PGA Tour chief insists Players Championship remains ‘best field in golf’ despite LIV defections

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan speaks during a press conference prior to THE PLAYERS Championship
Jay Monahan mounted a staunch defence of the Players Championship, which will take place without big-name players who have switched from the PGA Tour to LIV Golf - Getty Images/Jared C. Tilton

Jay Monahan has defended the PGA Tour retaining the controversial tagline of “the best field in golf” here at the Players Championship, despite the absence of three of the last five major winners because of the ongoing LIV Golf split.

Indeed, in his hour-long state of the game address at this flagship event on Tuesday, the PGA Tour commissioner went yet further and suggested that the PGA Tour has “never been in a stronger position”.

And when pressed on the apparent absurdity of that statement – what with world No 3 Jon Rahm having recently jumped ship to join Brooks Koepka, Cam Smith and other big names including Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson in the Saudi-funded league – the American was bullish.

“We are here at the week of [the] Players, and you’ve got 144 players competing and they’re the greatest players in the world, and this is the greatest tour in the world,” he said. “It is the greatest tour in the world… that is a constant.”

The tour’s PR department annually hails the Sawgrass feature-piece as boasting the “best field”, with statisticians pointing out that because of the qualifying criteria of the four majors, the strength runs deeper at this $25 million event.

Purely as regards to world rankings, this remains true, but the detractors will claim that is largely because the systems are skewed towards the US circuit, with LIV Golf unrecognised and having no access to points. And those critics of the format are not just on LIV.

Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick has turned down Greg Norman on a few occasions, but he readily acknowledges the flaws in the rankings format. “I don’t think the world rankings are a true representation of the golf game at the minute,” the world No 8 said last week. “I don’t really look at them or pay attention to them anymore. I just don’t think they’re right,”

There is no question that the Players – once trumpeted as “the fifth major” – has been weakened by the sport’s civil war, with even Brandel Chamblee, the former PGA Tour winner turned arch LIV critic on the Golf Channel, admitting he has “mild disappointment that they’re not here”.

However, Chamblee does not believe it has affected the standing of this event. “I don’t think that it detracts from the prestige of this tournament in any substantive way,” he said.

That is plainly a ridiculous and illogical point of view – Rahm and Koepka are the reigning Masters and USPGA champions respectively and Smith won the 2022 Open – and one that Monahan holds. In public anyway.

PGA Tour continue merger talks with Saudis

The American continues to talk with the Saudi sovereign wealth fund with a view to unifying the sport and claimed that last year’s $3 billion investment from the Strategic Sports Group – a conglomerate of US sports teams owners fronted by the Liverpool FC owners – has “accelerated” the negotiations.

“It was important for SSG and it was important for the tour to engage directly with the Public Investment Fund prior to finalising the deal [in January], which is why I joined principals from SSG on a trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with Yasir [Al-Rumayyan, the PIF governor and LIV chairman],” Monahan said.

“There’s a mutual respect there that I think is helpful towards ultimately getting a deal done, and I think it is that level of discussion that has helped accelerate the conversations.”

Monahan declined to discuss details of the negotiations, which will include a pathway back to the PGA Tour for the LIV rebels who have been banned.

But he insisted: “I do believe that negotiating a deal with PIF is the best outcome. It would be in the best interest of the game and ultimately would be in the best interest of the tour. That’s the spirit with which we approach the conversations and the negotiations, and I think that that goes both ways.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 3 months with unlimited access to our award-winning website, exclusive app, money-saving offers and more.