The battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf is only about money - and shame
In 1995, John Feinstein published “A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour,” an insider’s account of the 1994 PGA Tour season. The central cast of the book includes Zimbabwe’s Nick Price, the world’s top-ranked golfer at the time, and the man who led the money list on the 1994 tour.
The book adopts a head-shaking, almost tongue-clucking tone at the sum that Price earned that season, an otherworldly $1,499,927. It’s cast as almost too much money for a single golfer to make, a sum that would potentially deflate Price’s desire to not only compete, but to ever play golf again. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a little less than $3 million in 2022.
On the 2022 PGA Tour, 26 golfers earned more than $3 million for the season.
Look at the historical money list leaders, and the reason is fairly obvious. In 1997, Tiger Woods led the money list for the first time, earning just over $2 million. In 1999, the second time he did so, that figure was over $6.6 million, and in 2001 it was $9.1 million.
There’s only been one other time in PGA Tour history when players’ earning potential jumped in a similar way, and that too can be traced to larger-than-life figures: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer’s popularity, and Nicklaus’s dominance, paved the way for the tour to become the current year-round sponsorship bonanza that it’s become, rather than a collection of old tournaments that existed solely so Ben Hogan and Sam Snead could entertain gamblers by fighting to the death with two-irons in a green-side bunker.
There’s a reason that two of the tournaments that nobody wants to skip every year are Bay Hill (Palmer’s tournament) and the Memorial (Nicklaus’s tournament). Even today, everyone wants to pay their respects to the men who effectively built what exists today.
Woods may not be the type to start his own tournament, but I’m guessing he could, if he wanted to. He’s already become a venerated, jovial elder statesman on tour, which has come as an utter shock after the career he’s had. For so long, he came across as the aloof Terminator of the golf world, and his fall from the top was tabloid front-page stuff. Yet now he’s effectively the spokesman for the white-hat heroes in the golf world, the reasoned, senatorial voice that jokes around with all the young long-hitting whippersnappers that he helped to create.
He has become the new Arnie and Jack, in other words. If anything, it’s because the golf world recognizes how much it owes him. Even this week, his performance was the second blurb on any Masters summary - you knew who was leading, who was second, and what Tiger shot that day.
The Saudi Arabia-backed exhibition golf league, LIV Golf, is the pariah of golf. It’s not so much a competitor to the PGA Tour as an attempt to drain it. Nobody’s really suggested that the PGA Tour and LIV Golf should co-exist, or even that they’re both serving their own purposes, or that there’s any good reason for LIV Golf to exist at all. The entire idea reads more like the Duke Brothers from the movie “Trading Places” had made another bet: given fifteen or so corruptible golfers, plus all the money in the world, can they kill off the PGA Tour?
It’s not too hard to understand the mindset of the golfers who did take the soiled shilling and joined up with the new league. They get way more money, guaranteed, to play less golf. Go to any organization in the world and offer its people more guaranteed money for doing less, and you’ll get plenty of defectors. That they’re bearing the brunt of the bad press for this odd Saudi Arabian sportswashing attempt is funny, but not much more; for all the tough questions that Phil Mickelson gets about Saudi human rights abuses, I’m sure he still manages to sleep well on his golden pillow.
The PGA Tour has, mostly successfully, managed to cast itself as the distinguished alternative to this Billionaires’ Putt-Putt Carnival. In itself, this is amazing, given that the PGA Tour exists as a bunch of dudes playing golf so that rich guys will watch ads selling them luxury cars, expensive watches, and cloud-computing services.
And so, for all that we talk about the enmity between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, it’s not really about competition or dislike or any sort of personal animus between the players. It’s only about one thing: the belief that there’s only a certain amount of money in the golf world, and that anybody who’s taking it from LIV Golf and Saudi Arabia is trying to jump the line. This is not to ignore the evils of sportswashing or the human-rights record of the Saudi government, only to note that there are probably very few people involved on either side that care that much about either of those things.
Golf has seen its riches grow over the history of the PGA Tour, always based on seeing whether a few charismatic figures could overcome the massed remainders. But in order to keep the money flowing in, golf - the PGA Tour or otherwise - needs names that people know, not just faceless nobodies. Golf is always going to punish anybody who tries to leave the system that helped create it.
It was Arnie and Jack first, then it was Tiger. Perhaps Tom Kim is next. The money only flows as long as the names keep it rolling in.
LIV Golf has taken some of the names, in hopes of taking some of the money. It’s making things worse for everyone except the people who have already gotten paid - including the fans. It only seems fair that they should be repeatedly embarrassed, in return.