Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2022

Golf At A Crossroads

A NOTE TO READERS:  The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday.  Thanks for your support.

Money talks.  Those were the final two words the last time this space was dedicated to the Saudi Investment Fund’s latest sportswashing effort, the high-profile challenge to professional golf’s established order through the LIV Golf Invitational Series, led by Greg Norman.  Three weeks later, we now have some idea of just how much bloodstained Saudi cash it took for Norman to persuade at least one big name player to listen.  Originally scheduled for release last Friday, the list of golfers in the field of LIV Golf’s debut event next week at the Centurion Club in London was finally made public on Tuesday.  The delay was so Norman could finalize a contract with two-time major champion and former world number one Dustin Johnson, who for $125 million becomes, at least for now, the face of the fledgling tour.

Johnson was the closest thing to either a surprise or a leading current player among the forty-two names on LIV’s list.  The full field for the 54-hole event is being advertised as forty-eight players, with the remaining six slots filled from an Asian Tour event being held this week, and at least one pick by Norman.  The other immediately recognizable names – Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, and Kevin Na, for example – are golfers either past 40 or closing in on that age, with their most recent PGA Tour win a receding memory.  Other than Johnson, a Golf Digest analysis put just two others on the list in the category of “in their prime PGA Tour players,” Talor Gooch and Hudson Swafford.  Gooch notched his first Tour victory at the RSM Classic last November, a week after his 30th birthday, while the 34-year-old Swafford has three PGA Tour wins, including the American Express in January.  But neither golfer’s absence from the RBC Canadian Open, the PGA Tour event that will be played opposite the London tournament, is likely to cause a drop in ticket sales.

There are also many names that not even devoted golf fans will recognize, though in fairness it should be remembered that even say, Oliver Fisher, the 33-year-old Englishman who is ranked 979th in the world and has won once in a 15-year European Tour career, is an elite golfer.  Still, it is also fair to say that a field full of Oliver Fishers is not exactly what Norman and the LIV Golf marketing department have been promising.

That makes Johnson’s decision all the more important, and valuable, to LIV Golf.  For while Rory McIlroy’s description of the field as not “anything to jump up and down about” is accurate, the presence of a player barely 18 months removed from winning the Masters and who was world number one as recently as last July and number three at the start of 2022, lends next week’s tournament at the Centurion Club a sheen of legitimacy, surely much to the delight of Norman’s Saudi overlords.  In that regard Johnson is arguably worth more than even Phil Mickelson, who most of the golfing media assumes will be Norman’s “commissioner’s pick,” given Lefty’s precipitous fall from grace when his obnoxious greed became public.

It is of course possible, by squinting just a bit, to see Johnson as not all that different from the group of aging names listed above.  He turns 38 later this month, the same age as Na.  He hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since that November 2020 Masters victory, or anywhere at all since a victory in – surprise – Saudi Arabia in February of last year.  That drought is largely why he’s no longer ranked number one or number three, or even in the top ten. 

But at thirteen in the world, he remains one of the game’s top players.  Just as important, his willingness to renege on the statement he issued in February, when Johnson quashed rumors he might jump to LIV Golf by saying “I am fully committed to the PGA Tour.  I am grateful for the opportunity to play on the best tour in the world and for all it has provided to me and my family,” could make it easier for other, younger players to walk back, or simply walk away from, similar expressions of support.

None of the sport’s young stars have done so yet, at least in part because they seem to possess a remarkably mature understanding that life at the top of the PGA Tour is exceptionally good, and money isn’t everything.  Johnson has more than $200 million in estimated career earnings – $74 million in purses, third all-time behind Tiger Woods and Mickelson, plus another $27 million in FedEx Cup bonuses, also third all-time, behind McIlroy and Woods – and at least as much in endorsements.  But that’s over fifteen years on the Tour, while LIV Golf will reward him with more than half as much in a fraction of the time and will do so even if he finishes last in every tournament he plays. Little wonder Johnson spurned the Royal Bank of Canada, one of his sponsors and the presenter of the RBC Canadian Open, which featured Johnson in this year’s advertising.

As tempting as the Saudi cash must be, the history and prestige of playing on the premier men’s golf tour in the world, the entrée it brings to the sport’s most important tournaments and with that the opportunity to build a lasting legacy, along with the knowledge that one can ultimately spend only so much money, has been enough to keep golf’s top stars loyal.

Then again, scarcely more than three months ago that number included Johnson.  Which means the next chapter of this story will be written by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.  He has talked tough, threatening suspensions and outright bans of players jumping to LIV Golf.  But on Tuesday the time for talk ended.  There is no action that will deter players who care only about the size of their bank accounts, for ultimately the PGA Tour can’t compete financially with a nation-state.  But in sports, as in life, fulfilling careers are about more than paychecks, even when the amounts on those checks have multiple commas.  That certainty has always been Monahan’s strongest weapon.  It’s time for him to use it.  If he doesn’t do so, well, money talks.

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