Sport

IN THE ROUGH

More than two years after the LIV revolution, golf is still floundering to find common ground

More than two years after the LIV revolution, golf is still floundering to find common ground
Rory McIlroy plays his shot from the third tee during the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 12 May 2024. (Photo: Jim Dedmon- USA Today Sports)

As the elite men’s players gather for the PGA Championship, the future of the professional game remains uncertain.

Two years into the LIV Golf revolution the state of men’s professional golf remains in flux on and off the course as the world’s elite players gather at the Valhalla Golf Club for the 2024 PGA Championship.

There are public utterances of “meaningful progress” behind the scenes, but the reality is that fans are tuning out as the stalemate holds. Outside of those intimately connected with professional golf, it feels as if the sport has been one drawn-out melodrama for the past 24 months, and fans are unhappy.

It shows in the TV numbers. Last month’s Masters saw a 20% drop in viewership. And according to Golf.com “was the third-lowest-rated tournament telecast in history (ahead of only the Covid years of 2020 and 2021)”. 

LIV Golf has poached dozens of top players, including defending PGA Champion Brooks Koepka, who became the first player from the breakaway tour to win a major.

Earlier this year LIV snared 2023 Masters winner Jon Rahm and speculation continues to grow that Rory McIlroy, initially the most outspoken critic of LIV, is the next major target.

As it stands, the LIV defectors are still banned from regular PGA events, while LIV tournaments, which are 54 holes long and not the regular 72, are ineligible for world ranking points.

LIV

Tiger Woods hits a bunker shot on the third green during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, on 14 May 2024. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr – USA Today Sports)

While the PGA Tour used suspensions and world rankings points blockades as a defence to stop defections to LIV, all it has achieved is a dilution of its own events.

When McIlroy or world No 1 Scottie Scheffler don’t play an event on the PGA Tour, the field is wafer thin. TV ratings for PGA Tour events continue to plummet amid the uncertainty in the game. And defections to LIV will continue.

The PGA Tour, previously the richest and most desired membership for men’s professional golfers to aspire to, is in disarray despite attempts to project an image of “business as usual”.

No deal yet

An outline for a merger between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf’s backers, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), was agreed almost a year ago.

A deadline of 31 December 2023 was set for a formal agreement. The day came and went and nearly six months on, there has been no concrete movement – at least not obviously – towards that goal.

McIlroy felt particularly betrayed by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and Jimmy Dunne, who was one of the chief authors of the “framework agreement” between the PGA and PIF.

McIlroy stepped down from the Tour’s policy board in the wake of the merger announcement. But as the months passed without any concrete resolution, McIlroy’s position softened as he realised, as many have, that the only sensible outcome is negotiation with the PIF.

The PGA Tour cannot fight the PIF when it comes to finances as the latter is worth $800-billion funded by Saudi crude oil sales among other income streams.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, which is well documented, and the oil state’s obvious policy of sportswashing to soften its global image, players and the PGA Tour want in on the money.

Last month McIlroy agreed to rejoin the policy board, replacing former US Open winner Webb Simpson. However, his return was blocked by a group of unnamed players on the board, who seem to have a different approach to the negotiations.

“With the way it happened, it opened up some wounds and scar tissue from things that have happened before. And I think there was a subset of people on the board who were uncomfortable with me coming back on for some reason,” McIlroy told reporters last week.

“The best course of action is if there are some people on there who aren’t comfortable with me coming back on, then I think Webb stays on and sees out his term. He’s got to a place where he’s comfortable with doing that.

“I put my hand up to help, I wouldn’t say it was rejected. I would just say it was a complicated process to put me back on there, so that’s all fine. No hard feelings and we’ll all move on.”

Ripper GC’s Cameron Smith, Marc Leishman, Lucas Herbert and Matt Jones celebrate winning the team LIV Golf Singapore as they spray champagne on second-placed Fireballs GC’s Abraham Ancer, Eugenio Chacarra, Sergio Garcia and David Puig at the Sentosa Golf Club on 5 May 2024. (Photo: Reuters / Edgar Su)

No progress’

Another less high-profile boardroom move, but also significant, is that Dunne also resigned from the policy board. Losing the man who effectively brought the PGA and PIF to the table, does suggest that negotiations are not going smoothly.

In his resignation letter, as reported by multiple media outlets, Dunne wrote that “no meaningful progress has been made towards a transaction with PIF”.

Tiger Woods, who also sits on the policy board, admitted this week that the merger situation was “fluid”.

“We’re working on negotiations with PIF. It’s ongoing; it’s fluid and it changes day-to-day,” 15-time major winner Woods said from Valhalla.

“We’re making steps and it may not be giant steps, but we’re making steps.”

Woods is believed to be one of the players blocking McIlroy’s return to the policy board. The pair are business partners in an indoor golf venture.

“I think that we see it differently,” Woods said. “But collectively we want to see whatever’s best for all the players, the fans, and the state of golf.

“How we get there, that’s to be determined, but the fact that we’re in this together and in this fight together to make golf better, is what it’s all about.”

LIV Scheffler

Scottie Scheffler chips onto the eighth green during a practice round before the 2024 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky, on 14 May 2024. (Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

On course

Meanwhile, there is a tournament to be played and for a few days at last, the actual playing of golf might be the big story.

In some interesting subplots, Scheffler became a father for the first time just days before the PGA Championship, which will certainly have some impact on his game.

Scheffler hasn’t played for almost a month, having won four tournaments, including the 2024 Masters, this year.

And in another mild shock, McIlroy, the No 2 player in the world, filed for divorce from his wife of seven years, Erica, on 13 May.  

Ironically, McIlroy won the Wells Fargo tournament last Sunday, just hours before he filed for divorce, which was his second win on the PGA Tour in his last two outings.

Woods, who is unlikely to contend at Valhalla, heaped praise on Scheffler and McIlroy.

“When you’re on the range and watching them [Scheffler and McIlroy] hit golf balls or listening, more so listening to them hit golf balls, there’s a different sound to it,” Woods said.

“They just don’t miss the middle of the face [of the club]. Obviously Scottie’s not as long as Rory, but his ball striking, the amount of greens he hits, he just wears you out that way.

“And then he has an amazing pair of hands around the greens. If he putts awful, then he finishes in the top 10. If he putts decent, he wins. He putts great, he runs away.” DM

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