‘This feels dirty. This doesn’t feel like golf.’ How a traditional sport just got turned upside down

Jun 14, 2022

  • Kevin Van Valkenburg

    Close

    ESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
    • Born and raised in Western Montana
    • Spent 11 years as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun
  • Mark Schlabach

    Close

    ESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Phil Mickelson, alone, didn’t break professional golf into two pieces.

A lot of cracks appeared, some taking years to form, to shape the current moment. But history will likely view Mickelson as a catalyst in the rupture. His ideas, his words, his hubris, his quest to maximize his value are at the center of the split. We won’t know whether he is the villain of this story — or the visionary — for years to come.

He emerged from his four months in exile in all black and sporting a beard for the first time in his adult life, suddenly looking like a professional wrestler who left his longtime employer for a rival circuit. But there has been no brashness or arrogance in this version of Mickelson. As emotions swirl, he seems to be doing his best not to inflame them further.

Get ESPN+ here | Download the app

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Mickelson said Monday at his U.S. Open news conference, when asked if he believes he has been unfairly criticized for joining LIV Golf. “I understand that it brings out a lot of strong emotions for a lot of people. I respect the way they may or may not feel about it.”

What is clear is that golf has entered a new era. It’s possible we’ll only see all the best players compete together at the majors, like this week’s U.S. Open at The Country Club just outside Boston. The PGA Tour will no longer be able to say it boasts the biggest purses and all the best players on a weekly basis, something that has been true for roughly 30 years. LIV Golf, which plans to invest billions through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund over the next few years, isn’t going away.

A tug of war for hearts and minds — and bank accounts — has broken out, and most professional golfers will have to choose sides. It played out in real time over the past few days, with Mickelson on one side at the LIV Golf event in London and Rory McIlroy on the other at the RBC Canadian Open, each representing something larger than himself. Mickelson delivered the first volley of the weekend, showing up in London to be the face of an event that handed out the biggest purse in the history of tournament golf. McIlroy volleyed back, winning the Canadian Open the same weekend, outdueling Justin Thomas and Tony Finau, firing an emotional 62 in front of a boisterous crowd at the tour’s oldest event. Even McIlroy admitted it felt like a rebuttal, especially since it nudged him past LIV CEO Greg Norman on the list of PGA Tour career wins with 21.

play

1:38

Justin Thomas discusses multiple players leaving the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf.

“I had extra motivation of what’s going on across the pond,” McIlroy said. “The guy that’s spearheading that tour has 20 wins on the PGA Tour and I was tied with him, and I wanted to get one ahead of him. And I did. So that was really cool for me, just a little sense of pride on that one.”

It felt like a window into the future, two ideologies playing out in separate cities each week. Thomas confessed that he couldn’t sleep last week because he was agonizing over the recent LIV Golf departures.

“It just was a big week for the tour,” Thomas said. “I tossed and turned and lost a lot of sleep thinking about what could potentially happen. I grew up my entire life wanting to play the PGA Tour, wanting to break records, make history, play in Presidents Cups, play in Ryder Cups, and the fact that things like that could potentially get hurt because of some of the people that are leaving and if more go, it’s just sad. It makes me sad. I’ve grown up my entire life wanting to do that, and I don’t want to do anything else. The people who have gone, they’re entitled to make that decision. Not that I agree with it, but everything’s got a price, I guess.”

In all likelihood, the lines are now drawn. Will players gravitate toward figures like Mickelson and Dustin Johnson? Or McIlroy and Thomas?

“You can’t have your cake and eat it. You’ve got to choose from one tour to another,” said Gary Player, who won 24 times on the PGA Tour during his career and now serves as a spokesman for Golf Saudi, the owners of LIV Golf. “If they so desire to play the LIV tour, that is their choice and their freedom, but you can’t have both tours. It’s not going to be allowed.”

As an attorney who represents players competing on the PGA Tour and in the LIV Golf series added, “Free agency has come to golf and exposed the PGA Tour’s economic model as a restrictive web of regulations that deprive professional golfers of the fair value of their services. The PGA Tour, which was formed to advance the interests of professional golfers, is trying to punish them for playing golf. The effort is largely symbolic; the players their commissioner is attacking had already spoken loud and clear with their decision to leave the PGA Tour and join LIV. Clearly, [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] can’t accept that free agency has come to golf.”

In an interview with CBS Sports during the final round of the Canadian Open on Sunday, Monahan didn’t back down from his position that players couldn’t compete on both the PGA Tour and in the LIV Golf series.

“Why do they need us so badly?” Monahan said. “Because those players have chosen to sign multiyear lucrative contracts to play in a series of exhibition matches against the same players over and over again. You look at that versus what we see here today and that’s why they need us so badly. You’ve got true, pure competition. The best players in the world are here at the RBC Canadian Open, with millions of fans watching, and in this game, it’s true and pure competition that creates the profile in the presence of the world’s greatest players.

“And that’s why they need us. That’s what we do. But we’re not going to allow players to free ride off of our loyal members, the best players in the world.”

Mickelson doesn’t quite see it that way. His 45 PGA Tour wins are tied for the eighth most in history, trailing only Tiger Woods among active players. Players earn lifetime membership on the PGA Tour when they achieve 20 career victories, and Mickelson doesn’t feel he should have to surrender it, even though he is currently suspended by the tour.

“My preference is to be able to choose which path I’d like, one or the other or both,” Mickelson said. “I gave as much back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf as I could throughout my 30 years here. And through my accomplishments on the course, I’ve earned a lifetime membership. I intend to keep that, then choose going forward which events to play or not.”

Could the two tours eventually coexist, with players bouncing back and forth between them? That is what Norman, a two-time winner of The Open, says he would prefer.

“We’re 100 percent additive to any golf tour,” Norman said in an interview with ESPN in May. “I’ve always said no tour owns the game of golf. When you look at the part of the PGA Tour’s stated tax-exempt purpose, it’s ‘to promote the common interest of professional tournament golfers.’ Well, that’s what LIV is all about. That’s what the PGA Tour should be all about. That’s what every tour should be about. We are doing that in common interest. It’s not like we’re out there trying to completely disrupt the tour, damage the tour, implode the tour. We’re not doing that.”

How much control a nonprofit has over members will likely be at the heart of legal challenges by players like Mickelson who have not resigned their membership.

“I think this gets to the issue of whether they’re independent contractors or not,” said Craig Seebald, a partner and antitrust expert at the Vinson & Elkins law firm. “If they’re truly independent contractors, it seems like this rule’s pretty harsh in the sense that it seems kind of contrary to be an independent contractor [and] to have to go ask somebody whether you could play somewhere else. And I think that the argument would be that the tour was using that rule to [prevent] a competitive league from starting. I think that’s really the crux of the issue, and that’s why I think these suspensions were so interesting.”

Also at issue is whether the PGA Tour is behaving like a traditional monopoly.

“We’ve got two basic antitrust issues, and I think both come in play,” Seebald said. “You’ve got our laws against monopolization; that’s the classic lawsuit. For instance, right now, the government has suits against Facebook and Google that are monopolization cases. The old Microsoft case, that’s a monopolization case. And so what we worry about is the tour is definitely the most dominant tour in the world, basically the only thing going here in the United States. I think they have to worry about: Are they a monopolist of offering golf tournaments here in the United States?”

Seebald said players such as Mickelson — as well as others like Ian Poulter, Hudson Swafford and Talor Gooch who haven’t resigned from the tour but plan to continue playing LIV Golf events — could ask for an injunction that would lift the tour suspension until the legal cases are resolved. There is just no guarantee a judge would grant one.

“It’s hard to get those preliminary injunctions,” Seebald said. “Trust cases go on for six, eight, 10 years. It’s just not a quick weapon to do it. Maybe you get a TRO [temporary restraining order], but I don’t think that’s going to be a guaranteed thing. I think it would be a victory for the [PGA Tour] if they just had this thing draw out for as long as possible and LIV kind of dies on the vine. If 10 years down the road you end up with some kind of jury verdict against you, LIV is dead. That’s kind of a victory at the end of the day. If you’re the tour, you want to just wait them out as long as possible.”

That uncertainty — and the potential for being drawn into a lengthy and potentially expensive legal fight — is one reason a handful of LIV Golf members decided to resign from the PGA Tour shortly before the first LIV Golf event.

“I didn’t want to get into any legal battles,” said Sergio Garcia, an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour and Masters champion. “I’m very happy to be here for many reasons. It’s going to allow me to do what I love, which is playing golf. It’s going to allow me to see my family more, spend more time with my kids, 4 [years old] and 2, spend as much time as I can, and I make a good living doing it. For me it’s a win-win. I’m excited for what’s coming.”

Garcia, Johnson, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Branden Grace were all among those who said in London they didn’t have any interest in returning to the PGA Tour, even if the option became available. They are focused on LIV Golf from now on.

“To be quite honest, I don’t really care what they do,” Grace said when asked how he felt about being suspended. “We kind of knew from the start they said they were going to ban the guys, and they kind of stuck to their guns a little bit. So I resigned my membership.”

Grace isn’t one of the players who received a huge signing bonus from LIV Golf, but he said he received enough assurance from his sponsors that they would stick with him. So he was confident he could take the leap.

“Callaway said they will see, they are sticking with the guys now and see how it plays out,” Grace said. “[Watch company] Audemars Piguet, they have been great, and they are sticking with our guys. And [software company] Qualtrics is the same. He’s one of my main sponsors. He understands that this is what I’m doing, there’s a lot of security that comes with it, and, you know, for myself and my family.”

With golf’s four majors — the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and The Open — so far signaling they won’t keep LIV Golf members out as long as they can qualify, and with equipment companies staying mostly neutral, there are plenty of players wondering what the PGA Tour can do to keep LIV Golf from picking off more players. Woods, McIlroy and Thomas have been vocal in their support of the tour, but privately, there are tour players wondering what Monahan can do to reassure his membership.

“Golf has always been so tidy,” one tour player said in an interview with ESPN. “It’s always been so neat. The best players competed with the best players on the best tour. As a pure capitalist, you think any competition is good. But this just feels different. This feels dirty. It doesn’t feel like golf.

“It’s not about playing against the best players, it’s not about competition, it’s not about a team format. It’s solely about money. The tour has to combat that. Maybe there’s not enough guys left who care about the spirit of the game. Maybe the tour has to combat it with more money. I don’t know how the tour can survive like that. I don’t see a good solution for anyone.”

The player, who has won multiple times on the tour, said moral issues do factor into the decision of whether to take money from LIV Golf. Many in the game have questioned whether LIV Golf is doing any of this to promote golf around the world.

“I find all of that to be pretty disingenuous,” the player said. “Instead of skating around it, just call it what it is. Just say, ‘If I take the money, I don’t care about other countries and other people, I care about my career and my family, and anyone who hasn’t been offered this kind of money can’t relate.’ I think the tour has to just keep doing what it is doing and weather the storm. I do think this thing fizzles out over time. I think the only way the Saudi government cleanses itself is by becoming one that cares about human rights. Buying players to play on teams in funny tournaments isn’t going to work. They’re going to lose interest.”

His message to those who defected to LIV Golf?

“Leave if you want to leave, but don’t be spiteful against the organization that tried to make you as much money as they could,” he said.

Joe Ogilvie — who played on the tour from 1999 to 2014 — was once rumored to be a candidate for the PGA Tour commissioner position before Monahan was chosen. Ogilvie now runs an investment advisory firm, Wallace Capital Management, and has been following the chaos of the past few months with considerable interest, eager to see what changes it might inspire the tour to make. All options need to be on the table.

“This is the first real time in golf that the players have all the power,” Ogilvie said. “It’s the first time in golf the players actually got together. They could force change. Under no circumstances have they ever forced change. I don’t know who’s going to make changes. Is it going to be Jay Monahan? Or will it be Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas? Tiger Woods had power, but if these guys can figure out how to channel that power, they’ll have the most power they’ve had in history.”

There might be panic in the PGA Tour offices at the moment, but it would be wrong to count out the tour just yet.

“Oil prices aren’t going to be $130 a barrel forever,” Ogilvie said. “The LIV tour can be around. I think the team concept, even though people were bashing it, I think that was iteration one. They’ll have many more iterations, they’ll probably innovate and it will probably be interesting. The PGA Tour hasn’t been really good at innovating. But they’ve got a lot of smart people around them, a lot of fans and a lot of corporate sponsors. They’re just not going to sit there and let Saudi Arabia outspend them.”

LIV Golf has made it clear, however, that it has plenty of money to spend. It isn’t a traditional start-up sports league that will eventually need to turn a profit. If professional golf becomes something where money decides the winner, it will only benefit it.

“We are not going anywhere,” Norman said. “We are in this for the long haul. All these rumors out there, like LIV Golf Investments is bankrupt and can’t meet their salaries for their executives, is a bunch of baloney. We are here for decades. We’re not here for one year; we’re here for decades.”