ATLANTA, GEORGIA | A rival golf tour. Deep pockets. Greg Norman vs. the PGA Tour. A consequential players meeting. If this all sounds a little familiar, you’re not wrong.
“This is groundhog day,” Curtis Strange said last year before the LIV Golf Series ever came to fruition. “This is exactly like it happened in 1994.”
The pitch was finally delivered earlier in 2022 in New York via Saudi Arabia instead of a conference room at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California. But 28 years later, the Shark is still trying to prey on the PGA Tour’s prized stock.
The only thing missing was Arnold Palmer to shut it down, as well as the heft of his wingman Jack Nicklaus, who helped launch an independent PGA Tour into existence back in 1968. Playing the role of the King and the Bear this time were Tiger and Rors.
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have presided over the most important meetings of PGA Tour players in nearly three decades – in July in Ireland and again last week in Delaware – in an effort to stave off another Norman-led breach. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who keeps trying to plug the dike with all of his fingers, acknowledged as much when he announced sweeping changes to shore up the immediate strength of the PGA Tour in the face of defections to LIV.
“To my knowledge, in the history of this organization, there really have been two player-only meetings,” Monahan said Wednesday before the Tour Championship in Atlanta. “There was one in 1994, and there was one last week.
“The fact that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and the best players came together to rally around their tour versus when you look back in history that (1994) meeting was to disrupt, if not destroy the tour. As I said earlier, it’s a remarkable moment.”
A little history lesson to put all of this rival golf league and civil war into perspective. As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
It was Nov. 17, 1994, at the Shark Shootout at Sherwood when Norman gathered the marquee players in attendance and presented his case for establishing a World Golf Tour. The OWGR at the end of 1994 reflected how global the game was, with only two Americans (Fred Couples at No. 6 and Corey Pavin at 10) among the top 10 in the world, and world No. 2 Norman thought the timing was right to spring his idea for capitalizing on the game’s international diversity.
Peter Jacobsen was among the players present, and he said they didn’t know when they went into the meeting exactly what Norman had in mind. But two days before, new PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem had issued an edict memo to players saying anyone joining a rival tour would be suspended.
Norman was joined in the meeting by Fox Sports executive David Hill and John Montgomery Jr., whose father helped create the infrastructure of the PGA Tour. They presented a blueprint for eight tournaments in 1995, beginning in March. The 40-player fields would offer guaranteed money for participants, with the winner’s share being $600,000. Players committing to the World Golf Tour would receive a travel allowance, and the season-ending player of the year would pocket $1 million.
“I was ahead of my time, I guess. I could see the way golf was growing on a global front, because I was a global player.” – Greg Norman
Those numbers may sound trifling now in a world with purses reaching $25 million, but in 1994 the average winner’s prize in regular tour events was $216,000. The richest purse on tour, the Players Championship, gave the winner $450,000.
“It was audacious,” Norman told Morning Read in 2019 on the 25th anniversary of his presentation. “I was ahead of my time, I guess. I could see the way golf was growing on a global front, because I was a global player.”
After Norman’s announcement, the conversation got spirited. Arnold Palmer took the reins. He was already 65 years old, but the King still held sway. Jacobsen said Palmer led the pushback to Norman’s proposal.
Arnie asked Norman if he knew what the “Big Three” was. Norman said yes. Arnie asked if he thought the Big Three – Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player – had been presented opportunities to leave the PGA Tour and strike out on a new lucrative entity. Norman acknowledged that was probably the case.
Palmer then stated that the Big Three doing so then would be bad for golf and bad for the PGA Tour, and this venture would be the same. Though his time on tour was nearly done, Palmer would not support the concept.
“He got up and walked out,” Jacobsen said.
Then Lanny Wadkins spoke up: “If it’s not good enough for Arnie, it’s not good enough for me.”
The meeting was over, and Norman’s plan was all but dead in the water – a phrase that McIlroy used prematurely back in February when LIV was briefly on the ropes.
“I was shell-shocked when I got out of that meeting,” Norman told Morning Read in 2019. “Are you kidding me? How about having an open discussion about this, guys? How about not slaying the dream and just shutting me down and ostracizing me in front of the other players?”
Strange missed the meeting, but he said there was plenty of discussion in the aftermath of Arnie’s edict.
“I flew in the next morning and as soon as I hit the golf course I heard about it,” Strange said. “Over the course of the next two or three days, everybody was talking about it and asking the questions you don’t think of on the spot.
“When we all talked to Arnold in 1994, he helped us make our decision. I don’t think anybody left that locker room that week thinking they were going to jump ship.”
As far back as February of 2021, McIlroy referred to Palmer’s dissent in 1994 as being “on the right side of history … with the whole Greg Norman thing” and stated his personal opposition to another rival tour concept now. When told of McIlroy’s opposition, Norman said, “This one cuts deep. It’s a subject that has left a lot of scar tissue for me.”
Norman, 67, is now older than Palmer was that day in 1994. And 28 years after his Sherwood presentation, Norman has again challenged the status quo.
The answers coming in 1994 from Norman’s proposed breakaway camp weren’t enough to sway anyone. That December, when the WGT slipped letters under the hotel doors of players in Jamaica at the Johnnie Walker Championship, it got no positive response. The World Golf Tour died on the vine, and with the arrival of Tiger Woods two years later, Finchem and the PGA Tour bolstered purses beyond what Norman pitched and launched the World Golf Championships in 1999.
Norman called the fallout from his World Golf Tour proposal “hurtful” and thought his motives had been misrepresented.
“What irks me the most is how it all played out, and how I was positioned incorrectly,” Norman said two years ago. “The perception versus reality really did hurt me.”
Norman, 67, is now older than Palmer was that day in 1994. And 28 years after his Sherwood presentation, Norman has again challenged the status quo by launching a tour that has attracted some of the game’s biggest names eager to get a piece of the unlimited resources of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
Whether it’s unfinished business or just an idea ready to be realized, Norman believes that history will not repeat itself and his LIV Golf will become a fixture atop the golf world.
“Greg never had the allegiance to the PGA Tour that we in America, born and bred, had,” said Strange, noting how all he and most other American tour players had dreamed only of competing on the PGA Tour. “I don’t understand, why go up against the PGA Tour? He doesn’t have anything to lose now. It makes him relevant again in the golf world.”
With Woods and McIlroy leading the defense and pushing the PGA Tour to make changes essential to preserve its future, we’ll see who attracts the lion’s share of the game’s best players when the dust settles.
Tiger and Rory make a formidable front line of defense against Norman’s attempt at conquest, as Arnie did 28 years ago. It may be enough to form another layer of scar tissue for Norman as he can attract only handfuls of elite young players for his extravagant exhibition series while mostly collecting names on the back end of their competitive relevance.
“I think this for (Tiger) is all about what Jack and Arnie created in the ’60s, and everyone that has come before us,” McIlroy said. “And I think for someone like me and my generation, trying to do something to respect the generation that came before me, Tiger being the prime example, and just trying to carry that legacy on.”
And for a player such as McIlroy, who could bank generational wealth by abdicating his role on tour, it’s still about being on the right side of history.
“I care deeply about our sport. I care about its history. I care about its legacy. I care about the integrity of the game,” he said. “There’s a lot of players out here that are like-minded and share those same views. I felt it was just right.”
It’s up to the players again to follow the leaders or follow the money. Only one path may allow them to do both.
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