Only 25 men in the history of the PGA Tour have earned more money playing its tournaments than Brooks Koepka, although way more than 70 have won more events. That’s a product of inflation in the world economy and growth of professional golf.
A dollar doesn’t buy what it could when Sam Snead was winning 10 times as often, but put enough of them together and it’s obviously possible to buy Koepka.
He became the latest player whose career essentially was invented by the PGA Tour to depart for more money and less golf, pressure and prestige on the new LIV Golf series. Were it not for the Tour, Koepka likely would be a club pro somewhere in his home state of Florida, teaching rich people how to cure their slices and maybe winning some hefty bets by giving victims eight shots a side and shredding them, anyway. The Tour gave him a stage where he could become fabulously wealthy even while winning just 5 percent of his starts.
He is not the first established player to walk away from the Tour – with someone else carrying his bag, of course – and he will not be the last. As the greed continues its rampage, though, understand how possible it is that professional golf will take years to recover from the damage the LIV-for-me players are inflicting.
This is not an incursion that can be accommodated, because LIV Golf is not seeking accommodation. The PGA Tour has no choice but to fight using every device available. That began with suspensions for players choosing to join LIV, but it must escalate to entry to the major championships and the Ryder Cup.
Currently entry to the Masters is granted to PGA Tour winners for the previous year and to the top 50 players on the World Golf Ranking. That makes it essential for the Tour to convince the OWGR governing board not to include LIV results in their compilation. The PGA Tour is represented on that board, as is the European Tour, both of which face the threat of losing talent. LIV players who’ve won the Masters in the past still will get their spots, but that’s only a handful of players.
The U.S. Open can’t be closed to LIV players and still go by its current name, but the USGA can concoct a list of exemptions that essentially forces those guys to join the club pros, elite amateurs and other low-handicap dreamers to enter through its unforgiving local qualifying process, which shaves a field of more than 8,000 aspirants to just 65 survivors.
Enjoy your Monday at the local country club, Mr. Mickelson.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, most notably when CART’s Indy Car series was enjoying tremendous success and popularity in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Indianapolis 500 was getting nearly a third of the television audience annually and the series for which it served as the Super Bowl was drawing capacity crowds, a variety of manufacturers to build the cars and the best drivers in the world.
Then Tony George, who was in charge of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, chose to pursue a more powerful place in the sport. When the people running the CART series resisted, he started his own. In less than a decade, the Indy 500 audience shrunk to a third of its prior size. NASCAR’s popularity surged while Indy Car’s plummeted.
We are only now, nearly 30 years later, seeing Indy Car racing return to a position of prominence in the sporting world.
And yes, that absolutely can happen to professional golf.
This isn’t a sport in which allegiances are as obvious and natural as a young person from Green Bay becoming a lifelong Packers fan. Occasionally a pro golfer might grow up in one’s particular region and become a favorite for that reason, but more often those affiliations are grown through years of watching a player develop into someone worth following and cheering. How does that develop in a series of used-to-bes and never-weres and the assorted star being paid large guarantees to play in tournaments that have no history or inherent prestige?
If the Saudis were going to pick a sport to rearrange on a global scale, they chose wisely in spending exorbitantly on pro golfers. If you can find loyalty among them, it’s usually to a lucky putter, and even that bond is at risk if the player rims out a key 4-footer or gets offered a big check to try another manufacturer’s latest. Phil Mickelson, for instance, has shown us on so many occasions who he really is, and now it’s impossible to ignore that reality.
There aren’t enough like Rory McIlroy, who explained his commitment to the PGA Tour in terms that are easy for his peers to understand, but also to ignore.
"Because it's the right thing to do," McIlroy said last week at the U.S. Open. "The PGA Tour was created by people. And Tour players that came before us -- the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer -- they created something and worked hard for something, and I'd just hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they've put in just come out to be nothing."
The PGA Tour made Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau and so many others. Retaining the power to create another generation of absurdly wealthy and reasonably accomplished golfers will demand that leadership abandon etiquette and bring fighting to golf.