Brooklyn, Mass. Since last week, when several golfers revealed a split in the professional men’s game by refusing the established PGA Tour to join the Saudi-backed LIV junior circuit, the sport has been waiting for its power brokers.
The biggest prizes in golf, the events that shape legacies, produce the highest sponsorship dollars and are featured on each player’s calendar, are the major tournaments: the Masters, US Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. But none of these four events is governed by a professional tour, be it old or new. They are overseen by four distinct entities sometimes described as the Four Families of Golf (insert organized crime joke here).
These organizations are now key players in the battle over the future of men’s professional golf. When the PGA Tour responded last week with the suspension of 17 players who had allied themselves with LIV Golf, the looming question was whether the major tournament leaders from Augusta National Golf Club (The Masters), the American Golf Association (US Open), would choose the R&A (British Open) and US PGA (PGA Championship) aside. Since they have long been allied with recognized tours in the US and Europe, will they ignore the alternative LIV Golf Invitational series and exclude their players from their events?
On Wednesday, there was a partial answer and it couldn’t comfort famous players like Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, who argued that they could still play the major tournaments while accepting hundreds of millions of dollars handed out by LIV Golf. The main shareholder is the Private Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
While all LIV Golf-affiliated players who have already qualified for this week’s US Open were welcomed at the Country Club outside Boston, USGA chief executive Mike Wan said Wednesday that his organization will study ways it can make it more difficult for them. LIV Golf players to compete in this event in the future.
Whan was asked if he could see a situation in which LIV Golf players would find it “harder and harder” to reach the US Open.
He answered, “Yes.”
Asked for more details, Wan said, “Can I foresee a day? Yes, I could have predicted a day.”
Wan warned that the USA agency would not act recklessly, but would undoubtedly re-evaluate its qualification criteria.
“The question was, can you imagine a day when it would be difficult for some people to do different things to participate in the US Open?” He said. “I can.”
There were other statements from Whan that didn’t sound like an endorsement for the LIV Golf Invitational Series, which held its inaugural tournament last weekend outside London and still lacks the support of the majority of the distinguished and distinguished PGA Tour players. But the breakaway circuit has surprisingly attracted some notable players, most of whom declared their loyalty to the US-based PGA Tour just weeks or days ago.
“I am sad about what is happening in the pro game,” Wan said. He continued, “I’ve heard that it’s good for the game. At least from my outside point of view at the moment, it seems to be good for a few people playing the game, but I’m struggling with figuring out how that’s good for the game.”
Whan, who was a long-time commissioner to the LPGA until taking over as USGA last summer, emphasized that it is essential that both golf leaders act coherently when evaluating the role LIV Golf will play.
“We have to see what this becomes – if this is an exhibition or a tour?” He said. “I’ve said this many times, I’ve seen a lot of things starting out in the game, probably nothing with that much hype or that much funding behind it, but I’ve also seen a lot of those things that aren’t with us after a couple of years.
“One event does not change the way I think about the future of sport.”
Notably, when Whan was asked if the PGA Tour’s suspensions would have caught his attention when the USGA was reassessing its standards for the US open slots in the future, Whan quickly replied, “They’ve already done so. It brought us to our attention for this tournament.”
Whan’s comments come a month after Seth Waugh, chief executive of the PGA of America, stood firmly behind the PGA Tour, calling it part of what he referred to as the golf ecosystem.
Speaking of the PGA Championship, Waugh said, “Our bylaws state that you must be a recognized member of a recognized tour in order to be a PGA member at a place and therefore be eligible to play.”
LIV Golf Series Quick Guide
New series. The controversial new Saudi-funded LIV Golf Series held its first event in June. But what is it? Who plays it? What is all the hustle and how do you watch it? Here’s what you need to know:
“I don’t know if it’s a league, it’s not a league at this point – but the league structure is somewhat flawed,” Wu said, addressing the LIV Golf Tour.
So where does that leave the other two major tournaments and their potential responses to the LIV Golf Tour, which will play five events in the US this year starting June 30 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, outside of Portland, Oregon.
As with this week’s US Open, British Open leaders may find it difficult to ban players who have already qualified for this year’s event, which begins on July 14 in Saint Petersburg. Andrews, Scotland, and will feature Mickelson and Johnson. This means that the next major tournament, and possibly the first, to be forced into a PGA Tour-LIV golf showdown will be the Masters Tournament.
In April, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley was asked if players who would join a competing PGA Tour tournament would be invited to play in the Masters Tournament. “Our job is always to act in the best interest of the game in whatever form it may take,” Ridley said. “I think golf is in a good place now.”
Over the years, Augusta National has been honored for very traditional values and has been reluctant to change. No doubt Ridley would have heard what Wan said on Wednesday, if the two hadn’t actually discussed the issue over the phone.
On the eve of the 122nd US Open, will Wan’s comments slow players out of the PGA Tour, especially after the British Open?
hard to say. It will continue to be particularly attractive to the demographic that has been most receptive to LIV Golf’s cash temptations: aging players over their prime.
But if there was a message in Whan’s responses to the 13 questions he had on Wednesday about the introduction of LIV Golf, or snooping on his sport, it was that he didn’t view it as business as usual. He could have been uncommitted to the new round and waited for his time. More importantly, he suggested instead that he wasn’t good at golf.
That was an expressive remark from one of the most powerful heads of the major golf families’ families.