Professional golf appeared poised to end 2023 with the PGA Tour and LIV Golf in lockstep after two years of animosity, attrition, ill will and legal action. A framework agreement announced in June and was set for approval on Sunday aimed to conjoin two warring tours, along with the DP World (European) Tour.
The PGA Tour, DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund extended the self-imposed deadline for the new venture tentatively called PGA Tour Enterprises.
Whatever happens, questions will remain.
During the Dec. 16-17 PNC Championship in Orlando, several of the top golfers in recent decades spoke to the Orlando Sentinel about several topics surrounding the sport’s most fractious period of the modern era.
Is there enough audience and interest for two high-level tours to coexist?
PNC winner Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo were at the top of their games during the European Tour’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when Hall of Famers Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie were also among the world’s top players. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the PGA Tour had its share of stars and big events.
“We had a period at the end of the ‘80s we had 5 of the top 8 [ranked golfers],” Faldo, 66, said. “We were strong.”
Yet other than the biennial Ryder Cup the tours went about their business bereft of tension between them.
Saudi-financed LIV Golf’s emergence in late 2022 brought a different dynamic and competition for top golfers. Among the PGA Tour players who left to cash in are three of past five major champions (Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Cam Smith), top attraction Bryson DeChambeau, former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and living legend Phil Mickelson.
A niche sport with a limited dedicated audience outside the major championships now attempts to produce two appealing tours.
“The risk is the financial backing they have at LIV, they don’t need to be compelling,” former Tour star Jim Furyk said. “The PGA Tour has to be compelling. We have to be the premiere tour in the world to stay the same.”
During Langer’s prime, two tours thrived before Tiger Woods and Mickelson shifted the balance of power, marginalized the Euros and carried the sport to new heights of popularity.
“Is it good for the game of golf?” Langer, 66, said. “We’ll find out in 10 or 15 years.”
Faldo, an analyst for CBS from 2006-22, said the current model is unsustainable.
“We’re too thin between three tours: LIV, PGA Tour and Europe,” he said. “The ultimate solution is to have a world tour where you get 120 players traveling the world … playing about 20 events, plus the majors. There’s too much golf.
“But that’s a long way off. That would require serious organizing.”
Is commissioner Jay Monahan the man to lead the PGA Tour forward?
Monahan’s missteps began when he refused to a phone call from LIV organizers in December 2022 and continued as he presented the framework agreement to players in October 2023 having failed to get their input. In the time between, the 54-year-old stepped away for nearly two months to seek medical care for anxiety amid a cascade of criticism and calls for his resignation.
“He’s trying to do the best he can,” Furyk said. “Maybe going back and take that phone the first time they came in and having talks early on, not being combative now looking back in hindsight may have been the way to go.”
Furyk calls Monahan a friend who belongs to the same country club.
“It’s hard for me to step out of that and be a little unbiased,” Furyk said.
The decision will come down to a vote from the PGA Tour Policy Board. The 12-man group includes six players including Woods, who recently joined.
Former world No. 1 David Duval has not been a regular active Tour player since 2014, but became a Golf Channel analyst in 2015 paid for his opinions. The 52-year-old does not mince words regarding Monahan.
“I love Jay,” Duval said “He’s been an excellent commissioner. But the way it’s transpired, I struggle even as a friend to see how he continues to lead the Tour. They certainly at least have to explore other possibilities.
“If they don’t do that, I think the membership is going to be pretty upset.”
Will signature events undercut the sport?
Furyk cheered fellow Jacksonville resident David Lingmerth’s unexpected win at the 2015 Memorial Tournament, where Jack Nickalus greeted him behind the 18th green.
Matt Every’s back-to-back wins (2014-15) at the Arnold Palmer Invitational did not drive TV ratings like Woods’ eight wins at Bay Hill. But the Orlando community could get behind victories by a former UF star who used to attend the event as a kid from Daytona Beach.
These feel-good stories will be a thing of the past in 2024 as so-called signature events will reduce the field to 70-to-80 of the top performers from the previous and current seasons.
“In both cases, I bet those guys would not have gotten into those fields in signature events,” Furyk said of Lingmerth and Every. “I like the access. They still have to beat the best guys in the world. If you do, good for you.”
Smaller fields are good for the top players who pushed for change because of $25 million purses offered by LIV to 48-player fields. With the 2023 arrival of signature events, the API raised the purse from $12 million to $20 million for 120 players.
“The LIV Tour is pushing the PGA Tour to make some changes,” said Matt Kuchar, a Winter Park native and winner of the 2013 Memorial. “If you were a player on Tour this year, you had full-field events with giant purses. This was a great year to be on Tour. This coming year, if you’re inside that Top-50, it stands to be an incredible year.”
The tournaments themselves will be unrecognizable to traditionalists.
The Arnie, Memorial and Genesis still will have a 36-hole cut, but the other five, including the storied Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Heritage, will have none. Kuchar, 45, wonders whether the format will endure.
“I don’t see this being the final rendition of what the PGA Tour looks like,” he said.
How will lower-profile tournaments fare?
The elimination of the 54-tournament wraparound season leaves 39 official events on the 2024 calendar, with many also offering less-appealing fields and purses.
Two legs of the four-tournament Florida Swing have already suffered in recent years. The Honda Classic lost the longest-standing sponsor on Tour. The Feb. 29-March 3 event is now funded by the information technology company Cognizant. Tampa’s Valspar Championship moved to the week after the Players Championship, the Tour’s showcase event and often followed by a week off for top players.
Ticket sales, TV ratings and charitable donations could suffer.
“With the dynamics happening in the professional world, I understand some of it,” Duval said. “As long as it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the other events that are so vital to the communities they’re in you can see the importance of it.”
Faldo wonders how long sponsors will stay on board.
“It’s not good value,” he said. “You want the best players and you’re not going to get the best players. That’s what they got to look after. The whole thing is going to collapse.”
What’s the impact of Rahm’s recent exodus to LIV?
Rahm stood by the PGA Tour until LIV made the 29-year-old Spaniard an offer he couldn’t refuse. Langer, who turned pro at age 15 in Germany, does not begrudge Rahm, who’s endured ample criticism.
“Every individual’s decision,” Langer said “We’re all professionals. We do it for a living. We’re not doing it for fun; fun comes with it with winning and being successful. I don’t like the LIV Tour, but I understand some of the guys who take the money.”
Faldo called the move, “hypocritical” and “disappointing,” given Rahm’s public support for the PGA Tour. The bigger concern is a potential ripple effect.
“He could do a lot of damage because he’s a star on the PGA Tour,” Faldo said. “A lot of sponsors are going to say if they lose a couple of more we’ve had enough of this, we’re not going to get the field we want to get. He could really start a really disruptive time.”