PGA Tour takes biggest hit yet with Cam Smith, but avoids mass exodus

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What has been rumored for months became official Tuesday, with LIV Golf announcing that it had signed six new players, including reigning Open and Players champion Cameron Smith and world No. 19 Joaquin Niemann.

In what is expected to be the final wave of defections this year – a 48-man field only has so many spots to fill – Smith and Niemann cashed their FedExCup bonuses totaling $1.59 million before bolting for the rival league. They’ll make their debuts in the fourth LIV event this week outside Boston.

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Smith’s departure, in particular, is a significant loss for the Tour and a stunning coup for LIV, which to this point has mostly stockpiled past-their-prime talents, post-injury headliners and misfits.

Smith is a game-changer shattering that mold.

At No. 2 in the world, he is easily the highest-ranked player to leave the Tour (and only top-15 player). He’s currently the defending champion at two of the five biggest stroke-play events of the year. And he’s 29, squarely in the prime of his career, an international star coming off a breakout season.

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Smith is expected to speak to the media Wednesday afternoon at The International, and it’ll be fascinating to see how he frames his decision to leave other than a Brinks truck being backed up to his Ponte Vedra home. People close to him have suggested that a key factor in his decision was that he’s homesick, and a lighter tournament load would allow Smith, who moved to the U.S. in 2015, to spend at least three months in Australia with his family. Competitively, at least, his place is secure: By virtue of his victory at St. Andrews, he is exempt into the majors for at least the next five years, assuming that organizers don’t overhaul their qualifying criteria to exclude LIV players.

Niemann’s decision is understandable, too: At 23, he’s one of the youngest full-time Tour members, and both his mentor (Sergio Garcia) and best friend (Carlos Ortiz) have already joined LIV, with fellow Chilean Mito Pereira reportedly on his way following next month’s Presidents Cup. By reaching the Tour Championship, Niemann has also qualified for at least three of the four majors next year.

The rest of the defectors (Harold Varner III, Marc Leishman, Cameron Tringale and Anirban Lahiri) have combined for one individual Tour title in the past four years and won’t cause much despair within Tour headquarters. They’re precisely the players that Rory McIlroy said the Tour was trying to marginalize with its new structural changes. “We’re trying to build a Tour for the future – young, ambitious players that want to be the best players in the game,” he said.

The Tour avoided a nightmare scenario last week at the Tour Championship, where Smith began the event six shots off the lead and could have secured the $18 million bonus, posed for pictures with the glittering trophy and then bailed. Instead, still bothered by a lingering hip injury, he dropped to 20th and didn’t factor. When he finished his final round Sunday at East Lake, he signed autographs but declined to speak to the media.

What does Smith's departure mean for PGA Tour?

In his stead, Smith’s fellow competitors tried to contextualize what his absence would mean to the Tour landscape. Unlike some of the pricklier personalities who have been lured to LIV, Smith is extremely well-liked by his peers, his chill vibe the perfect complement to his sporty game and upbeat pace of play. McIlroy, who played with Smith in the opening round, said that his decision to leave “doesn’t make [him] a bad person. Does it make me disagree with them? Of course it does. But I disagree with a lot of people that I like and love.”

Also a staunch Tour defender, Billy Horschel was paired with Smith in what turned out to be his final Tour round. “If he happens to go,” Horschel said Sunday, “he would be the biggest loss in my mind because you look at his age and what he’s accomplished. Look at the person he is – he’s a great kid and represents himself very well and he does it the right way. If he happens to go, it would be the biggest loss because I’m biased – he’s one of my best friends.”

Adam Scott plays several practice rounds a year with Smith and joked that his exit at least means “it’s one less good player that I have to beat.” Smith and Niemann’s departures may signify a stark departure for a league that has mostly appealed to players whose best days were behind them (and thus more easily seduced by nine-figure paydays), but Scott said he ultimately wasn’t surprised.

“It could appeal to anybody,” Scott said of LIV. “As much as Cam is my good mate, I’d hate to say that I know him that well. He might feel like it’s a really good thing for him. And if that’s where he ends up, perfect – I’m happy for him to be in a great position. And it must be the case if that’s the outcome for him.

“I think maybe it’s because he’s the youngest, and in his prime, but there’s always firsts and LIV isn’t going anywhere. It’s going to be around, and it’s going to evolve, and we’ll just keep seeing what happens.”

Cameron Young was 'very interested' in LIV Golf, but will remain with PGA Tour

The cumulative effect of the Tour losses has been noticeable. Twelve of the past 26 majors have been won by LIV members. Half of the Tour’s top 10 needle-movers (by its own metrics) are gone. “It’s no doubt that the fields out here have gotten weaker, missing those guys,” Patrick Cantlay said recently. “That’s just one of the unfortunate circumstances that happens when you have somewhat of a fractured sport.”

But the Tour won the news cycle last week, first with the schedule enhancements and then with the wildly popular McIlroy claiming the FedExCup, and there’s still plenty of momentum. None of the signed players announced Tuesday was surprising – they’d been linked for months, and reported for weeks – and the Tour received positive news with Hideki Matsuyama turning down an astronomical offer to stay with the Tour, and Cameron Young, despite being “very interested” in LIV, remaining committed after deciding that he couldn’t risk the competitive repercussions. The Tour’s young, entertaining, successful core remains intact – and next year’s schedule will bring them together even more often.

That dynamic should help ease the burden of tournament directors who now will have to find new ways to promote their Tour event missing the defending champion. But considering the threat of a mass exodus this summer, at least their problem has been contained.