The battle lines keep getting drawn more clearly with each passing week – and let’s be clear that this is a fight for both the soul and the highest ground of elite professional golf. The rhetoric of this cold war between LIV Golf and the established tours grows increasingly more hostile and desperate.
Phil Mickelson, a World Golf Hall of Famer who has not been competitively relevant for a single week on any tour since his shocking victory at the 2021 PGA Championship, burned whatever unstable bridges that still might have existed this week from the bosom of his new professional home in Saudi Arabia.
“I see LIV Golf trending upwards. I see the PGA Tour trending downwards, and I love the side that I’m on,” Mickelson said at his press conference on Thursday ahead of the 48-man exhibition in Jeddah.
“For a long, long time, my 30 years on the PGA Tour, pretty much all the best players played on the PGA Tour. At least the last 20 years. That will never be the case again. I think going forward, you have to pick a side. You have to pick what side do you think is going to be successful.
“And I firmly believe that I’m on the winning side of how things are going to evolve and shape in the coming years for professional golf.”
Just four days earlier, Tom Kim of South Korea became the first player since Tiger Woods to win his second PGA Tour event before his 21st birthday – doing it at the same Las Vegas event where Woods won his first. The rising superstar, whose emotions and skill won the hearts and respect of golf fans at last month’s Presidents Cup, seems to have picked a side – for now.
Tom Kim, 20, has collected two PGA Tour trophies: the Wyndham Championship in August and the Shriners Children’s Open last week.
“I’m having fun playing the PGA Tour,” Kim said after climbing to No. 15 in the world with his early success on what remains the undisputed best professional golf tour in the world. “It’s awesome.”
These next months will not be an easy time in the golf eco-system. Elite golf is sitting in the eye of the LIV Golf storm, with no substantial movement since Cameron Smith, Joaquin Niemann and a few others made the jump immediately after the Tour Championship in August. When LIV launches its 14-event 2023 season in February, it promises to have more of a set 48-man roster with permanent teams. It’s fair to assume more prominent players will be lured by the easy riches of the Saudi Public Investment Fund by then to replace the weak filler currently at the bottom of the LIV table.
Should any combination of these marquee pieces fall in line with the enemy, the cracks in the tour’s defenses may become too big to fix.
The PGA Tour still hasn’t finalized its own announced changes for additional elevated events, with much still to prove that it hasn’t overpromised and overextended itself financially in its efforts to keep its head above the LIV wave. Its biggest challenge (same goes for the DP World Tour) will be to protect its biggest asset – the players – from defecting to LIV. Losses of prime talents such as Smith, Niemann, Dustin Johnson, Abraham Ancer, Talor Gooch and Eugenio López-Chacarra have stung, but they haven’t crippled the PGA Tour, which still holds the lion’s share of the world’s best golfers.
This is a threat assessment of the most important targets the PGA Tour needs to protect from LIV poachers. Some are more critical than others (especially to the LIV blueprint), but all represent something valuable to both sides: credibility. The spigot seems to be flowing only one way, as the PGA Tour has made it clear it doesn’t intend to welcome back any defectors whom it has indefinitely suspended. So until the tour offers some kind of lifeline to LIV players who might wish to return, it can only gauge its victories by what it retains.
Global Assets: Jon Rahm, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Viktor Hovland, Tom Kim, Hideki Matsuyama and Sungjae Im. We probably can assume considering his entrenched stance that Rory McIlroy has firmly picked his side in this fight. These others are going to be LIV CEO Greg Norman’s primary recruiting targets for his plan to establish a truly global alternative to the PGA and DP World tours. Each of them has repelled offers thus far, but everybody has a price they might not be able to refuse. Rahm, Fitzpatrick and Hovland would be crushing losses for Europe and could break the immediate future of the Ryder Cup. Kim, Im and Matsuyama are absolutely essential to the vitality of golf viewership in two of the most critical Asian markets: South Korea and Japan. LIV reportedly offered Matsuyama $400 million because as he goes, so goes all of Japan. The stakes with these established stars are huge and could define the end game.
Ranked Yanks: Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele. In June when the defections started, they already were the top-ranked Americans in the world, ahead of the first big domino to fall, Dustin Johnson. They are the front line of domestic defense for the PGA Tour, thus far a unified vanguard against LIV stateside incursion. Should any combination of these marquee pieces fall in line with the enemy, the cracks in the tour’s defenses may become too big to fix. They aren’t the only key Americans in need of safeguarding, but they are the collective finger in the proverbial dike.
Young Guns: Will Zalatoris, Sam Burns, Cameron Young, Robert MacIntyre, Guido Migliozzi, Cameron Davis, Rasmus and Nicolai Højgaard and Pierceson Coody. This group of twenty-somethings covers a broad range of established, emerging and potential stars, but it is another vital asset of the established tours that LIV covets. Let’s be honest: LIV has built itself off the name recognition from the bulk of its past-prime stars such as Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen and Henrik Stenson. Even some of its younger studs such as Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka have a lot of worn tread on them. Its longevity will rely on reinforcing itself with fresher legs such as Young and Burns who could build reputations by dominating LIV’s lesser competition the way incoming 50-year-olds do on the PGA Tour Champions. The tours hope their legacy narratives resonate, but can that continue to satisfy these hungry youngsters long term?
Good guys: Tony Finau, Rickie Fowler, Sahith Theegala, Max Homa and Tommy Fleetwood. Aside from Harold Varner III, Graeme McDowell and Charles Howell III, the Roman numeral circuit has not been very effective at enticing many likable players. LIV Golf is a veritable rogue’s gallery of golf “villains,” which seems to suit its combative brand but doesn’t add a lot from a public-relations standpoint. These players are worth their weight in sound bites and good will. Though Fowler may be struggling to regain his once elite footing, his popularity with young fans in particular remains a big draw on the PGA Tour and would turn some heads if he were to switch teams. Fans like to root for athletes whom they like, and as long as LIV remains largely unlikable per capita, it will be fighting to gain traction.
The Next Generation: Fred Biondi, Ludvig Åberg, Yuxin Lin, Austin Greaser, Sam Bennett, Travis Vick, Dylan Menante, Mateo Fernández de Oliveira, Barclay Brown and Ricky Castillo. The scariest role model in golf right now might be Eugenio López-Chacarra. The former Oklahoma State star was a seemingly sure thing for pro stardom when he suddenly jumped from the top of the PGA Tour University rankings directly into LIV Golf after it accepted his “outrageous” counteroffer. He won his fifth start, raking in $4.75 million last week in Bangkok to augment a financial level of security his former college mates still dream about. LIV has opened an easy path for unestablished young talents who opt to forgo the hard developmental road to PGA Tour success. López-Chacarra offers an enticing example to peers who might never try to prove themselves in golf’s long-standing meritocracy. The mainstream tours desperately need to find reasonable measures to welcome the next generation of superstars before they become a lost generation to LIV’s instant wealth generator.
This is the biggest battlefield now in golf – bigger even than pending litigation and wrangling over the Official World Golf Ranking. During the next few months, we’ll be able to judge who wins more territory before 2023 as the players who matter most pick their sides.
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