Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 12, 2021

Lacking Only Players, Golf’s Renegades Plow Ahead

One presumes it was big news to fans who follow the career of Slugger White.  The problem for LIV Golf Investments, the new Saudi-funded, Greg Norman-led company with visions of creating a series of global tournaments to rival the PGA tour, is that even among hardcore golf fans the mention of White’s name is as likely to draw quizzical squints as familiar nods.  Still, LIV Golf did its best to trumpet the news that the longtime vice president of rules and competition for the PGA Tour, who retired from that role just three months ago, is joining the upstart organization in essentially the same capacity. 

White becomes the latest of several individuals with significant executive experience in the sports world to sign on to Norman’s endeavor, including former ESPN and Formula One marketing head Sean Bratches, and Ron Cross, who ran the Presidents Cup, Tour Championship, and World Golf Championships for the PGA Tour before moving to Augusta National where he developed ancillary events to the Masters.  The moves to populate LIV Golf’s front office come just a couple weeks after news of the company’s formation and its plan to invest $200 million into the Asian Tour over the next decade, though that is seen as but a precursor to the larger goal of attracting top name golfers to play in extremely lucrative tournaments all around the world. 

It is a goal shared by the Premier Golf League, a London-based organization that announced itself earlier this year with an ambitious plan to stage eighteen tournaments featuring a dozen four-player teams, beginning in 2023.  The PGL has a snazzy website and claims to have sufficient financial backing to meet its schedule, though beyond stating it has no Saudi money the League has been opaque about its funding. 

In contrast, both the PGA and European Tours have been fully transparent that they view these would-be competitors as existential threats.  Unlike players in our major team sports, golfers are not employees under contract, but independent operators who have considerable freedom to decide their playing schedule.  But “considerable” is not a synonym for “absolute.”  The Tours still exercise significant control by setting the rules for membership, which include requiring participation in a specified minimum number of events as well as mandating that any member wishing to play in a non-Tour sanctioned tournament being staged the same week as a Tour stop must apply for and receive a release before doing so.  For his part, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has made clear that no releases will be forthcoming for tournaments run by the upstart leagues, and that any member opting to play in them would thus forfeit his Tour card. 

The established tours are employing carrots as well as sticks in their responses to the nascent plans of the PGL and LIV Golf.  Earlier this year the PGA Tour announced a $40 million bonus pool to be distributed to ten players annually based on their social media popularity.  Given that criteria, it’s immediately apparent that journeyman professionals need not apply.  The pool is clearly targeted at the game’s most recognizable names, and when it was made public last April was widely seen as an attempt to discourage those golfers from even considering overtures from the presumably deep-pocketed rival organizations. Never mind that it might well have been the reason for the silly and superfluous feud between Brook Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.

Then just this week the European Tour unveiled a rebranding campaign.  Beginning next year, it will be known as the DP World Tour, in what is both a nod to the Dubai-based multinational company DP World that will be the Tour’s prime sponsor and the simple fact that for years the European Tour schedule has roamed far beyond its namesake landmass.  More important than the name change is a significant increase in total purses, with each Tour stop offering a minimum $2 million in prize money and the season-ending championship becoming the Tour’s first event with $10 million at stake.

That news was followed by a report Thursday from Eamon Lynch of Golfweek that the PGA Tour plans to start a series of four to six international team events as soon as 2023, in what sounds like a blatant pilfering of PGL’s planned format.  As with the social media bonus pool, the small fields necessary for some form of team play mean these tournaments, should they come to pass, will primarily benefit the game’s top players.

Which, of course, is the point.  As Greg Norman surely knows, no one is going to pay to see, or change the channel on their television to watch, Slugger White drive around in a golf cart to render his judgment on whether a player gets relief from a bad lie in what is perhaps ground under repair.  LIV Golf can have the most talented front office ever assembled, and the Premier Golf League can be beatifically free from the taint of Saudi money, but neither organization is going anywhere without some name golfers on board.  The established tours are pulling out all the stops to ensure that doesn’t happen, and so far, those efforts have been a complete success.

Sports fans with sufficiently long memories have seen all this before, and know that sometimes it is the upstart that has the last laugh.  That was the case in 1966, seven years after Texas oilman H. L. Hunt assembled a group of likeminded millionaires who shared his experience of being rebuffed by the National Football League in their quest for team ownership.  They formed the AFL, which went from laughingstock to competitive foe to merger partner in remarkably short order.  And once upon a very long time ago, one year after the very first, relatively informal, World Series, John T. Brush, owner of the 1904 National League champion New York Giants, deemed the AL’s Boston Americans an unworthy opponent from an inferior league and refused to participate in a renewal.  The reaction was so strong that by the start of the 1905 season an agreement for an annual World Series was in place.

But those are the exceptions.  Far more often, those with grand dreams and big plans to upend the established order in sports are shunted aside and left behind.  For every AFL, there is a WFL, an XFL, and assorted other pretenders.  Perhaps the fledgling golf leagues will beat the odds, with one of them soon attracting some major names, ready to tee it up.  But the more likely outcome is that the PGL never advances beyond its very nice website, and that with far less fanfare than he arrived, Greg Norman eventually exits LIV Golf, with Slugger White and the other proudly announced new hires quietly resuming their retirements. It is, after all, hard to stage big-time golf tournaments without big-time golfers. 

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