ATLANTA — The conversation happened two days after Cameron Smith charged into Rory McIlroy’s lengthening catalog of letdowns.
First, McIlroy recounted this week, he wanted to congratulate Smith for capturing the claret jug at July’s British Open, ruining McIlroy’s own Sunday on the Old Course at St. Andrews. But with rumors rife that Smith would defect to LIV Golf, the breakaway series financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, McIlroy also wanted to make a case for the PGA Tour to Smith, the world’s second-ranked golfer.
“Guys that are thinking one way or another, honestly, I don’t care if they leave or not,” McIlroy said at the Tour Championship in Atlanta. “It’s not going to make a difference to me. But I would at least like people to make a decision that is completely informed and basically know, ‘This is what’s coming down the pipeline, this is what you may be leaving behind.’”
Smith may indeed leave the PGA Tour behind: He has not denied a report in The Telegraph, the London newspaper, that he will start playing with LIV as soon as next week in exchange for at least $100 million. The last stretch of the PGA Tour season, though, has shown how, with the sport splitting into bitter camps, certain players have assumed starring roles in the effort to stabilize the establishment ranks.
The campaign’s anchors have plainly been Tiger Woods, who flew to Delaware last week to meet with players, and McIlroy, who wound up paired with Smith for the first two Tour Championship rounds. But others have lent support; this week in Atlanta, for instance, Jordan Spieth said he intended to be “as useful as I’m wanted and as behind the scenes as I’m wanted.”
The top players who are among the tour’s remaining stalwarts — other leading figures like Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson have aligned themselves with LIV — are almost assuredly acting for a complex mix of reasons.
There are financial explanations, of course, because a PGA Tour stocked with a greater share of the world’s finest players makes its product far more appealing and far more lucrative, for its organizers and its athletes alike. Some players harbor a measure of disdain for LIV Golf’s patron. And, even by the brooding standards of 2022, it is too cynical to discount players when they complain that LIV’s 54-hole, no-cut events, with shotgun starts, are putting a modern blemish on the ancient game they have spent decades trying to conquer.
Whatever the players’ motives, their response is coming into greater focus as the tour moves beyond finger-wagging and suspensions. The blended strategy is unlikely to end the exodus, but it could curb it.
The plans emerged alongside the Tour Championship, the finale of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, at Atlanta’s stately East Lake Golf Club, where a 29-man field is driving, chipping and putting in pursuit of the $18 million prize that will go to the winner. (Although the nuances and rigors of the competitions make for an inexact comparisons, Scottie Scheffler, who arrived in Atlanta at the top of the playoff standings, earned $2.7 million for his April victory in Georgia’s other golf mainstay, the Masters Tournament.)
But at the end of a season marked more than any other by such open flashes of betrayal and power, appeals to tradition and the allure of money, the ritual talk of the tour’s future is not automatically a plaudit-laden sideshow. Instead, it has become a showcase for the flotilla of life rafts that the PGA Tour and its allies are deploying.
Beyond any peer pressure, there will be an avalanche of cash, with a dozen tour competitions next season designated as “elevated events” that will offer purses averaging $20 million each. Moreover, the tour’s Player Impact Program, which debuted last year and relies on metrics like mentions of a player in the news media and internet searches, will play a far larger role in determining compensation and fortifying tournament fields.
McIlroy suggested that the new model, which is expected to more or less promise the presence of elite, popular players at a wider range of tournaments, would strengthen the tour by offering clearer assurances of who fans — and sponsors — could expect to see in tee boxes everywhere from Hawaii to Orlando, Fla.
“I think if you’re trying to sell a product to TV and to sponsors and to try to get as many eyeballs on professional golf as possible, you need to at least let people know what they’re tuning in for,” said McIlroy, seeming as much a corporate pitchman as a player at some points this week. “When I tune into a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, I expect to see Tom Brady throw a football. When I tune into a Formula 1 race, I expect to see Lewis Hamilton in a car.”
Tour executives are also dangling other rewards, like guaranteed payments to players of $500,000 for a season and a pool of $100 million — up from $50 million — that will be divvied up based on the impact program rankings.
And McIlroy and Woods are also backing what Mike McCarley, the chief executive of their shared venture, described as “a tech-infused team competition” that they expect will feature televised Monday night matches, beginning in 2024. McIlroy and Woods both intend to compete in some of the events, which the company said will be played in a custom arena and “combine a data-rich virtual course with a state-of-the-art short game complex.” (Setting aside decorum or any PGA Tour dynamics, it is not hard to imagine why the men did not announce this particular endeavor at the Old Course last month.)
The events, McCarley and McIlroy said, will be “complementary” to the PGA Tour and have been in development for about two years. Now they amount to another lifeline.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that golf, of all sports, is reinforcing the notion that patience is a virtue, and the possibility of swift forgiveness does not appear to be available for now. Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, pointedly said that he would not be instantly willing to welcome defectors back into the fold.
“They’ve joined the LIV Golf Series and they’ve made that commitment,” Monahan said. “For most of them, they’ve made multiyear commitments. As I’ve been clear throughout, every player has a choice, and I respect their choice, but they’ve made it. We’ve made ours. We’re going to continue to focus on the things that we control and get stronger and stronger.”
Whether that will bear out remains to be seen, and those ambitions could take a quick hit with another wave of defections.
But at least for the moment, some players and some newfound nimbleness have an old order looking a little less bedraggled and besieged.