Monday Scramble: LIV’s league debut underwhelms; the majors have spoken
Chris Kirk breaks his winless drought, LIV kicks off its second season, the major organizations all announce their intentions and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:
An unlikely duel broke out Sunday at the Honda Classic between Chris Kirk and Eric Cole, giving what had been a nondescript PGA Tour event a dramatic conclusion.
Therein lies the beauty of these non-designated events – it’s a spot for the dreamers, the resurgent, the rising talents. As sports fans, it's easy to invest in their stories as they try to alter their career trajectories.
To wit, the two leading protagonists at PGA National had helluva good back stories: the smooth-swinging Kirk was trying to win for the first time in eight years, his life turned upside down a few years ago while battling depression and alcohol abuse; Cole, meanwhile, is a 34-year-old rookie and mini-tour legend who was looking for a career-changing day in just his 15th-career Tour start.
It was Kirk who prevailed – barely – for his fifth Tour title, but it was a wild ride throughout. From the jump, he was locked in a spirited sparring match with Cole, and it continued all the way through the 72nd hole.
With the title one pure, full swing away, Kirk, who almost exclusively plays a draw, tried to bash his fairway wood into the middle of the green, but he pushed it slightly. His ball didn’t carry, ricocheting off the rocks and landing near a floating Honda SUV in the pond. It could have been a fatal mistake – he had all of Palm Beach County to the left of the green, where he would have gotten relief from the massive grandstands – but he was bailed out when Cole couldn’t get up-and-down from the left side, setting up a playoff.
In overtime, Kirk made amends: After laying up from the trees, he stuffed his lob-wedge shot to a couple of inches. In the mix for the first time in his Tour career, Cole had certainly looked the part of a bona fide closer, going nearly perfect from inside 20 feet. But needing an 11-footer to extend the playoff, his birdie putt caught the left edge and cruelly spun out.
The Cole family couldn’t believe this putt didn’t go down @TheHondaClassic. pic.twitter.com/msFHNp1XAM
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 27, 2023
Stoic all day, Kirk finally let loose. It had been 179 starts and 2,836 days since his last Tour victory – and yet it probably felt like two lifetimes.
Four years ago, Kirk took a leave of absence from the Tour. He was in need of help, having finally grown tired of hiding that he was an alcoholic. (This story, from 2020, highlights his demons and path toward redemption.) He decided that he needed to get straight – for his life, for his family, for his career.
“I owe everything that I have in my entire life to my sobriety,” Kirk said Sunday night. “I wouldn’t be doing this for a living anymore. I probably wouldn’t have the family that I have currently anymore. I came really close to losing everything that I cared about.”
Kirk pulled through, with the help of his family, and after the win, he struggled to find the right words to contextualize his journey.
“It’s something that’s constantly on my mind,” he said, “so it’s pretty easy for me to see that winning the Honda Classic is kind of a bonus when literally every good thing I have in my life I owe to that.”
And now, at age 37, his golf is as good as ever.
Consecutive top-3 finishes at the Sony Open and American Express helped Kirk believe that he could win again on Tour, and he even made the eyebrow-raising decision to skip the Genesis (and its $20 million purse) because he believed he had a better chance to win the Honda.
He was right.
Now a five-time Tour winner with an upcoming date at the Masters, the celebration this time will be markedly different for Kirk. Last year, he toasted fellow Georgia alum Sepp Straka’s breakthrough win at the Honda by drowning a case of Diet Cokes in the trophy and then taking a few swigs.
“I’ll probably do the same,” Kirk said.
The sweet taste of victory.
LIV’s first full league season kicked off at a familiar venue, Mayakoba, which was a longtime PGA Tour host before switching teams. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a Tour veteran who nabbed the win in the season-opening event, with Charles Howell III blitzing the field to win by four shots individually. The 43-year-old now has one victory in six-career LIV starts, which follows an underrated Tour career that included more than 450 made cuts and $42 million in earnings. Not once did Howell lose his card, making him one of the most consistent players of his era. On a LIV circuit full of misfits and rabble-rousers, his quiet professionalism stands out.
Charles Howell III claims victory in Mayakoba 🏆#LIVGolf @crushers_gc pic.twitter.com/fKdZOBAaQl
— LIV Golf (@livgolf_league) February 26, 2023
Especially since the LIV opener brought much of the same manufactured energy as in its beta season. There was on-site music, familiar talking points from the players, more declarations of disruption and revolution from CEO Greg Norman. For now, the most interesting part of the league model remains the ancillary stuff: The team rosters and the transfer market; the defection rumors and the threat of demotion at the end of the year; the dramas playing out in courtrooms and conference rooms.
The actual tournament competition? That remains the least compelling aspect, and apparently millions of sports fans agree – the ratings for the first CW broadcast were abysmal, even when strategically put up against what was easily the weakest PGA Tour event of the year. The product now has to stand on its own merits, and this was an unsteady start.
LIV’s drawbacks can’t immediately be remedied, because they’re part of the upstart league’s DNA. There are no stakes, no consequences, no substantive storylines. There is no upward mobility, no context to a player's performance, no career milestones to achieve. It’s a closed shop: the same 48 players in 13 stroke-play tournaments, all of equal importance, competing for nothing but pride and a boatload of cash, devoid of any meaning or significance.
League officials eagerly flaunt how much they’re playing for, and yet that doesn't really resonate with the audience when these guys have already signed up for massive signing bonuses. It creates the perception that all they want is more, more, more. It’s like rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio to finally find true love.
Maybe, one day, LIV will catch on and rival the Tour, the 4Aces and Smash and the Crushers becoming golf's version of the Yankees or the Lakers or the Cowboys. But that could take another five to 10 years. It remains to be seen whether the Saudi backers, now entangled in the U.S. judicial system and keen to turn a profit in Year 2, have the patience to find out.
The majors have spoken: There will be no LIV player ban.
Though all expressed their disapproval at the current fractured state, Augusta National, the PGA of America, USGA and R&A all decided that it’s best not to pick sides in the ongoing war between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf.
The majors’ imperative is to stage the best events possible, and so it makes sense that they’re inviting nearly all of the top players – regardless of the tours on which they play.
At least that’ll be the case this year.
Now, though, comes the interesting part: The major organizations’ qualification criteria could be tweaked in 2024, what with their reliance on the top 50-60 in the world ranking. Yes, LIV headliners like Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson will still be eligible to compete by virtue of their recent major victories, but the same won’t be true for the majority of the breakaway league members. With LIV tournaments unlikely to receive world-ranking points for the next several months, if not longer, then those players’ OWGR will plummet and put them on the outside looking in for the 2024 majors.
Surely, those players factored that possibility into their decisions. No one (at least publicly) has expressed regret. But it’ll be fascinating to see if the majors create some sort of avenue for those players to qualify for the game’s biggest events, or if they simply shrug and shut them out by pointing to their longstanding criteria.
For now, the majors have punted the issue for a year, allowing them to reassess the landscape in early 2024.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Knocking Down the Door: Lilia Vu. It seemed like only a matter of time before Vu broke through for her first LPGA title, after racking up a trio of top-3 finishes last season. All it took was an 8-under 64 Sunday to come from six shots behind at the Honda Thailand event, denying young, talented Thais Natthakritta Vongtaveelap and Atthaya Thitikul who were trying to win in front of the partisan crowd. Vu is a player worth rooting for: She was a former star at UCLA but had a brutal rookie season on the LPGA in 2019, missing all but one cut and earning less than $4,000. After a few years spent apprenticing on the mini-tours, she’s now an LPGA winner, a top-15 player in the world and a likely contributor for the U.S. Solheim Cup team. Good stuff.
Not My Honda: Low scores. It was one of the most benign weather weeks at PGA National in recent memory, and the boys lit it up – Kirk’s 14-under winning total was the lowest 72-hole score since the event moved to PGA National in 2007. Couple that with a few other changes to the course (removed bunkers, a few new bail-out areas), and it’s clear that, sadly, some of the teeth has been taken out of the Golden Bear’s penal design. At least the same won't be true for Bay Hill this week – the wind is supposed to howl.
Keep It Rollin’: Ryan Gerard. The former North Carolina product Monday-qualified into the Honda and then parlayed that into a huge week, taking solo fourth (the best finish by a Monday Q since Doc Redman in 2019) and earning his way into this week’s Puerto Rico Open. Gerard is also well on his way to earning special temporary status on Tour, which would allow him to receive unlimited sponsor exemptions for the rest of the season.
The Death of Irony: Sergio Garcia. The most petulant player of the last quarter century said that Rory McIlroy was “lacking maturity” after ending his long friendship with the Spaniard last summer because of the LIV drama. No, really – Sergio called someone else immature. And apparently said it with a straight face! Big picture, it only grows the divide between the establishment and the LIV rebels, especially if there’s a minority that wants to see someone like Garcia (the all-time Ryder Cup points leader) on the Ryder Cup team this fall if he’s in form. We may have to add "peacemaker" to Luke Donald's roles this year.
One Option Left: Tiger Woods. It was highly unlikely to happen, of course, but Woods is not in the field this week at Bay Hill, where he has won eight times but now will represent the only one of the top 20 in the Player Impact Program who will skip the fourth designated event of the season. Next week’s Players is a far more likely option for a final pre-Masters tuneup (even if it's only a 25-50% chance). TPC Sawgrass is a stress-free walk, and the Tour’s biggest star could give the Tour’s flagship event a massive boost with his presence. It's the 10-year anniversary of his second Players title, the one punctuated with an all-time club twirl and F-bomb on 18. Speaking of Tiger ...
Streak Intact: Excel Sports. The powerhouse agency that represents Woods still does not have a single LIV client, after agent Mark Steinberg dumped Thomas Pieters following the Belgian’s surprise U-turn to LIV. As Pieters told the Telegraph, the deal came together in a matter of days, after Hudson Swafford opted to undergo season-ending hip surgery and Bubba Watson’s squad needed a quick replacement. Pieters, ranked inside the top 40 in the world, said that he was never going to play full-time again on the PGA Tour and wanted to take care of his young family. Fair enough. Getting dropped by his reps might seem like a petty move, but there isn’t much use for an agent after a player bolts for LIV – he’s signing away everything to the Saudi-backed league and his team captain.
'Bout Time: Butch Harmon. In the latest batch of World Golf Hall of Fame nominees – a group that includes Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk and Dottie Pepper – there is one name who stands out as long overdue: Butch. The swing coach GOAT, Harmon has coached everyone from Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson to Greg Norman, helping each to perform at the peak of their powers. If Harmon doesn’t get in the Hall, we riot.
So obviously I am biased here. My dad Butch Harmon is a finalist for the 2024 class of the World Golf Hall of Fame. IMO, I believe it would be hard to find someone who has given more to the game. He has sacrificed the majority of his life to help so many achieve their dreams. pic.twitter.com/2RY1fntyDK
— Claude Harmon III (@claudeharmonIII) February 24, 2023
Fun While It Lasted: Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau rivalry. The spicy story of the 2021 season, the Brooks-Bryson feud is officially squashed, Koepka said, adding that he and DeChambeau talk nearly every day as LIV captains. Drama sells, but apparently everything gets smoothed over after a couple of $100M signing bonuses?
Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Sungjae Im. After a tidy start to the new year, Im has skidded to consecutive finishes outside the top 40. This one at the Honda was particularly surprising, given not just the weak field he had to beat but also because of his history at PGA National, which included a win in 2020 and a tie for eighth the following year. This time, he looked lost on the greens, ranking 74th out of 80 players who made the cut. Sigh.