ATLANTA – PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan stood adjacent the first tee at sweltering East Lake Golf Club looking a bit more weathered than he did just a year ago, just like a U.S. president after too many late nights in the Oval Office.
There was a pleasant smile and a proud nod as the week’s final group set off at the Tour Championship, but behind the relaxed demeanor was so much more.
When the Tour gathered in this leafy Atlanta suburb a year ago, Monahan talked about the value of the platform, growth and momentum. It was head down, full send.
The 12 months that followed have been defined by the most tumultuous year in professional golf history.
On the course the product delivered – from Scottie Scheffler’s breakthrough in the spring and his coronation at the Masters to Cam Smith’s emergence as a bona fide star – but the 2021-22 frame won’t be remembered for any of that.
Any reckoning from this season of discontent begins and ends with the unprecedented upheaval that LIV Golf has caused.
A year ago at East Lake, Monahan was asked about a “renegade tour” and his answer, in retrospect, was surprisingly vague.
“In life, you always have to be cognizant of, No. 1, there should be zero complacency to anything you do and No. 2, someone is always going to try and take, compete and take something away from you,” Monahan said at the time. “I've operated that way every day of my life.”
To be fair, it would have been hard to imagine the approaching storm.
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Things began to unravel in February at the Genesis Invitational when rumors started to build that LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed “renegade” led by Greg Norman, was poised to announce its first wave of defectors from the PGA Tour. On Thursday, just as play was getting underway at Riviera, a story was published on Firepitcollective.com about Phil Mickelson’s association with the startup league that included a damning quote.
“They’re scary motherf-----rs to get involved with,” Mickelson said of the Saudis. Lefty also accused the PGA Tour of “manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics” in the same interview.
Three days later Joaquin Niemann won by two strokes at Riviera and was rewarded with a hug from tournament host Tiger Woods.
Everything that followed would be framed by the LIV narrative.
On March 16, LIV Golf announced its inaugural eight-event series with $250 million in prize money. The announcement came just three days after Smith had been crowned The Players champion.
Two months after that (May 31) LIV unveiled the field for its first event in London, which included Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia. It was during Jack’s tournament, the Memorial, which was won by Billy Horschel, that the news cycle became dizzying. LIV announced the next day that Mickelson, who had been hidden away in a self-imposed timeout since his divisive interview, would also be joining the field in London.
“I am ready to come back to play the game I love but after 32 years this new path is a fresh start,” Mickelson said in a statement.
At the U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka pushed back after being asked his interest in joining LIV. “I think it kind of sucks you are all [the media] throwing this black cloud over the U.S. Open. It's one of my favorite events. I don't know why you guys keep doing that,” he said at Brookline, where Matt Fitzpatrick became the first Englishman in a decade to win the championship.
A week later, Koepka was added to the field of the second LIV event in Portland, Oregon.
The dog days belonged to Xander Schauffele. He won his second event of the season at the Travelers Championship and added another victory two weeks later at the Scottish Open. However, that event also couldn’t avoid the lengthening shadow of LIV Golf after a British court granted Ian Poulter and two other players, who had been suspended for playing LIV events, a stay that allowed them to participate in the co-sanctioned event.
The contentiousness only grew from there. On July 30, Henrik Stenson, who was named the European Ryder Cup captain in March, along with Jason Kokrak and Charles Howell III, were announced as LIV Golf's newest members. Two days later, Stenson was replaced as captain by Luke Donald.
Perhaps the seminal moment of the splintering season came on Aug. 3, when a group of 11 players, including Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour in U.S. District Court Northern District of California. The legal challenge escalated the split from business to personal for many.
“I hate what it's doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do,” McIlroy said. “It's going to be hard for me to stomach going to Wentworth [the DP World Tour event] in a couple of weeks' time and seeing 18 of them [LIV players] there. That just doesn't sit right with me.”
As the confrontation between players grew, the legal wrangling also heated up with a judge denying a request for a temporary restraining order for three LIV players just two days before the FedExCup playoffs began in Memphis. Will Zalatoris won the first post-season stop in a dramatic playoff for his first Tour title.
“What are they going to say now?” he yelled after holing a crucial putt on the 72nd hole. It was an ode to the Golden State Warriors as well as a fitting wrap for the 2021-22 rollercoaster.
Behind the scenes, the Tour spent the season trying to keep up. At the Travelers in June, the circuit announced a series of dramatic changes to its schedule and increased purses. By East Lake, however, there was another slate of changes and prize increases born from a players-only meeting led by McIlroy and Woods last week in Wilmington, Delaware.
Perhaps the game has reached a tipping point of supply and demand. The announcements that will come this week from LIV will be another blow for a circuit that has endured a staggering number of body shots. But with LIV fields currently capped at 48 players, it appears the two sides have reached a stalemate.
The passage of time on the PGA Tour is normally marked by birdies and bogeys, trophies and tragedy; but that changed in 2022. This contentious season was measured by litigation and lost relationships, tactical makeovers and Twitter trolling.
A season unlike any other ended Sunday with Monahan crowning McIlroy, the sentimental favorite having so emphatically embraced the role of Tour advocate, the FedExCup champion. Monahan would never admit it, but the commissioner was probably as relieved as anyone that it was finally over.