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Rory McIlroy admits plan from top players' meeting 'weakened' PGA Tour's position in LIV fight

January 30, 2024
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Rory McIlroy opened up Tuesday from Pebble Beach with many thoughts on the state of the game, including what he thinks of his Ryder Cup teammate Tyrrell Hatton leaving for LIV.

Jared C. Tilton

PEBBLE BEACH — “What’s best for the game?”

That’s the question Rory McIlroy asked Tuesday at Pebble Beach Golf Links. It’s the question he’s been asking himself for months on end, but especially with more introspection starting on June 7, the day after PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced that the tour had aligned with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia on a framework agreement that would ostensibly put the tour and the rival LIV Golf League, funded by PIF, under one umbrella.

McIlroy, the No. 2 player in the world and for more than a year the most vocal proponent for the tour, gave his most definitive answer yet to that question as he prepares to make his PGA Tour season debut in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which has been reconfigured into a limited-field no-cut event with a $20 million purse.

With an announcement imminent that the tour has agreed to a reported $3 billion investment deal with Strategic Sports Group—with PIF still also in the picture—McIlroy said the men’s professional game that became bifurcated by LIV Golf’s inception in 2022 must reassemble.

To that end, players who left the PGA Tour for LIV and subsequently were suspended by the tour should be allowed to return without penalty. McIlroy has seen the light. Or has just assumed a lighter touch.

“I think life is about choices,” the four-time major champion said. “Guys made choices to go and play LIV, guys made choices to stay here. If people still have eligibility on this tour and they want to come back and play or you want to try and do something, let them come back. I think it's hard to punish people.

“Obviously I've changed my tune on that because I see where golf is, and I see that having a diminished PGA Tour and having a diminished LIV tour or anything else is bad for both parties. It would be much better being together and moving forward together for the good of the game. That's my opinion of it. So to me, the faster that we can all get back together and start to play and start to have the strongest fields possible I think is great for golf.”

McIlroy might be influenced by watching Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton, two key European Ryder Cup teammates, join LIV. Hatton, who had committed to TGL, the simulator golf league founded by McIlroy and Tiger Woods that has been delayed for a year because of weather-related damage to the TGL venue, just committed earlier Tuesday for a reported $60 million. Hatton also was supposed to compete on McIlroy’s TGL team.

“I had a long talk with Tyrrell on Sunday, completely understood where he was coming from,” McIlroy, 34, said. “I've talked to him quite a bit about it over the past month. It got to the point where they, you know, he negotiated and got to a place where he was comfortable with, and he has to do what he feels is right for him. So I'm not going to stand in anyone's way from making money and if what they deem life changing money, like absolutely.”

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Rory McIlroy will play Pebble Beach for the first time since the 2019 U.S. Open.

David Cannon

The thaw in the Northern Irishman’s icy stance against LIV traces back to the initial question: what’s best for the game? It also might be the result of a certain resignation that trying to preserve the tour's place in the game was beyond his capabilities. He couldn’t fight human nature, no matter how well intended.

“I've come to the realization,” he admitted, “that I'm not here to change people's minds, I'm here to just try—especially when I was at the board level—to give them the full picture of where things are at and hopefully where things are going to go. They can do with that information what they want. But at the end of the day, I think I'm done with trying to change people's minds and trying to get them to see things a certain way or try to see things through my lens because that's ultimately not the way the world works.”

McIlroy, a 24-time tour winner who is coming off a victory in Dubai on the DP World Tour, returns to Pebble Beach for the first time since the 2019 U.S. Open. He played in the AT&T Pro-Am just once, in 2018 with his father as his amateur partner. In a way, the tournament as it is now presented, populated by just 80 players who are guaranteed 72 holes, is partly his creation. It was in August 2022 that he and Woods spearheaded changes to the tour to create elevated tournaments with bigger purses to coerce top players to remain in the PGA Tour fold. It largely worked, at least until the latest defections of Rahm, the reigning Masters champion and World No. 3 player, and the colorful Englishman Hatton.

Interestingly, McIlroy said that he had regrets about the plan that emerged from the player meeting in Delaware during the BMW Championship. The concept, he said, was a good one—to ensure the participation of top players in certain events. But it “weakened” the tour’s financial position, forcing its hand to seek a truce with PIF and seek out other sources of investment.

And in the end, it has altered his perception of this week’s signature event. He was asked if a win this week would be “cheapened” by the absence of Rahm, Hatton, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and other top players who will be competing this weekend in LIV’s season opener in Mexico.

He appeared pained to answer the question, but he did so honestly. Is it cheapened?

“I'd like to win here,” he said, “and stand up with a trophy on 18 green and know that I've beaten all of the best players in the world, so yeah.”