As the breakaway LIV league has emerged as a legitimate threat to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, different figures have emerged as spokespeople for their respective parties. While some big-name pros have fled for the new tour, others have doubled down on their decision to stay. On the PGA Tour that has meant the emergence of figures like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm speaking out on its behalf.
It appeared to mark a shift in the discussion, then, when McIlroy told BBC Sport this week that golf’s governing bodies may have to cooperate to find a solution.
“I think so,” he said at the JP McManus Pro-Am. “I think that needs to happen.”
Until this point, the PGA Tour has taken a black-and-white stance on the matter. Pros who teed it up in the first LIV event were considered to have crossed a line in the sand. They were suspended, immediately and indefinitely, from playing in future Tour events. Commissioner Jay Monahan has continually expressed no interest in partnering or cooperating with Greg Norman’s new Saudi-backed venture.
But McIlroy has also admitted that he didn’t think that it would get this far. He has expressed regret at his suggestion that LIV was “dead in the water” back in February. LIV has picked up momentum ever since, having claimed some of golf’s biggest talents and biggest names as its own. More names are expected to come down following next week’s Open Championship.
“Yeah it’s unfortunate, it’s messy, I wish it hadn’t have got that messy and in hindsight I think there were probably steps that were missed that wouldn’t have made it that messy,” McIlroy said.
His comments are a reminder that LIV has leapt over many of the hurdles that establishment figures expected would stand in its way. The idea of a global tour disrupting the PGA Tour has been around for a quarter-century, after all. It was easy to dismiss this as just another Powerpoint presentation, as one leader did. Other skepticism seemed reasonable: Players won’t ditch the PGA Tour. LIV won’t be able to put on real events. Nobody will watch. Nobody will attend.
LIV’s Portland event dispelled many of those. While it’s easy to laugh off Talor Gooch’s comments that the final round felt like a Ryder Cup, Tour loyalists can’t laugh it all off. There were people in attendance. Tournament organizers pulled off a successful broadcast. Things ran smoothly. Players and caddies and coaches and agents spoke highly of their experience.
The PGA Tour has already responded by increasing the purse sizes of its own premier events. They’re adding more events, too, that will serve as a reward to top performers. McIlroy and others have praised those changes.
“I said this back at the very start in 2020, I think in the long term it will make the game better because I think it will force the tours to adapt and change and make the product better, and focus on maybe the fan engagement side of things and focus on maybe some stuff that they’ve been neglecting over the years,” McIlroy said.
But there’s no simple way out at the moment. Not for any of the entangled tours. Even for McIlroy, the PGA Tour’s de facto spokesman, no part of LIV is as easy to dismiss anymore — not event LIV’s controversial source of funding, the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund.
“Look, there’s so much chat about where the money’s coming from and Saudi and everything else, look — they sponsor so many other things and they’re all over sport,” he said. McIlroy is among those who has been critical of pros accepting the Saudi money in the past, so this was him striking a different note.
“Aramco [the Saudi government’s oil company] are big sponsors of Formula One, the Aramco Ladies Series in golf, which has actually been really good for the ladies in terms of big prize funds and so on, so I understand people’s reservations with everything,” he said. “But at the same time, if these people are serious about investing billions of dollars into golf, I think ultimately that’s a good thing.
“But it has to be done the right way and I think if they were to invest, having it be invested inside the existing structures.
“And I think that’s the thing I have tried to advocate for the last few months, I think at this point if people are wanting to spend that much money into golf that’s wonderful, I just wish that we could have spent that much money within the structure that has existed for many decades in golf instead of being a big disruptor.”
On Tuesday, the Aramco Team Series presented by PIF (yeah, the same PIF) announced that Nelly and Jessica Korda have committed to its August event in Spain. Those directing the fund are determined to embed in the professional golf world. They’ve already had plenty of wins, some more high-profile than others.
McIlroy’s suggestion that the Saudis could get involved via golf’s “existing structures” echoes DP World Tour head Keith Pelley’s assertion last week that the Saudis could invest “inside the ecosystem.”
Following that logic, things will only get thornier. One version of the moral argument against LIV involved not taking the PIF money and therefore refusing to do PR for the Saudi government. That argument had a simple conclusion: players wouldn’t and shouldn’t take the money. But if the money itself is no obstacle, a compromise with other tours becomes more palatable — but the rest of the argument against LIV becomes somewhat less obvious. So does pro golf’s path forward.
It’s possible McIlroy has been spending more time recently hearing the cases made by his longtime friends and Ryder Cup teammates who have defected to LIV, a group that includes Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell — and could continue to grow.
“I understand why guys went, especially the guys that are sort of in the latter stages of their career and if I was in their position, I’d serious have to think about doing the same thing,” he said.
Still, don’t mistake McIlroy’s softening stance as a full-throated endorsement for their decisions nor for LIV itself.
“It’s the younger guys to me that I find hard to understand because they’re losing years of their competitive career for monetary reasons. We all make decisions for different purpose. That’s fine. It’s different to what I’d do,” he said.
“Is there resentment? I played in Ryder Cup teams with these guys. Is there a difference of opinion? Yes. There is a difference of opinion and I would have done things differently.
“Just go over there, don’t try and come back and play over here again. That’s the tricky part and that’s where the resentment is coming from. For me, I don’t resent anyone. These guys are my friends, regardless of the decisions they make.”
It’s decision-making season. McIlroy is continuing to think through the best path forward. So are the tours on which he has made his career. The only thing clear at the moment is that none of this will be resolved quickly.