Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 20, 2020

Can The Premier Golf League Buy Itself A Star?

The PGA Tour has pulled into Club de Golf Chapultepec in the hills just outside Mexico City for this week’s WGC – Mexico Championship, one of the four World Golf Championship events on the Tour’s calendar. Created two decades ago and sanctioned by not just the PGA and European Tours, but also the top tours of Asia, Japan, South Africa and Australia, the WGC quartet was conceived as a group of high profile, limited field events attracting the world’s best players with huge purses and stature approaching that of the four men’s majors. Where exactly the Mexico Championship, Dell Technologies Match Play, FedEx St. Jude Invitational and HSBC Champions rank in the game’s pantheon of tournaments is endlessly debatable, but there is no question golfers making the field at any of them earn a significant payday. Whoever lifts the distinctive blue and white Wedgwood china trophy Sunday evening will also pocket a check for nearly $1.8 million, and even the last place finisher won’t go home entirely disappointed after collecting more than $50,000 for scoring worse than everyone else in the field.

Both the WGC pedigree of this week’s event and its location – the Mexico and HBSC Championships are the two WGC tournaments played outside the U.S. – are propitious given that the main topic of conversation on the Tour right now is not the location of Tiger’s next appearance or whether Phil will be in the field when the U.S. Open returns to Winged Foot in June, or even how many times Patrick Reed may have improved his lie in violation of one of golf’s most basic rules, but the potential threat to the current structure of men’s golf posed by the Premier Golf League.

The PGL is a proposed new global tour to be made up of 18 events, each limited to a field of 48 players and offering a purse of $10 million. That prize money would put the PGL tournaments on a par with the four WGC events and just a hair behind the $10.75 to $12.5 million at stake at this year’s majors. It’s significantly more than the field plays for at a typical weekly stop on the PGA Tour, and a giant leap up from the purses offered at most events on the European or other tours. The tournaments, nearly half of which would be scheduled outside the U.S., would be 54 holes long and feature both individual play and some sort of season-long team scoring, with the 48 players in the “league” grouped into a dozen four-person teams.

The organizers of this new golf tour, which tends to be described as either “renegade” or “innovative” depending on one’s opinion of the concept, remain publicly unknown beyond a faceless British-based World Golf Group. Rumors of Saudi money bankrolling the PGL have floated around locker rooms at Tour stops since the idea was first mentioned almost two years ago. But a press release issued last month, with the details described above, suggests that whoever is behind the proposed new league is getting ready to come out of the shadows.

But no matter how deep the pockets of the PGL’s organizers are, turning rumor into fact requires more than cash and even more than eighteen golf courses around the globe willing to welcome the elite players of the world to their first tees. It requires those players, and more specifically it requires several of golf’s biggest stars. For what the PGL proposes would fundamentally alter the organization of professional golf. While touring pros are independent contractors and not employees of the PGA Tour, they are bound by Tour rules that mandate participation in at least fifteen events per year and strictly limit the number of non-sanctioned tournaments in which a pro can tee it up. Those rules, combined with the expected PGL requirement to play all 18 events and the presumed desire of any player defecting to the new league to still play the four majors add up to forcing a player to choose between joining the PGL or continuing to carry a PGA Tour card.

A generally conservative group, most pros are unlikely to chance such a radical change without being confident that the new tour will succeed, and that success will depend heavily on the participation of some instantly recognizable names. Meaning no disrespect to Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson and Xander Schauffele, but while those three golfers are currently all in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings – 6th, 8th and 10th, respectively – even altogether they wouldn’t attract 40,000 fans to a PGL tournament, nor spark a flood of fellow pros to tear up their Tour cards and join them (to be clear, all three are cited as examples solely based on their current ranking, not because they have expressed any inclination to sign on to the PGL concept). For the Premier Golf League to become anything more than some rich sheikh’s pipedream, a player named Woods or Mickelson or perhaps Koepka, Thomas, Johnson or Spieth, needs to become the face of this putative new tour.

Perhaps the press conference at which just such an announcement is made will occur in the next few weeks, but PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan surely had to be happy that while fans and the golf media wait to see if it does, Rory McIlroy stepped into the breach at his pre-tournament presser in Mexico with the exact opposite message. McIlroy made clear he won’t be joining the PGL, saying ““The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it. The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do. If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice.” He then added four little words that were more valuable than gold to Monahan and company, “for me, I’m out.”

While other stars mull whether to join McIlroy or to instead follow the (even more) money, they might do well to remember Greg Norman’s experience. A quarter century ago Norman was the number one ranked player in the world when he proposed the creation of a World Golf Tour. While the details were different, the concept of a series of tournaments offering huge purses, spanning the globe, and staged in defiance of the existing structure of tours was strikingly similar to the PGL. But lacking the financial backing to turn his dream into reality, the Shark was never able to convince other top players to follow him. The WGT concept soon crumbled, though it ultimately did contribute to the formation of the four WGC tournaments and the increasingly global reach of the PGA Tour, which has nine events on this season’s schedule played on foreign soil.

Back then the World Golf Tour had a public face in Norman, but not the money. For now, at least, the Premier Golf League has the financing, but not the face. Maybe the necessary star will soon step forward, and professional golf will undergo a seismic shift. But change for its own sake is no more enlightened than blind allegiance to the status quo. And change that is ultimately about nothing more than money is the worst idea of all.

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