‘This feels dirty. This doesn’t feel like golf.’ How a traditional sport just got turned upside down
7: 30 AM ET
Kevin Van Valkenburg
ESPN Senior Writer
- Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Born and raised in Western Montana
- Spent 11 years as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun
ESPN Senior Writer
- Senior college football writer
- Author of seven books on college football
- Graduate of the University of Georgia
BROOKLINE, Mass. — Phil Mickelson, alone, didn’t break professional golf into two pieces.
There were many cracks that appeared, some of which took years to form, and helped to shape the moment. Mickelson will be remembered as a catalyst for the breakup. The heart of the split is Mickelson’s ideas, words, hubris and his determination to maximize his worth are all at the core. For years to come, we won’t know if he is the hero or the visionary.
He emerged from his four months in exile in all black and sporting a beard for the first time in his adult life, suddenly looking like a professional wrestler who left his longtime employer for a rival circuit. Mickelson’s new version is not brash or arrogant. He seems to be trying to keep emotions from getting out of control.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Mickelson said Monday at his U.S. Open news conference, when asked if he believes he has been unfairly criticized for joining LIV Golf. “I can understand that it can bring out strong emotions for many people. I understand their feelings about it. “
It is clear that golf is entering a new era. It is possible that we will only see the best players competing together at majors like the U.S. Open at The Country Club outside Boston. The PGA Tour will no longer be able to say it boasts the biggest purses and all the best players on a weekly basis, something that has been true for roughly 30 years. LIV Golf plans to invest billions in Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over a number of years.
A tug of war has broken out between hearts and minds, and bank accounts. Most professional golfers will have the choice of which side to take. It played out in real time over the past few days, with Mickelson on one side at the LIV Golf event in London and Rory McIlroy on the other at the RBC Canadian Open, each representing something larger than himself. Mickelson was the first to volley, appearing in London to represent the largest purse in tournament golf history. McIlroy volleyed back, winning the Canadian Open the same weekend, outdueling Justin Thomas and Tony Finau, firing an emotional 62 in front of a boisterous crowd at the tour’s oldest event. Even McIlroy admitted it felt like a rebuttal, especially since it nudged him past LIV CEO Greg Norman on the list of PGA Tour career wins with 21.
Justin Thomas discusses multiple players leaving the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf.
“I had extra motivation of what’s going on across the pond,” McIlroy said. “The guy that’s spearheading that tour has 20 wins on the PGA Tour and I was tied with him, and I wanted to get one ahead of him. And I did. That was really cool for my, just a small sense of pride. “
It felt a window into the future with two ideologies being played out in different cities each week. Thomas admitted that he couldn’t sleep last week due to his agony over the LIV Golf departures.
” “It was a big week on the tour,” Thomas said. “I was tossed and turned, losing a lot of sleep thinking about the possibilities. I grew up wanting to play on the PGA Tour. I wanted to make history, break records, play in Presidents Cups and play in Ryder Cups. The fact that things like this could get damaged by some of the people who are leaving is just sad. It’s sad. It’s something I have always wanted to do. People who have been there are entitled to make that choice. It’s not that I agree with it. But, everything has a price. “
In all likelihood, the lines have been drawn. Will players gravitate toward figures like Mickelson and Dustin Johnson? McIlroy or Thomas? You can’t have it all. You’ve got to choose from one tour to another,” said Gary Player, who won 24 times on the PGA Tour during his career and now serves as a spokesman for Golf Saudi, the owners of LIV Golf. “If they wish to play the LIV tour, they can, but you cannot have both. It won’t be allowed. “
An attorney representing players on the PGA Tour, and in the LIV Golf Series, said that “free agency” has arrived to golf and exposed PGA Tour’s economic model. It is a restrictive web which deprives professional golfers of fair value. The PGA Tour was created to protect the interests of professional golfers. Now, it is trying to punish them for their sport. This is a symbolic effort; the players that their commissioner is shaming had already made it clear that they would be leaving the PGA Tour to join LIV. Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, clearly cannot accept that golf has been granted free agency. “
Monahan, in an interview with CBS Sports on Sunday’s Canadian Open, stated that players could not compete on the PGA Tour or the LIV Golf series.
” Why do they need us so desperately? Monahan said. “Because these players have chosen to sign multiyear lucrative deals to play in a series exhibition matches against the exact same players over and again. You can see the difference between what you see today and what they have signed. That’s why they need us so much. You have pure, true competition. The RBC Canadian Open hosts the best players from around the world. There are millions of viewers and it’s pure competition that creates the profile of the greatest players in the world.
” That’s why they need our help. We do that. We won’t allow players to ride free off our loyal members, the most talented players in the world. “
Mickelson doesn’t quite see it that way. His 45 PGA Tour wins are tied for the eighth most in history, trailing only Tiger Woods among active players. Players earn lifetime membership on the PGA Tour when they achieve 20 career victories, and Mickelson doesn’t feel he should have to surrender it, even though he is currently suspended by the tour. Mickelson stated that his preference was to be able choose which path he would like, one or both. “I gave as much back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf as I could throughout my 30 years here. Through my achievements on the course, I earned a lifetime membership. I plan to keep that membership and then decide whether or not to play in the events. “
Could these two tours coexist with players bouncing back-and-forth between them? Norman, a two time winner of The Open, said that he would prefer this.
“We’re 100 percent additive to any golf tour,” Norman said in an interview with ESPN in May. “I have always maintained that no tour owns the game. The PGA Tour’s tax-exempt purpose is ‘to promote professional tournament golfers’. That’s exactly what LIV is all for. This is what the PGA Tour should be about. This is what every tour should be all about. This is what we do in common interest. We are not trying to disrupt the tour or cause damage to the tour. We are not doing this. “
The extent to which a nonprofit can control its members will be the subject of legal challenges from players such as Mickelson, who have not resigned from their membership.
” This brings up the question of whether they are independent contractors or not,” said Craig Seebald (partner and antitrust expert at Vinson & Elkins). “If they are truly independent contractors, it seems that this rule is quite harsh in the sense it seems to be against the law to be an independent contractor and to have to ask someone if you could play elsewhere. The argument would be that the tour was using the rule to prevent a competitive league starting. This is what I believe is the core of the issue. That’s why I think these suspensions are so interesting. “
Another issue is whether or not the PGA Tour behaves like a traditional monopoly.
” We have two basic antitrust issues and I believe both are in play,” Seebald stated. “You have our laws against monopolization. That’s the classic lawsuit. Right now, for instance, the government has lawsuits against Facebook and Google in monopolization cases. The Microsoft case is a monopolization case. So what do we worry about? The tour is clearly the most dominant in the world and is basically the only thing here in the United States. They need to be concerned about whether they are monopolizing the offering of golf tournaments in the United States. “
Seebald said players such as Mickelson — as well as others like Ian Poulter, Hudson Swafford and Talor Gooch who haven’t resigned from the tour but plan to continue playing LIV Golf events — could ask for an injunction that would lift the tour suspension until the legal cases are resolved. It is not certain that a judge will grant one.
” It’s difficult to get those preliminary orders,” Seebald stated. “Trust cases go on for six, eight, 10 years. It’s not an easy way to do it. You might get a TRO [temporary restraining or], but that’s not a guarantee. It would be a victory for [PGA Tour] if this thing dragged out for as long possible, and LIV kinda dies on its own. If 10 years down the road you end up with some kind of jury verdict against you, LIV is dead. This is a kind of victory at the end. You want to wait as long as possible if you’re on the tour. This uncertainty and the possibility of being involved in a costly legal battle — was one reason a few LIV Golf members decided not to resign from PGA Tour just before the first LIV Golf event.
“I didn’t want to get into any legal battles,” said Sergio Garcia, an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour and Masters champion. “I’m very happy to have been here for many reasons. It will allow me to do what my heart desires, which is to play golf. It will allow me to spend more time with my family, especially my children, who are 4 and 2. I also get to make a living doing this. It’s a win/win situation for me. I am excited for the future. “
Garcia, Johnson, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Branden Grace were all among those who said in London they didn’t have any interest in returning to the PGA Tour, even if the option became available. They are now focusing on LIV Golf.
” Grace answered Grace’s question about his feelings about being suspended. “We knew from the beginning that they were going to ban these guys, but they kept their guns a little. I resigned from my membership. “
Grace wasn’t among the players who received a significant signing bonus from LIV Golf. However, he stated that he had enough assurance from his sponsors to stay with him. He was confident that he could make the leap.
“Callaway said they will see, they are sticking with the guys now and see how it plays out,” Grace said. “[Watch company] Audemars Piguet has been great and they will continue to support our guys. Qualtrics, a software company, is also the same. He is one of my main sponsors. He understands that I do this, there is a lot security associated with it, and for me and my family. “
With golf’s four majors, the Masters, PGA Championship and U.S Open, so far it seems they won’t keep LIV Golf members away as long as they can qualify and equipment companies remaining mostly neutral, many players are wondering what the PGA Tour can offer to keep LIV Golf’s membership from getting more. While Woods, McIlroy, and Thomas have publicly supported the tour, private tour players are wondering what Monahan can do for his members.
“Golf “has always been so tidy,” a tour player stated in an interview with ESPN. It’s been so neat. The best players were able to compete with the best on the best tour. Pure capitalists believe that any competition is good. This just feels different. It feels dirty. It’s not like playing golf.
” It’s not about playing against top players, it is not about competition, and it’s certainly not about a team structure. It’s all about money. That is what the tour must combat. Perhaps there aren’t enough men who care about the spirit and the game. Perhaps the tour needs to raise more money to combat this problem. I don’t know how this tour can survive. I don’t think there is a solution that would work for everyone. “
The player who has won multiple times on this tour said that moral issues are important when deciding whether to accept money from LIV golf. Many golfers have questioned whether LIV is trying to promote the game around the globe.
” I find all of this to be quite disingenuous,” said the player. “Don’t try to hide it. Just call it what is. Simply say, “If I take the money I don’t care if other countries or other people, but I care about my career, my family, and anyone else who hasn’t been offered such a large sum of money can’t relate.” The tour should just keep doing what they are doing and weather any storms. This thing will eventually fizzle out. The only way for the Saudi government to cleanse itself is to become one that respects human rights. It is not a good idea to buy players to join teams in funny tournaments. They will lose interest. “
His message for those who left LIV Golf?
“Leave, if you wish to leave, but don’t be bitter against the organization that tried hard to make you as rich as possible,” he said.
Joe Ogilvie — who played on the tour from 1999 to 2014 — was once rumored to be a candidate for the PGA Tour commissioner position before Monahan was chosen. Ogilvie, who runs Wallace Capital Management, an investment advisory firm, has been following the turmoil of the past few weeks with great interest, eager for any changes it might inspire. All options must be considered.
” This is the first time in golf that all the power is available to the players,” Ogilvie stated. “It’s the first golf match where the players have actually come together. They could make change. They have never forced change. I don’t know who will make the changes. Jay Monahan or Justin Thomas? Or will it be Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas? Tiger Woods was a great player, but these guys will have the most power in history if they can channel that power. There might be panic at the PGA Tour offices, but it wouldn’t be wise to ignore the tour.
“Oil prices aren’t going to be $130 a barrel forever,” Ogilvie said. “The LIV tour is possible. Even though people were shaming it, I believe that the team concept was iteration one. They’ll likely have many more iterations. They’ll likely innovate and it’ll be interesting. The PGA Tour has not been very good at innovating. They have a lot to be proud of, including a lot more fans and corporate sponsors. They won’t sit back and allow Saudi Arabia to outspend them. “
LIV golf has made it clear that it has plenty to spend. It’s not a traditional start up sports league that will eventually need a profit. It will only be a benefit if professional golf becomes a game where money decides who wins.
” We are not going anywhere,” Norman stated. “We are here for the long-term. All the rumors that LIV Golf Investments is bankrupt or can’t pay its executives’ salaries are bogus. We will be here for many decades. We are not here for a year, we are here for decades. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.