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Everybody Loses in the PGA-LIV Golf Schism

A standoff between the PGA and an upstart tour backed by the Saudi Arabian government has divided the sport. The short-term future of golf is two Triple-A leagues rolling around in the mud with each other.

LIV Golf/PGA Tour/Ringer illustration

Here’s the problem: You cannot quit golf. Deep down, you know this because you’ve tried, walking to the cart at dusk after chunking the easiest pitch shot of your month, muttering under your breath that this is it. For real this time. No more. The next day, you’re at the range trying to fix the problem, which, incidentally, never gets fixed. The game is not for everyone, but it is for you—it is in your bloodstream. It is not fair to compare golf to drugs because drugs are cheaper.

Maybe you have invested so much financial and emotional capital into Hideki Matsuyama’s performance at the Players Championship that when he withdraws from the event on the morning it’s set to begin, you swear off not just betting on golf, but following the sport altogether, announcing via group text your decision to abandon all of your gambling pools. An hour later, you’re back online reviewing Adam Hadwin’s advanced putting metrics in preparation for next week’s action. This scenario is purely hypothetical, of course. Golf is a game set up for frustration and obsession, and the professional version of it has always reflected these impulses—an imperfect product housing a game you cannot leave. If you have read almost two full paragraphs about a week-old bureaucratic tiff between two professional golf entities, you know you are stuck. That is the Catch-22 of this particular obsession: Only those who deeply love the sport swear it off forever, which means no one ever successfully abandons it. We’re all stuck here, captive observers of the sport’s looming civil war, forever repeating every golfer’s enduring, misguided mantra: This’ll get fixed.

Let’s back up: Last week, LIV Golf, an upstart tour backed by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, held its first ever tournament. Charl Schwartzel won the event and collected a total of $4.75 million for his efforts, on top of whatever guaranteed money he received for joining the new tour. The winner of this year’s Masters Tournament made $2.7 million. You can probably see where this is going. LIV’s structure is simple: More money divided among fewer golfers for less work, bankrolled by the Saudi regime. The LIV tour includes eight events a year, with smaller player pools competing in truncated tournaments—54 holes over three days. As part of this spending spree, LIV has signed some of the most famous golfers in the world, including Phil Mickelson (for a reported $200 million) and Dustin Johnson (for reportedly up to $150 million), as well as Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, among others. Most LIV golfers reportedly signed multiyear deals to play a significantly reduced schedule. Greg Norman, LIV’s commissioner and chief executive, said Tiger Woods turned down a “mind-blowingly enormous” offer in the “high nine digits” to join the tour. Players pledging their allegiance to the PGA Tour include, as of now, megastars Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm.

The PGA Tour suspended the LIV defectors as soon as they teed off in last week’s event (though they will be eligible to play in this week’s U.S. Open, which is run by the USGA). The reaction to this move from the LIVers has been mixed: Mickelson said he felt he’d earned his lifetime PGA membership and should be able to make his own decisions about which tour he plays on. Johnson said he was done with the PGA Tour and would do “whatever the hell I want” with his newfound free time. The biggest question facing players on the LIV tour is whether they will remain eligible for golf’s major events over which the PGA Tour has no jurisdiction. So far, it appears they will: The U.S. Open will accept them and the British Open, the final major in 2022, has made no indication it will not do the same. But that is subject to change. USGA CEO Mike Whan said this week that he could anticipate a scenario where players are denied a U.S. Open spot based on the league in which they ply their trade. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Whan also said the total purse of the event is being raised by $5 million to $17.5 million, and that the winner’s share will be $3.15 million, up almost a million bucks from last year, making it the most lucrative major in history. Another complication the LIV tour faces is how its players generate points toward their official world ranking. Currently, these points are accrued on the high-profile circuits like the PGA, Asian, and European tours. So much of this is unknown because, well, a bunch of players joined a rival golf league last week.

I am here to tell you who will win golf’s civil war: absolutely no one. Barring an unlikely admission of defeat by either party that eventually leads to a merger of both tours or a folding of one, the short-term future of golf is two Triple-A leagues rolling around in the mud with each other. This cannot be spun as a good thing for golf fans, for whom everything will get a little worse. It’s far more complicated for the players (more on this in a second).

The U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, is the first major event in the LIV era and it’s the first time PGA- and LIV-affiliated golfers will compete in the same event. This has led to some tense moments, like McIlroy saying Schwartzel’s LIV win “meant nothing” and Rahm saying he wanted to remain with the PGA because of the tour’s legacy and history, and his realization that his lifestyle would not change whatsoever with the LIV tour’s hundreds of millions of dollars. LIV players are mostly just dodging questions about the moral and ethical concerns surrounding the Saudi government’s involvement in LIV. And when asked about the implications of the LIV-PGA schism for golf’s future, they have mostly offered boilerplate responses about “growing the game.” When pressed this week about what “growing the game” means, Mickelson couldn’t expand much beyond that. These problems will get worse before they get better, and there’s no guarantee it will ever get better.

LIV officials have privately said they have $2 billion to spend, according to ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg. The arguments that competition is good for the sport and that the PGA Tour deserves a little disruption are both legitimate. But there is no argument that golf will be better off with this current setup, and the path toward a more beneficial setup seems increasingly narrow. You can be OK with this scenario or at least less dramatic about it than others, but if you love golf and are celebrating the events of the past week, you are a massive weirdo.

At best, the PGA-LIV rivalry will lead to a fractured, disjointed golf schedule that produces some THIS LEAGUE–style squabbles, allowing both tours to cash in on its version of wrestling’s nWo-WCW conflict. The downstream effects are endless: Diminishing revenue for the PGA’s non-major events (and LIV’s, for that matter), and incoherence in the week-to-week rhythm of both tours’ competitive schedules. Not many people live and breathe professional golf each week to begin with, and they have only so much capacity to follow a new tour. The game had already been trending toward becoming a four-weekend-a-year sport, and it’s on the path to make that official. Again, this is the best-case scenario for the sport. If the LIV players are eventually kicked out of the majors, then golf becomes boxing, where hypothetical and mythical matchups get more of the spotlight than the best facing the best regularly. I say this as a boxing fan: You do not want this.

Over the next four years, the 37-year-old Johnson is slated to earn 68 percent more than he’s made in his entire PGA career. If Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could theoretically earn a similar pay raise relative to his career earnings, it’d be a package worth $435 million. Would he, nearing 40 years old, accept such a deal from an upstart football league? Probably. It wouldn’t destroy the NFL. But what if Josh Allen and Justin Herbert entertained similar propositions? What if Patrick Mahomes was the only young star who professed his loyalty to the NFL? Now you see the problem facing the PGA Tour.

So how does this end? The PGA is going to get absolutely decimated if it maintains its current course, which relies on tradition and optics and allows it to avoid making any structural changes to the game. PGA commissioner Jay Monahan criticized the players who have joined the LIV tour by rhetorically asking whether his members have to apologize for their association with the PGA Tour. LIV tour players, for instance, have been criticized by 9/11 Families United, an advocacy group for people who lost family members during the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for their association with a business venture backed by the Saudi government. Monahan’s point is well taken, but it’s not going to stanch the flow of money and players from his tour to LIV. Most LIV golfers will do what Mickelson did when asked about these issues this week: Avoid the question, say he has empathy, and cash a huge check. The PGA Tour is being outspent and outmaneuvered at every turn, and it’s possible its one leg to stand on—legacy and history—will start to become devalued if LIV gets enough stars. The PGA, at the moment, has every advantage except money, which is to say it has no real advantages.

Eventually, fans will cast their loyalty with the PGA or LIV tours according to whichever one has the more compelling product and the more compelling participants.

LIV and the PGA are locked in a staredown, and if the winner will be whoever has the first good idea, then we may be waiting a while. LIV introduced none during its introductory event last week: Its team format (team captains draft three teammates) wasn’t compelling, its logos looked like they were borrowed from NCAA Football’s create-a-team mode, and its shotgun starts are not a game-changer. I just didn’t care about the golf last week. The PGA, meanwhile, has put forth very few good ideas to combat LIV’s entry into the sport and has not shown itself adept at coming up with them anytime soon. The PGA’s recent innovation to start a fund rewarding players who get the most traction on social media is a noble attempt, but not nearly enough. The PGA Tour season is far too long and adjustments like the FedEx Cup points system and the playoff setup have never captured the public’s imagination. Even if they did, that part of the tour’s calendar gets eaten up by football preseason.

David Foster Wallace once wrote that televised golf, along with tax returns, is the most tedious thing that exists; so crushing is their boredom that if you come out on the other side of the experience, it’s “instant bliss in every atom.” I clearly disagree with Wallace, but I will admit that non-major golf broadcasts have always suffered from a general malaise that the PGA has done little to address. There’s no sense of place to these broadcasts; I often struggle to imagine who they are for.

LIV will probably not have more success than the PGA in this area—its YouTube broadcast last week was helped by a lack of commercials because it has no sponsors, but the general concept is no better than what’s offered by the PGA. People will always want quality golf—I want every shot of compelling golf I can find—but the sport’s non-major events lack the necessary juice to sustain year-round attention. There is an argument for a better version of golf, one that’s more accessible, less elitist and stuffy. LIV Golf has not shown a desire to create one. It hasn’t shown a desire for anything. As CBS’s Kyle Porter put it last week when talking about LIV: “When an organization has no viable business model, you don’t have to wonder where you as a fan fit in because the answer is that you don’t.”

There is a lot of daylight between the PGA’s never-ending calendar and LIV’s limited run of events. There is probably a happy medium when combining the best elements of both tours: More money for golfers, fewer tournaments, a faster-paced broadcast, and continued employment for golfers on the lower end who continue to qualify for events, as has worked in the PGA for decades. This scenario does not seem to be on the horizon for either league.

Breakaway leagues are not new—there are some similarities between LIV and the unsuccessful launch of soccer’s European Super League from last year, which was designed to compete with the UEFA Champions League. Both ventures featured a closed system with fewer teams, thereby decreasing the chance of failure for its participants. LIV events do not have cuts, which it touts as a way for fans to see their favorite golfers compete in every event. Something tells me that could be a bad thing some weeks.

In auto racing, IndyCar and CART split in 1996, causing a nosedive in American interest in open-wheel racing, helping NASCAR. Several years, later, after CART’s bankruptcy, it merged with IndyCar again, leaving open-wheel racing worse off. The ripple effects in golf are still undetermined. What if the LIV tour tried to entrench its legitimacy by buying the European Tour, the second-biggest tour in the world?

With the Super League debacle, we never saw how professional associations like England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga would punish their breakaway members since the venture ended in a matter of days. The other key difference is that those breakaway teams have massive fan bases who were so opposed to the Super League that they took to the streets and blocked their teams’ buses from arriving at stadiums for games. Petr Cech, a legendary former goalkeeper at Chelsea, one of the proposed Super League teams, pleaded with Chelsea fans to let the bus leave. There are no lifelong Lee Westwood fans who are going to block his driveway. No one cares that much.

At the U.S. Open, fans have cheered Mickelson and clamored for his autograph as they have at past tournaments. If the PGA Tour was banking on its fans turning on players like Mickelson, then they were overestimating the capacity for golf fans to care about administrative squabbles that emerged about a week ago. But the Super League had the same basic idea as LIV: no relegation, as there are no cuts (or even tour cards). It is about cementing your status and staying there. Soccer fans hated that. They like the global soccer ecosystem and the way teams rise and fall. Do fans care as much in golf? Buckle up.

The ultimate problem is twofold: The PGA Tour has made mistakes over the past few decades, but no amount of vision from Monahan would have prevented Johnson from taking that money. The other day I asked a friend: If your business model can be disrupted this quickly, does that mean your business model is terrible? The friend asked what sports would be immune from such an influx of cash. The answer depends on what you think is valuable. You can theoretically acquire Matt LaFleur or Aaron Rodgers, but you cannot disrupt the NFL because you could not acquire both of those men plying their trade at Lambeau Field on a beautiful October day. That’s as much a part of the value proposition as their respective talents. Everything working together until 30 million people want to watch.

The LIV tour can acquire as much talent as it can and hope that viewers don’t care that the game isn’t being played at Augusta National. I’m skeptical it can pull that off. In early June, 2.43 million people watched Sam Burns and Scottie Scheffler contend in the final round of the Colonial, which is not a particularly huge chunk of the viewing audience. A fractured version of the weekly golf audience does not seem like it’ll gain much steam. The more likely option is mass confusion about an already confusing sport.

There are a few unanswerable but crucial questions: What will happen if the LIV tour never takes off in a fractured media environment? Will the Saudis keep funding it? On the flip side, would the PGA Tour, if it loses enough golfers, offer a deal to LIV, turning the new league into something resembling a Champions League–style tournament for the best golfers competing independently from the PGA? Will sponsors, who’ve mostly abandoned LIV golfers, ever return? (LIV players probably care little about this because of the up-front money they’ve received.) Will LIV find new talent after its first year or so by scouting the PGA Tour for rookies? Will LIV ever get a TV deal?

The most instructive part of Alan Shipnuck’s unauthorized Mickelson biography, released last month, wasn’t Mickelson’s comments that got him to “step away” from the PGA Tour (we’ll get to those). Rather, it came in an anecdote while on the course, when he told a fellow tour pro that he wished the PGA Tour were limited to 30 players. My guess is that a solid percentage of tour pros want that number to be as many as would include them and no more. LIV is helping to provide this service with a smaller field and no cuts, which guarantees some level of success. If you are, say, Lee Westwood, the LIV tour hurts your ability to prove you are the greatest golfer in the world. If you are Pat Perez or Talor Gooch, you have been paid gobs of money for guaranteed starts and no threat of missing the cut. Better golfers, like a healthy version of DeChambeau, have a higher ceiling, and could rake in tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals and make cuts in the PGA Tour. A middle-tier golfer, in many ways, has an easier decision to make: guaranteed dollars win.

I begrudge no one who takes the LIV money to secure a financial future that for some golfers is less clear than it is for the titans of the game. I do not pocket-watch, and I understand the dilemma that the middle class of pro golfers are in. That said, there’s a very real possibility that this will hurt the actual golf immensely. The PGA Tour is big and unwieldy and gives too many players injury exemptions to qualify for events, but once players are out there on the tee box, it is a ruthless meritocracy. LIV has smoothed out some of the PGA’s rough edges but may have smoothed them too much. What if LIV’s high-profile additions like DeChambeau or Johnson are unable to play well in the next year or two? What if Gooch plays so poorly that he’d have lost his card on the PGA Tour? What if Mickelson shoots 10 over? Oh, wait, he did that last week in LIV’s inaugural event in England.

Mickelson’s comments from Shipnuck’s book were less instructive about the future of the sport and more revealing about his feelings about getting into business with the Saudi-backed LIV. “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said of the Saudi regime, via Shipnuck. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [LIV] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”

Mickelson’s defection has, of course, changed the way the PGA operates, although perhaps not in the way he intended. LIV’s launch has put the PGA on the defensive; what happens next will determine the fate of professional golf for the next few decades. The first thing the PGA can do is get behind the golfers who have eschewed LIV’s advances like McIlroy and Rahm, and Woods, who have been much better advocates for the tour than figures like Monahan. It won’t be fair to the 110th-ranked golfer on the tour but the PGA needs to prioritize its stars in its fight against LIV. The only way LIV outright defeats the PGA is by signing each and every superstar, and the PGA would have to do everything wrong for that to happen. Golfers want to play against the best and make money. If there’s no clear place to play against the best, a bunch of them will just take the cash. Avoiding that outcome means more money for the superstars; it probably means smaller player pools, and finding new ways to keep their stars and fans happy. LIV, in turn, will keep getting more and more of the top 50 golfers in the world. At some point, the PGA’s dam will break and LIV will get an under-30 superstar. Maybe, at some point, some LIV players will go back to the PGA Tour. The battle may never end. Maybe I should quit watching. Ah dammit.