The Players Championship: LIV Golf haunts PGA Tour as Smith sits out title defence

By Sports Desk March 08, 2023

The Floridian fairways and greens of Sawgrass are in a splendid state ahead of the Players Championship, but the same can hardly be said for professional golf as a whole.

Riven by conflict and division, the turbulence of the last year is reflected by who is absent this week. The defending champion, Cameron Smith, for starters.

A defector to LIV Golf, drawn in by a staggering signing-on fee of reportedly $100million, Smith traded his parking spot and right to practise at Sawgrass, his local course, for the Saudi bounty.

It would be difficult for anybody to turn down such riches, so rather than sit in judgement of the 29-year-old Australian it is a timely moment to look at where the sport finds itself, with the PGA Tour battling to retain talent.

Notorious LIV? Mo money, mo problems

Is the LIV tour really the black-hearted enemy to golf that some would portray it as? It obviously would say not, and its tour chiefs, headed by CEO Greg Norman, have mounted passionate defences of the splinter series that has put up huge sums to draw in many of the world's elite.

Golf can be a short-lived career for stars at the highest level, so young players may see an opportunity to make quick money and instantly set themselves up for life.

Those at the opposite end, who have made phenomenal money already but are perhaps seeing diminishing returns, have been handed opportunities to cash in on their big profiles for a late-career pay day. Look to the likes of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood in this regard.

Would those in the middle be quite so tempted? The PGA Tour would hope they might show loyalty after being well served, so it will have particularly hurt to see the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau make the leap across.

Norman has argued LIV is "unlocking potential", claiming in a News Nation interview in January that golf "has been stuck in a box for 53 years". 

Australian Norman also took criticism for declaring that "we've all made mistakes", when he defended the Saudi regime last year, responding to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The fact LIV is bankrolled by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) has sparked suggestions golf is being manipulated for sportswashing purposes, and those claims are not going away.

How has the PGA Tour responded?

When the weapon in a fight is money, you have to find more of it to keep the troops happy.

The PGA Tour has hiked up prize funds at eight key events this season. Among these is The Players, where it has leapt from $20m last year to a $25m purse this week.

That announcement came last June. As recently as last week, though, the PGA Tour confirmed it would introduce designated events with limited fields and no cuts from 2024, in what it hopes is a compelling move to fend off more LIV defections.

Tour commissioner Jay Monahan described the eight 'no-cut' events for 2024 as "can't-miss tournaments", with players able to earn places through the regular tour season.

LIV Golf reacted to the announcement by stating on Twitter: "Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Congratulations PGA Tour. Welcome to the future."

The PGA Tour insists there are striking differences, with the opportunity for players to earn spots through year-round competition, rather than being guaranteed a place week-in, week-out.

Tiger Woods has spoken of this being a "very turbulent" period for golf, but he remains committed to the PGA Tour, with the 47-year-old American said to have turned down an offer of around $700m to $800m.

Rory McIlroy is firmly opposed to LIV taking over, too, and the PGA Tour has kept a host of household names – the likes of Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay – while others have slipped away.

Looking at the no-cut events, McIlroy has said major sponsors "want a guarantee that the stars are there", and blue-chip investment will be essential if the PGA Tour is to keep raising prize pots.

"If that's what needs to happen, then that's what happens," the Northern Irishman added.

What next? Will others jump ship?

The LIV tour has expanded to become a 14-event season, running from last month's opening tournament in Mayakoba, Mexico, through to the November finale in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Eight of those events will take place in the United States, including the March 17-20 Tucson tournament.

It has a US TV deal now, with CW Network. The major sport networks have not picked it up yet, but this marks a significant stepping stone.

By next year, it may even be awarding ranking points, although that is far from certain to come to pass.

There will be LIV players allowed to compete at the Masters next month, and they are set to be able to compete at all four majors, while remaining exiled from the PGA Tour and Europe's DP World Tour, and quite possibly the Ryder Cup.

Chile's Mito Pereira and Colombian Sebastian Munoz have moved across from the PGA Tour this year, and the question is whether any more notable names will also be tempted.

Cantlay, who was rumoured to be considering a switch to LIV last season, said the no-cut PGA Tour step would "make the Tour stronger and put an emphasis on those weeks".

What about this week? It's a mess, isn't it?

Smith's absence is a tough one for the Players Championship to swallow. Organisers have been unable to herald the champion's return, and Smith would sooner be involved than on the outside, but he made his choice and this is the consequence.

In fact, last year's top three are all LIV-ing it up these days, with Anirban Lahiri and Paul Casey consequently not involved this week either.

Smith lives just down the road, and he told Golf.com he would "definitely be watching on TV", hinting he could even turn up to watch.

"I grew up my whole childhood watching the event and yeah I'd love to get out there," Smith said.

"I don't know how it would kind of be received, but getting out there and watching, walking around in the crowd, might be pretty funny."

In a serious, big-bucks business, there would be a sense of pantomime to that happening, and it seems unlikely Smith will roll up. But then this all seemed unlikely two years ago, and here we are.

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    Rory McIlroy hit five birdies as he opened the Cognizant Classic in Florida with a four-under-par 67.

    A bogey on the 17th was the only blemish on McIlroy’s card as he finished three strokes off the pace on a day of favourable conditions at PGA National.

    American Chad Ramey and South Korea’s SH Kim shared the opening-day lead with seven-under-par 64s – one clear of a group which included England’s David Skinns.

    “It was so benign,” said McIlroy. “You’re not going to get this course much easier.”

    Skinns, the world number 278 and without a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour, had a putt on his last hole for a seventh birdie and a share of the lead.

    Ireland’s Shane Lowry was alongside McIlroy on four-under-par, part of a large group which also includes Sweden’s Alex Noren and France’s Victor Perez – the best placed of the final two groups who were unable to complete the final hole due to darkness.

    England’s Harry Hall and Ben Taylor, Scotland’s Martin Laird and Austrian Ryder Cup star Sepp Straka were among an even larger group on three-under-par, which included American Daniel Berger who has recently returned to the tour after a 19-month injury lay-off.

    Among those a short further back were Robert MacIntyre, who was among those yet to finish, and Justin Rose, whose 69 was highlighted by a par on the 13th after his tee shot came to rest against a mesh out of bounds fence.

  • Rory McIlroy hints there is chance he could join LIV Golf Rory McIlroy hints there is chance he could join LIV Golf

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    McIlroy took a strident position against the big-money Saudi venture, which tempted a host of top names with lavish paydays and disrupted the established order of the PGA and European Tours.

    But the world number two – who even claimed last summer that he would “rather retire” than become a LIV rebel – has softened his stance in recent months as Europe Ryder Cup team-mates Jon Rahm and Tyrell Hatton have made the switch from the PGA Tour.

    McIlroy’s former agent Chubby Chandler has claimed the Northern Irishman could make a shock move to LIV Golf – and the four-time major champion did not completely dismiss the idea ahead of the Cognizant Classic in Palm Beach Gardens.

    Chandler put a potential switch at 10 per cent and, asked at a pre-tournament press conference whether he would put a percentage on him joining LIV Golf, McIlroy replied: “Somewhere in the middle maybe. Who knows?

    “I think he’s writing a book, so there is that. I spoke to Chubby, I might have seen him in the Middle East at the start of the year.

    “Never know. He might know a few things. Who knows?”

    McIlroy began his 2024 campaign by finishing second to Tommy Fleetwood at the Dubai Invitational and then winning the Dubai Desert Classic for a record fourth time.

    But it has not been plain sailing for the 34-year-old since returning to the PGA Tour this month.

    McIlroy finished tied 66th at the rain-ruined AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and had a share for 24th at the Genesis Invitational.

    “I feel like Pebble, the weather disrupted it and the courses were super soft,” said Florida resident McIlroy, who held off Tiger Woods at this event in 2012 to win and claim the world number one spot for the first time.

    “I won the pro-am portion, so I guess it wasn’t all bad.

    “And then Riv (Riviera Country Club) was pretty good. I made a mess of 15 and 16 on the first day but apart from that, I felt like I played some pretty good golf.

    “I feel like my game is in pretty good shape. You know, it’s nice to stay at home this week and feel a little more I guess relaxed in the surroundings.”

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    “I can’t sit here and say that the last 10 seasons haven’t been successful because I haven’t won a major.

    “But at the same time, I recognize that whenever all is said and done I’m going to be judged on those tournaments a lot.

    “Hopefully among other things as well but, yeah, winning is always good. The more wins you can get the better.”

  • Mel Reid named among four Europe vice-captains for Solheim Cup Mel Reid named among four Europe vice-captains for Solheim Cup

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    Dame Laura Davies, Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist and Norwegian Caroline Martens were all part of the set-up for last year’s clash against the United States in Andalusia, which saw Europe retain the trophy after a thrilling 14-14 tie.

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    Pettersen feels she has pulled together a strong support group for when Europe face the US again at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia from September 13 to 15.

    “With just over six months to go until the competition, I am thrilled to be able to name my backroom team for the 2024 Solheim Cup,” said Pettersen.

    “After last year’s success, why change a winning team? I am excited to be able to have the same team by my side, but also with the great addition of Mel.

    “It was a very natural choice for me and the rest of the team to bring Mel in alongside us in a vice-captaincy role. She has an immense passion and head for the Solheim Cup.

    “She has the experience both from her time as a player and also being a vice-captain during the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles. She is all over this task and we’re excited for her to join us.”

    Reid, a six-time winner on the Ladies European Tour, is relishing the challenges ahead.

    “Everyone knows how much the Solheim Cup means to me and how much I love being part of it and Team Europe. It brings out passion and shows the best of what golf has to offer,” the 36-year-old said.

    “Being a vice-captain back in 2019 gave me a different perspective and it made me hungrier to be on the Solheim Cup team in 2021. It was what I needed at the time, and it was a huge honour to do that.

    “What the team did in Spain last year was amazing and I am excited to be able to join Suzann, Caroline, Laura and Anna on this journey as we prepare to go for more history at the 2024 Solheim Cup in the US.”

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