Golf Roundup: Johnson Jumps for LIV Debut With Questions Hanging for Pro Game

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With one week to go before LIV Golf’s first tournament, which will take place at the Centurion Club near London, the picture has gained some focus, although there are still many unknowns and idle curiosities, not the least of which is who will fill the final six spots in the 48-person field. While waiting for those names to surface (scheduled for Monday), here are other points to ponder.

Dustin Money: According to a report in The Telegraph, Dustin Johnson received £100 million ($126 million USD) to join LIV. That’s about half of the 37-year-old’s earnings to date, including both Tour prize money and endorsements according to Sportico estimates. Besides his massive upfront payday, Johnson will now participate in three-day team events paying $5 million to the winning team, $4 million to the individual winner and guaranteed minimum payouts of $120,000. As a sweetener, the Saudi circuit has no mandatory pro-am, which is notoriously unpopular, albeit largely unsaid, among players. It’s unclear what Johnson’s commitment is in exchange for the windfall. The Telegraph story adds that Greg Norman and LIV pursued Johnson aggressively because they needed a headliner after Phil Mickelson’s commitment waivered. If Mickelson does decide to join LIV, would he accept less than Johnson? Is there enough money in the budget for both? Probably, but we won’t know until Phil makes a decision.

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Intensity: Pro golf has always functioned with an “you eat what you kill” ethos. Players had to earn their status, their benefits and their livelihood. The LIV plan offers an opposing system—golf socialism compared to the Tour’s aggressively capitalist format. It raises questions about how competitive and interesting the action will be. Players who’ve cashed generational-wealth-sized checks to play in a team event with no cut may not conjure their meanest game faces. The setup screams exhibition, a sort of hit-and-giggle pro-am vibe at worst, but more likely something closer to the Champions tour, where a handful of the over-50 set go hard and the rest slap it around while signing autographs and telling stories about the old days. It makes for a pleasant retirement for those guys but not exactly compelling TV.

Not Feeling the Bern: The economic system comparison breaks down in one important way. The PGA Tour split off from the PGA of America in 1968 because touring players felt like their exploits were paying for an organization dedicated to teaching professionals. The Tour was founded by players and part of its mission has always been to create as many earning opportunities as possible, which is why there are about 230 Tour players and 45-plus tournaments in any given year. Maybe both those numbers are too high, but LIV is the opposite extreme: It wants to take its gobs of money and distribute it among only 48 players. Mickelson has been one of many clamoring for more for the stars, a golf version of the larger U.S. economy in which a growing percentage of the wealth accrues to a smaller percentage of the population.

The Majors: Will the big four tentpole events of men’s golf welcome the LIV crowd? Each is run by an organization independent of the PGA Tour: Augusta National (the Masters), the PGA of America (PGA Championship), the USGA (U.S. Open) and the R&A (British Open). In general, those groups have made vague comments about supporting the Tour and retaining the right to deny anyone entry for any reason, but none have outright said LIV participants will be banned. Any two of the four doing so would be colossal bucket of cold water on Greg Norman’s head. Getting an upfront signing bonus to play in cushy, guaranteed-money events is appealing if the game’s four most prestigious contests remain options, but less so if they are not.  In particular, Mickelson and Johnson are Masters winners, which earns them honorary Augusta National membership and a lifetime exemption to the tournament. Will their fellow members really ban them?

The LIV Schedule: Norman originally said LIV would intentionally create its schedule so that its players would be available for the majors, but that didn’t really pan out. The opening event takes place in London a week before the US Open in Boston, meaning LIVers will have to fly six hours Sunday night or Monday, and adjust to the time difference while playing catch up on practice rounds and scouting the course. The LIV crew then hauls to Portland, Ore., June 30-July 2 only to reverse course back to the U.K. for the Open Championship on July 14 in Scotland. That’s certainly doable but less than ideal.

Kevin Na: The 38-year-old who was born in South Korea but moved to U.S. when he was 8, has not drawn much attention for his LIV leap, but it’s almost as curious a move as Dustin Johnson’s. Na is a great example of the plumped-up middle class the post-Tiger Tour has enabled. He’s won only five times in his 18 years on the circuit but has earned $37.8 million in prize money and an undisclosed amount more in endorsements. And it’s not like he’s struggling. He’s already pocketed $1.15 million this season after taking home $3.6 million the previous year. Na has long been something of a maverick, skipping his senior year of high school and college to turn pro at 17, but depending on the size of the check he got up front, he seems to be giving up a lot.

Amateurs: Three prominent amateurs are set to play in London: Turk Pettit (2021 NCAA champ), James Piot (2021 US Amateur champ) and David Puig. Since they’re not Tour members, they have little to lose by signing up, especially since their most likely path to the Tour is rigorous. They have to parlay a limited number of sponsor exemptions over the rest of the season to finish in the top 125 in FedEx Cup points. If they fail to reach that total, they have to play in the Korn Ferry tour’s qualifying tournament (aka Q School) and finish in the top 45, to earn a spot on the Korn Ferry tour. Then they’d either have to win three times in a season to earn an immediate promotion or earn one of the 50 spots up for grabs. Skipping that minefield makes sense, but if they wanted to join the Tour in the future would they be allowed? It’s tempting to say no, but Norman has theorized that young players coming up, who don’t have an attachment to the Tour, will go for the money, diverting the game’s future stars to LIV. The Tour could undercut that by allowing such players to pocket some money, build something of a following, then migrate back to the mother ship.

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