Through Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Golf’s summer of change and controversy has continued, with money, guesswork and a seismic schism at the heart of the sport overshadowing virtually everything that has happened from tee to green.
And yet, with the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs beginning this week, lawsuits flying, a crucial date on the calendar approaching, and breakaway LIV Golf gaining momentum, things may only get hotter.
Matters in the courtroom heat up, and the tour goes on the attack in response a legal attempt by LIV trio Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones being allowed to play in the playoffs based on their past results despite moving to Greg Norman’s new company.
“The antitrust laws do not allow plaintiffs to have their cake and also eat it,” said this week’s PGA Tour filing, while LIV was sued for its stake in the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia due to that nation’s human rights reputation was disemboweled.
The Tour comes out strong because it has to. The exact point at which the postseason ends, with the Tour championship at the end of this month, is when the status quo is most vulnerable.
This is its most dangerous time yet, as the Tour will be armed only with words and intentions and declarations of loyalty. Norman – and LIV – lurk, checkbook in hand.
There’s a school of thought that several potential LIV commitments will wait until the end of the FedEx Cup campaign, which nets the overall winner a whopping $18 million, before they make big money deals.
Among the most heavily rumored is Tour #2 Cameron Smith – the British Open champion and perhaps the most exciting talent in the game – and reigning FedEx Cup winner Patrick Cantlay (currently No.6). Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama (No.11) is also seen as a key target for LIV as the organization seeks to align more closely with the Asian Tour.
There were some half rejections and corresponding signings for the tour, but we also saw those of Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka before they joined LIV. No secrets are given away here, but money talks in golf, and extremely loudly so.
The tour wasted no opportunity to portray those who died as ungrateful mercenaries and regularly uses the term “Saudi Golf League” to link LIV to the Saudi regime and its assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to the US State Department.
But it also highlights that several PGA Tour prize pool sponsors also have ties to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the DP World Tour, which is now closely associated with the PGA Tour, has held events in Saudi Arabia and previously encouraged its players to compete there.
If another group of PGA Tour stars left, the Tour would be in trouble. It has some loyal fans, especially among the middle-aged and older devotees of the game. But a younger group seems willing to take a look at what LIV is trying to do.
Politics aside, there is legitimate value in making the game more attractive to viewers. LIV’s shotgun launch is an interesting case study in that it’s more confusing to those familiar with golf than newcomers.
A leaderboard where everyone has played the same number of holes in real time is easier for newcomers to understand and allows a day of action to be condensed into a manageable window of time.
One also has to wonder if too much golf (the Tour plays well over 40 weeks a year) will saturate the Tour and dilute the product. Last weekend, a quiet spot on the entire sporting calendar, the closing stages of the Tour’s Wyndham Championship were broadcast on national television.
It came with a sweet story, as 20-year-old Joohyung Kim became the second youngest Tour winner since 1932.
But as the playoff leaderboards rested, it was a case of unknowns at the top of the leaderboard and all the way through the field. For those who occasionally tuned in, it might all have been a little overwhelming.
LIV, with 48 player fields over three days and no cutback, aims to do more with less by hosting eight events this year and increasing to 14 in 2023. At his last event at Bedminster, Johnson and Patrick Reed were consistently hard fought. while victory went to Henrik Stenson, who had been axed as European Ryder Cup captain days earlier for defecting.
Who knows what the golfing summer of fall discontent will lead to as LIV’s schedule builds up and the PGA Tour goes quiet?
In the midst of all this, golf fans struggle with perspective. One is to take the tour’s party line that the Saudi-backed product is an outrage, that the players are a disgrace to be a part of, and that the whole thing should be ignored.
However, doing so requires selective moral theorizing in many sports, given the contribution of Saudi Arabia and other hard-line regimes such as China and Russia.
“If you want to fire LIV Golf for purely ethical reasons, you better not watch Premier League football,” wrote Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Or the NBA. Or the NFL. Or the Tour de France. Or Formula 1 racing. Or MMA. Or boxing. Or horse racing.”
The reason the game of golf is so divisive is that it’s messy. Some of the LIV opponents feel this way for the strongest and most personal reasons, such as the families of 9/11 victims who protested in Bedminster.
Others believe that players should be allowed to maximize their earnings and should not be made to play a political game.
Either way, it’s easy to portray everything that happened as disastrous for golf. Except… maybe that’s not the case. To say that all publicity is good publicity is an oversimplification, but when was the last time golf was talked about so much? When Tiger Woods was in his prime? Maybe not even then.
It’s been a wild ride, but don’t expect things to slow down. The next few playoff weeks should showcase the best the PGA Tour has to offer. But one can only imagine what the field for these playoffs will be like a year from now.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. YHere you can subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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