At the start of Sunday’s broadcast of the Canadian Open, CBS invited PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to discuss the Saudi-funded rival who debuted this week and poached some big names and others are expected to defect during the year.
The interview was pretty much a disaster for Monahan, who drew a good line – “Have you ever had to apologize for being a PGA Tour member?” — but offered little substance as to why players shouldn’t take the huge paydays offered by LIV Golf.
Instead, he should have let Rory McIlroy do the talking.
At the end of what has been a difficult week for the fractured professional golf community, the latest round of the Canadian Open offered the best argument as to why the PGA Tour is worth saving.
There were no gimmicks, no funky formats, no questions about where the money came from. It was just four hours of great golf with three of the best players in the world – McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau – throwing hay all over St. George’s Golf and Country Club outside Toronto while the former US Open and Olympic champion Justin Rose shot a scintillating 60 to finish tied for fourth place.
Outside of the majors, it was about as good as it gets for a regular week on the PGA Tour. And when McIlroy finished it with a birdie for a 62-and-two win, he threw down the gauntlet so powerfully it could be heard as far away as Riyadh.
“It’s a day I will remember for a long time,” McIlroy said on CBS. “Twenty-first PGA Tour victory. One more than anyone else. It gave me a little extra encouragement today and I’m glad I did.
That someone else would be Gregory John Norman, the former world No. 1 who is now running the show for the Saudis and using their open checkbook to bring the PGA Tour to its knees.
OPINION:Playing on golfers taking money from Saudis ignores the realities of a complicated world
THE GOLF CIVIL WAR:The PGA Tour is right to suspend golfers Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and LIV
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now to receive daily top sports headlines
Of today’s elite group of players, McIlroy has probably been the most outspoken defender on the PGA Tour. He also happens to be the best lawyer he could have: reliable, intellectually curious, insightful, and hugely popular. Beyond his ability to hit drivers and irons, McIlroy’s talent is that he is more of a human being than a golf robot. The way he naturally threw shade at Norman, who chose to be the leader of a reprehensible sportswashing operation, was the greatest gift he could have given golf that day.
And make no mistake, the PGA Tour absolutely needs to be defended this savagely right now in order to maintain its preeminence in the sport.
Sure, you can write off Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell as has-beens, Dustin Johnson as a vapid man of little intellect, and Patrick Reed as PGA Tour addition-by-subtraction. But with the hundreds of millions of guaranteed money that LIV offers to various players, somewhere there is a tipping point that resets the entire paradigm of professional golf.
He’s a real threat, and the PGA Tour needs a lot more from its commissioner than a CBS interview where he mocks LIV as exhibition golf and touts the purity of competition on his own tour. None of this moves the needle at all, but for some reason Monahan can’t bring himself to tell the truth here.
The PGA Tour was not created on Mount Sinai and handed down on tablets of stone. It’s a business, and in order to derive maximum value from it, it must be the exclusive home of the best players in the world.
Granted, there are weeks on the PGA Tour where the leaderboards aren’t particularly appealing, the venues are mediocre and there’s not much to draw in the public. But the reason golf courses across the continent want to host PGA Tour events and companies buy TV ads is because it’s the only place you’ll have a day like Sunday when great champions like McIlroy and Thomas fight to the end.
If the PGA Tour can’t offer that exclusivity, what does it really have? And if it allows its most valuable members to take Saudi money without repercussion, what incentive do they have to attend events like the Canadian Open or the John Deere Classic or the 3M Open?
Regardless of any moral issues the players might have regarding their partnership with the Saudi regime, this is the real problem with the Tour. How do you sell a nearly year-round program to sponsors, ticket buyers, and TV partners when the biggest draws prioritize LIV and the majors?
It’s the truth about why the PGA Tour can’t just allow players to participate in LIV and still retain their membership, and yet Monahan in his CBS interview couldn’t bring himself to expose it by these terms. Unfortunately, his argument about how competitive his tour is and the whimsical nature of the LIV product with its 54-hole tournaments and shotgun starts isn’t likely to move the needle at all for players who want to earn more money while working less.
In that regard, the PGA Tour doesn’t stand a chance here. If the players can justify being stooges of the Saudi government, it’s simply a better deal for them.
But it’s hard for Monahan to make the competition argument in a way that resonates. Only the best players can do this because they have determined that the PGA Tour is the place to show that they are the best in the world.
If the Tour needs to make changes in order to preserve that status, so be it. But as arguably the greatest talent of his generation, McIlroy’s voice carries a lot of weight. For him to win this week, in such an entertaining way, while shooting Norman and doubling his commitment to the PGA Tour, is the best thing that could have happened to Monahan.
Sometimes the product should speak for itself. This week, it absolutely is.