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To the golfers jumping to LIV, perhaps the biggest risk: What if they all get worse?

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Jared C. Tilton

June 17, 2022

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Another LIV story. We know, we know. But this one will not dip into geopolitics. Nor do we speculate on who might stay and who might go. Let’s instead focus on the golf ramifications of the breakaway tour. Jumping ship is, of course, not the reason that Phil Mickelson, or Kevin Na, or Talor Gooch, or Sam Horsfield, or Louis Oosthuizen, or Sergio Garcia missed the cut at this week’s U.S. Open; just two of the 15 LIV golfers who played in last week's inaugural event are playing the weekend at The Country Club. But with an eye toward the future, here’s a simple question: Is it possible to remain one of the world’s best golfers playing less often, in a format Jon Rahm called “not a golf tournament?”

We speak, of course, of four principal aspects of LIV Golf’s vision: fewer events, 54 holes, a shotgun start and no cut. LIVers have been encouraged to describe this as an “exciting new format”; PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan calls the whole thing “a series of exhibition matches.” These two sides have little common ground at present, but what’s beyond debate is that it’s different. Different from the 72-hole tournament, with players earning the right to play the final two rounds, that has characterized the professional game for a half century. The cut has been an integral part of the PGA Tour universe—so much so that, when asked at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony which record he takes most pride in, Tiger Woods did not hesitate: his streak of making 142 consecutive cuts.

“You’re going to have plenty of bad days; you can get the wrong side of the draw, where you’re just not feeling well, things just aren’t going right and bad things just happen,” Woods said. “But I didn’t miss a cut for over six years. That’s something I’m truly proud of.”

Matt NeSmith knows the importance of having to earn a weekend tee time—and then pulling it off. His last four finishes on the PGA Tour: T-31, T-51, T-57, T-37. He’s currently two back of the lead heading into the weekend at the U.S. Open. That, he says, is not a coincidence.

“Yeah, I'm never going to be mad at playing four days of golf,” NeSmith says. “I'm always happy making cuts. Obviously we'd want to win golf tournaments and be in contention, but if we're playing four days, I always feel like my game is trending in the right direction. I feel like you can focus on a few areas here and there and just tighten your ship.”

NeSmith clearly has a goal of making the cut each week. And, according to a clinical psychologist who has worked with scores of PGA Tour players—including Phil Mickelson—achieving that goal is crucial in building self-belief.

“When you set incremental goals and you accomplish them,” says Dr. Michael Lardon, “you go to bed that night and you feel good. You feel like hey, I accomplished that. That’s how you get continued motivation and buy-in, is through that positive feedback. Again and again and again.”

At LIV’s first tournament two weeks ago, Andy Ogletree would’ve missed the cut in any professional golf tournament that has one. He shot 24 over par for three rounds, and he received $120,000 for his efforts—in addition to whatever appearance fee he received. This arrangement has obvious appeal for professional golfers. Unlike athletes in team sports, golfers pay their own expenses. An NBA player doesn’t pay for his accommodations, his trainer, his coach or his food. Golfers pay for it all. Missing a cut, then, guarantees a loss on the week. Granted, endorsement deals soften the blow considerably. But no one wants to be in the red, even if it’s just for one week.

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By jumping to LIV Golf, Talor Gooch risks falling out of the top 50 in the world and being able to earn a spot in the major championships.

David Cannon

A situation at the Genesis Invitational earlier this year comes to mind. Jon Rahm studied a six-footer with forensic intensity as the sun faded from Riviera Country Club. He read it from both sides. He checked it twice, then a third time. He consulted his caddie. He was 16 shots behind the leader. Why did Rahm give that putt so much attention? He needed it to make the cut. (He did, and he fist pumped like he’d won the tournament.)

That dynamic—a star (or a nonstar) grinding to make the cut—does not exist in LIV events. And without that dynamic, the players on that tour potentially risk seeing their competitive sharpness diminish.

“Necessity is the mother of motivation,” Dr. Lardon says. “If you grow up poor, you work hard so you’re not poor. I see a lot of kids in my clinical practice who come from wealthy families and they have no drive to do anything. That’s the price of privilege. Golf aside, it’s part of human nature.”

Lardon continues: “Fear is one of the great motivators. If you can say to yourself oh, it doesn’t matter, I’m still making $100,000 net for the week, you’re just not going to grind the same. I had a couple of guys I worked with have some success and get a little money, and all the sudden that motivation that got them there disappeared. There are a number of guys I helped who never became the player they could have been.”

We see the phenomenon happen in other sports: a player gets a massive contract then shows up to camp with 10 extra pounds. There are, of course, plenty of athletes who get paid and continue their pursuit of excellence. Patrick Mahomes. Giannis Antentokoumpo. Mike Trout. But they’re still playing in the same league, with the same schedule and the rules, that they played in before they re-upped. That is a crucial difference.

To dip into the cliché basket: iron sharpens iron. Consistent, meaningful competition week-in and week-out breeds good habits—and familiarity with the nerves that come in the major championships. Matt Fitzpatrick has made a concerted effort this season to treat every week on the PGA Tour the same. It’s working. He has seven top-10 finishes in 12 starts on the PGA Tour in 2022, and he’s three back with 36 holes to play at The Country Club.

“I think when you sort of play in the majors, there's always this emphasis from the media, as well, that it's like, Wow, it's one of the four, it's such a big deal, and it is a big deal,” Fitzpatrick says. “It's a huge deal to all of the players. That's what everyone wants to win. That's what everyone's legacy is about.

“But you just have to try your hardest to make it consistent, do the same things each week, and not change anything. Wouldn't do anything different this week trying to figure out my lines off the tee or spending more time around the green chipping. Still spend the same amount [of time practicing] on the eighth [green] here as I would on the eighth last week in Canada. For me it's just trying to be consistent with everything I do.”

By definition, it’s impossible to do the same thing every week if the tour you play uses a different format for its events. Dustin Johnson, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem too concerned. When asked Friday how sharp he expects to be playing just LIV events, he kept it brief: “Just as sharp as I would playing anywhere.” Brooks Koepka also did just fine in the 2017-19 period, when he would go through the motions in a regular tour event then win a major the following week.

We should note that we’re operating under the assumption that majors are still the center of a LIV golfer’s universe—and that the players care about being sharp for the Big Four. Further still, there’s no guarantee those who play on the LIV tour will even have access to those events. Surely the 40-something’s who made the jump have accepted they might not play in many more. Richard Bland, to cherry pick an example, knows his best days are behind him.

“Most of my career is behind me now as regards playing at the very highest level,” Bland told the BBC in explaining his decision to jump to LIV. “I'm 50 years old in six months.”

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Richard Bland knows his prime years are behind him, and he's OK with the idea that he might not be able to play against elite fields any more.

Andrew Redington

It seems he’d like to play more majors, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make for the money at this stage of his career. It’s a different calculus for the younger LIV guys, like Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, who presumptively care a great deal about playing in majors. DeChambeau’s 2020 U.S. Open victory has him exempt into all four through 2025, but Reed’s exemptions for his 2018 Masters win for the other three majors expires at the end of this year.

This is where the World Ranking is so crucial. It’s hard to imagine the major championships “banning” players outright based solely on which tour they play on, but if LIV doesn’t offer World Ranking points soon, and the PGA Tour ban holds up in court, LIV players will tumble into ranking obscurity. Reed’s currently ranked No. 38 in the world, high enough to get into all four majors on his ranking alone. Given his suspension from the PGA Tour, it’s likely the only chances he has to improve that ranking this year are this weekend at the U.S. Open—he made the cut and sits one over for the tournament—and the Open Championship. At No. 36, Gooch faces the same potential conundrum.

These are the questions guys on the fence about potentially joining with LIV will have to ask themselves—Can I keep getting into majors? And if I do get in, will I be sharp enough to contend? Finally, and perhaps most importantly: How much do I care?

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