Column: Golf’s season of discontent ends, but more to come

ATLANTA (AP) — Golf’s season of discontent reaches its official stopping point this weekend at the Tour Championship.

Predicting where the sport goes from here is sort of like trying to hole a shot from the fairway.

The PGA Tour was woefully slow in reacting to the challenge from upstart, Saudi-backed LIV Golf. When it finally mustered a defense on the historic grounds of East Lake Golf Club, it seemed nothing more than a bunch of warmed-over ideas pulled straight from rebel tour’s playbook.

Mainly, it comes down to this: The top PGA Tour players will commit to taking part in a series of tournaments with heightened importance beginning in 2023, and they’ll all be cashing some enormous paychecks for their trouble.

Sound familiar?

The leader of LIV Golf sure thought so. Greg Norman quickly jumped on social media to gloat over the PGA Tour largely copying what his tour is already doing.

“A day late and a dollar short,” he wrote.

More initiatives were unveiled by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, but any talk of growing the game or bringing in new fans is sure to take a backseat to the staggering amounts of money being thrown around by both tours.

Golf has always been a game for the rich and powerful, and nearly everything that’s happened over the past few months will only solidify that image for potential fans outside the top income bracket, those folks who aren’t fretting over their yacht qualifying for a tax deduction.

Monahan was asked point-blank if the PGA Tour should have taken the LIV threat more seriously.

He shrugged it off, seemingly welcoming the competition while insisting that his more established tour will win out in the end.

“There’s competition everywhere,” he said. “We’re competing against other leagues. We’re competing for younger eyeballs. We’re competing to grow internationally. We’re competing to grow our sport relative to other sports. That’s the nature of what we do.”

But Monahan sounded a bit naive when he talked of the PGA Tour relying on more than checks with lots of zeros to fend off a foe with a seemingly blank check from the Saudi royal family, endorsed to anyone who’s good at swinging a club and willing to overlook the regime’s egregious record on human rights.

Monahan used words like “history” and “legacy” and “sense of purpose” to describe the non-monetary value of sticking with the established tour.

In reality, the only words that matter to most players: “Show me the money.”

Even though a clear majority of the world’s best still tee it up on the PGA Tour, the rival circuit has thrown around enough Saudi dough — with some signing bonuses reported at $150 million or more — to land a surprisingly stout lineup of big-name players.

Dustin Johnson. Bryson DeChambeau. Brooks Koepka. Louis Oosthuizen. Not to mention, reports are swirling that British Open winner Cameron Smith is among those who will announce their defection as soon as the Tour Championship is over.

The biggest name landed by LIV was Phil Mickelson, who just 15 months ago became the oldest major winner in golf history at the PGA Championship.

His reputation and his game have taken quite a beating since that triumphant moment at Kiawah Island, but Mickelson being at the forefront of LIV now makes him look like a bit of a visionary. Especially in light of the changes announced this week by the PGA Tour, which are largely a bucket list of the things Lefty wanted.

“As much as I probably don’t want to give Phil any sort of credit at all, yeah, there were certain points that he was trying to make,” said Rory McIlroy, who has become a leading voice for players on the PGA Tour. “Were some of these ideas, did they have merit? Of course they did. But he just didn’t approach it the right way.”

McIlroy talked of collaboration and being willing to work with other players to make the necessary changes. That was apparently the point of a players-only meeting last week that included Tiger Woods, who still wields enormous clout even though his future as a player is murky at best.

Of course, the PGA Tour has been around for 54 years. It’s had plenty of time to address any serious concerns.

It was only when LIV came along — and showed it’s here to stay as long as the Saudis remain interested in golf and oblivious to the bottom line — that the tour finally decided to budge.

“I think having the top players in the world playing together more often and competing against each other more often is what everyone wants,” McIlroy said. “Once we solve that, a lot of the rest of the stuff sort of takes care of itself.”

He makes it all sound so easy.

It’s not.

Monahan addressed one lingering issue by closing the door to players returning to the PGA Tour if they’ve been suspended for joining LIV.

“Every player has a choice,” he said. “I respect their choice, but they’ve made it. We’ve made ours. We’re going to continue to focus on the things that we control and get stronger and stronger.”

Moving forward, will LIV players be allowed to take part in the four major championships if they qualify? Likely.

Will LIV events count toward the world rankings? To be determined.

What about that antitrust lawsuit filed by several LIV players against the PGA Tour? Check back in 2024, when it’s scheduled to go to trial.

This season of discontent is just about over.

But others are sure to follow.

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Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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