TULSA, OKLAHOMA | Under an overcast Oklahoma sky, disruption hung in the breezy air at the PGA Championship on Tuesday.
It’s been there for a while now, building like a summer thunderstorm and one day soon, likely when the LIV Golf Invitational Series finally debuts near London in early June, conjecture and controversy will give way to something more chaotically concrete.
This PGA Championship, set on a gloriously redone golf course, eventually will become about the shots being played beginning just past sunrise Thursday, but getting there requires a wider view than the golf itself.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson is conspicuous by his absence, a choice he made but perhaps with the encouragement and counsel of others.
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods is back where he won the 2007 PGA Championship in searing heat, a different player with a different body this time around.
Like so many times before, Woods and Mickelson find themselves as the centers of attention while, not unusually, standing in distinctly different corners.
“I have my viewpoint on how I see the game of golf. … I just think that what Jack and Arnold have done in starting the tour and breaking away from the PGA of America and creating our tour in ’68 or ’69, somewhere in there, I just think there’s a legacy to that.” – Tiger Woods
While Mickelson is in a form of professional exile for comments he made and actions he’s taken regarding both the Saudi-backed LIV Golf initiative and the PGA Tour, Woods used his Tuesday media session to double down on his commitment to the PGA Tour.
He didn’t so much draw a line in the Oklahoma soil as use a backhoe to dig a trench defining his position in his support of a tour he redefined with his brilliance.
“He has his opinion on where he sees the game of golf going,” Woods said. “I have my viewpoint on how I see the game of golf, and I’ve supported the tour and my foundation has run events on the tour for a number of years. I just think that what Jack and Arnold have done in starting the tour and breaking away from the PGA of America and creating our tour in ’68 or ’69, somewhere in there, I just think there’s a legacy to that.
“I’ve been playing out here for a couple of years over decades, and I think there’s a legacy to it. I still think that the tour has so much to offer, so much opportunity. I understand different viewpoints, but I believe in legacies.
“I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There’s plenty of money out here. The tour is growing. But it’s just like any other sport. It’s like tennis. You have to go out there and earn it. You’ve got to go out there and play for it. We have the opportunity to go ahead and do it. It’s just not guaranteed up front.”
Not exactly a wish-you-were-here message from Woods, who said he has not reached out to Mickelson since he stepped away from the game in February. Somewhere PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was smiling. Winning Woods’ endorsement, particularly one that pointed out all the things the LIV Golf concept lacks, is spiritual and practical gold.
It doesn’t mean the LIV Golf threat is diminished, only that Woods’ voice reinforces what Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and others have continued to say.
On Monday, Rickie Fowler – one of the most popular players over the last decade – left open the possibility he might join the Greg Norman-backed enterprise. Sitting at 125th in FedEx Cup points and with a full PGA Tour exemption that expires after this season, Fowler may be right to keep his options open, and it was a reminder of how the potential structure of professional golf may be in flux.
Fowler hasn’t been a competitive factor in recent months, but he retains a magnetism few players have. He could be an interesting test case.
Seth Waugh, CEO of the PGA of America, has been involved in discussions about the perceived threat from the Saudi-funded group to what he calls the ecosystem of the game. Some have likened it to a hostile-takeover attempt, though Norman’s group has tried to position itself as being additive to the pro game.
As this PGA Championship comes to life, the status quo endures. It could be different this time next year at Oak Hill Country Club.
“I think we’ve got a lot of time between now and Oak Hill, and I think we all have to sort of take a deep breath, see how it plays out, and what the ecosystem looks like at that point,” Waugh said. “We’re a fan of the current ecosystem and world golf ranking system and everything else that goes into creating the best field in golf.
“I don’t know what it’ll look like next year. We don’t think this is good for the game, and we are supportive of that ecosystem.”
Asked if the PGA of America has language in its bylaws that could keep players who participate in LIV Golf events out of the PGA Championship, Waugh said, “Not specifically, but our bylaws do say that you have to be a recognized member of a recognized tour in order to be a PGA member somewhere, and therefore eligible to play.”
Where LIV Golf participants fit in that profile remains to be seen.
As a member of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board, McIlroy has found himself more deeply involved in the matter than he expected. It’s not something that’s likely to be resolved soon. Court cases could last for years.
“Honestly I’m rooting for it all to be over,” McIlroy said. “I’m just so sick of talking about it. I’ve made my decision, and I know where I want to play, and I’m not standing in anyone’s way, and I’m not saying that they shouldn’t go over there and play if that’s what they feel is right for them, then 100 percent they should go and do it.
“I’m certainly not wanting to stand in anyone’s way, but I think the sooner it all happens and the sooner everything shakes out, I think we can all just go back to not talking about it and doing what we want to do.”
That opportunity arrives when the sun comes up Thursday at Southern Hills.
To see tee times for Thursday’s opening round of the PGA Championship, click HERE.
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