Tour players divided on LIV defectors' punishments should PIF deal work out

February 02, 2024
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Adam Scott hits a shot at Pebble Beach.

Christian Petersen

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The reunification of men’s professional golf does not appear imminent, not after Wednesday’s blockbuster deal in which Strategic Sports Group agreed to invest up to $3 billion in the PGA Tour’s new commercial venture, PGA Tour Enterprises. The development all but renders the ongoing negotiations between the tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia subordinate to other exigencies, primary among them all the ways the tour might spend its newfound largesse.

As Jordan Spieth, a member of the tour policy board, said, a PIF deal doesn't seem necessary and bringing players of the LIV Golf League back to the tour fold is “No. 10 on the list of 10 things” to address at the moment.

So for the foreseeable future, PIF will plow its considerable fortune solely into LIV Golf, which begins its third season today in Mexico. Eight months ago, LIV appeared on a path to perhaps co-existing more peacefully with the PGA Tour—or even being a partner or complementary entity—after the tour and PIF announced their framework agreement that would have made PIF the primary investor in the tour’s new for-profit company.

In the wake of SSG’s commitment to the tour, it’s difficult to discern to what extent PIF’s involvement is needed. Or wanted. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

“We don’t need it [a deal with PIF] purely from a financial standpoint,” former Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia said Thursday after the opening round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. “Obviously, the tour is about to become quite flush with cash, I would say, but there's probably other reasons why they're continuing on negotiating. Obviously, it's no secret that the idea is to try and somehow unify the game. I think I've heard that been used a lot over the last seven or eight months, and that was being used when the framework agreement was originally talked about. And I don't know how realistic that really is at the moment, but that's probably the main reason why these lines are [still] open.”

The burning question, of course, is this: Just how accepting are players who have remained loyal to the PGA Tour to the idea of welcoming back LIV defectors? Rory McIlroy made it a point on Tuesday to say he’s had a change of heart and LIV defectors should be allowed to return to the tour without repercussions, financial or otherwise.

“That’s probably not where I’d be starting,” Scott, another member of the policy board, said. “My first reaction is not that. It’s very complicated. We could throw around ideas here forever and not get to a really good outcome. The first thing I think of when I hear, ‘Just bring them all back,’ is well, they want to play on LIV. They don't want to play here. Or if they don't want to come back and play, so what happens then? So it's very hard to know exactly how that all pans out.”

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Rickie Fowler hits a shot at Spyglass Hill in the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

Ezra Shaw

“I’m probably not in the same spot that Rory is,” Rickie Fowler said. “Maybe we started in a similar area, but I think there's been a little rollercoaster ride on his part. … Yeah, as far as decisions to go elsewhere and just welcome [LIV players] back, I don't think it's a direct road. They made decisions and there has to be something for it. Whether how small or big, that's not up to me.”

Actually, it is. It’s up to the entire membership that has wanted more say in the tour’s direction since the June 6 framework agreement was sprung on them by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, the ripples of which still reverberate. Players now have six seats on the policy board after demanding the addition of Tiger Woods and will have seven seats on the board of the new enterprise.

The membership will speak. And while the idea of ending the rift in the men’s game sounds beneficial, it’s hard to find a tour member who has a definitive idea of its execution.

“I’m all about making the PGA Tour the best product it can be,” said World No. 4 and reigning FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland. “The PGA Tour is hurting from not having those guys over here with us. How we’re going to get those guys back, I don’t know. That seems a bit farther into the future. All I want to do is play the best tournaments with the best players. I think that would be better for the fans and better for golf.”

Chris Kirk said his view is contingent on the fate of LIV amid a tour-PIF agreement. “If the structure remains the same even with a deal, those guys probably want to stay on LIV and there’s not any room in their schedule to play tour events,” said Kirk, who won the season-opening Sentry last month. “We know what their choice is. But say LIV does go away, then yeah, they should have status again, though maybe that’s something done over a number of months.”

“There will never be a one-for-one ratio where one guy feels good about everyone coming back because they got something and they [another group] didn’t,” said veteran Justin Rose, who is defending his title this week at Pebble. “Ultimately, if this is all structured the right way, those guys coming back strengthens the tour, and everybody that's now involved in this new structure is going to benefit from those great names coming back. So you have to look at it objectively. You've got to get your head around that, I suppose. I don't think there's an easy reintegration anytime soon, but I don't see that as off the table.”

“I think everyone's divided [on the issue],” said Patrick Cantlay, the player director of the PGA Tour Policy Board. “Like I've said over the last couple years, I've been pretty much the same. People are welcome to make the choices that they'd like to make. It's a personal choice. And as far as [LIV players] coming back, we'll see. It's up to a group of us. I know players feel all over the board on that issue, and so my job as a player director is to represent the entire membership. If something like that were to come down the road, I'm sure we would have to have a robust conversation around that topic.”

Robust? Hmmmm. It could get raucous. McIlroy’s heart may have thawed, but the rank and file, not in attendance this week at this $20 million signature event, might offer very cold shoulders to the notion of blanket amnesty.

Undoubtedly, there’s a healthy cross-section of golf fans who would prefer that the game’s power brokers reunite the best players in the world on one stage beyond the major championships. Until Wednesday’s creation of PGA Tour Enterprises, it seemed like a necessity in order for the tour to flourish, let alone survive.

The outlook has changed dramatically. Scott was asked if the tour needed the return of those players who migrated to LIV Golf.

“I personally don't think so,” he responded after several seconds, giving his answer some thought. “And obviously SSG don't either because they've been willing to do this deal, not contingent on anything to do with PIF.”

It was a good answer. It was an honest answer. And it was a hard answer that maybe not everyone wants to hear.