PGA Tour closes ranks but Mickelson outside the ropes

Each week we ask our panel of writers, PGA members and golf industry experts to weigh in with their views on the hot topics of the day.

Over the weekend, both Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau announced that they are not going to join the proposed new Saudi League. This follows pledges of allegiance to the PGA Tour from Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and many other elite players. Is that it then? Does the rival league stand a chance with so many top players refusing to defect?

Jim Deeks, Fairways Magazine (@jimdeeks): Judging by the extremely venomous commentary in mainstream golf media since Sunday, all directed at Phil Mickelson, I’d say “hasta la vista” to the Saudi League. (And good riddance, mother******s!)   I mean, who’d want to say yes to the SGL after it’s been made clear that doing so would be like signing a contract with the firm of Satan, Stalin and Hitler? What I don’t get is, for a guy who thinks he’s the smartest dude on the planet, how could Phil have been so monumentally stupid as to alienate the Saudis, the Tour, his colleagues, the guys leaning to the SGL, the media… and for all I know, even the lovely AMY… all with a few dumb-as-a-hammer comments?!  And then, to top it off, Phil offers a so-called “apology” on Tuesday, which only served to shoot the messenger (author Alan Shipnuck) and hasten the end of two of his sponsorship contracts. As Don Cherry would say, “you’re a beauty, Phil!”

Craig Loughry, Golf Ontario (@craigloughry): I highly doubt we’ve seen or heard the last of this. It might quiet down for a while but that’s about it. I did find it interesting that Keith Pelley (DP World Tour CEO: known to most as the European Tour) was in town for the event, if you thought to yourself, hmmm, I wonder why, well let’s see if we can piece this together for you. It wasn’t likely a coincidence that all those players who came out and publicly commented with statements were in person last week either (including Tiger). Gee, I wonder if this was planned in advance, and I wonder if uh, its because Tiger was present? What remains to be scene, is how those other top European Players (Rose, Westwood, Poulter, Hatton) react. And others like Adam Scott, some other Aussie’s and Matsuyama. We’ll see soon enough.

Michael Schurman, Master Professional / Hall of Fame Member, PGA of Canada: We (the media and public) are speculating with no information but rumours. We have heard exorbitant amounts of money being offered but there is no tangible proof and so far, nobody has said they will ‘jump’. The new league isn’t any different than any other upstart competition vying for their position. The Saudi League doesn’t have to start with a full tour schedule. They could start by adding a couple of events to their current tournament and offer huge amounts in those first and grow from there. Some of us recall the WHA who lured a few old-timers and some up and comers causing a bit of discussion but presented no threat to the NHL. It wasn’t until they acquired Gretzky as a teen phenom and Bobby Hull for the unheard-of sum of $5M that TV showed an interest. Sure, the league struggled but in certain cities not as much as the NHL would have liked. The worst thing the Saudis could do is try to enter the market by trying to offer a full-scale schedule forcing players and fans to choose. And, if they can introduce some form of team competition that appeals to fans and TV likes who knows what success they might enjoy.

TJ Rule, Golf Away Tours (@GolfAwayTJ): Let’s hope that’s it. It just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s nice that Tiger and Rory led the charge with their allegiance to the PGA Tour, I think they have more influence on other pros than anyone else. I’m excited to see the changes to the Tour based on its partnership with the DP World Tour, spreading the Tour to other destinations around the world.

Hal Quinn, Freelance Writer, Vancouver: It looks dead before it began, which is the right outcome. Norman can go ahead with the ‘growing the game in Asia’ ruse that didn’t deflect attention from the Saudi League shenanigans, or more likely go back to running his various companies (but not before having cashed a boatload of Saudi cheques). The whole fiasco did make the wealthy Tour players even wealthier, but more importantly gave voice (often very articulate) to the new generation of leaders on the Tour.

Peter Mumford, Fairways Magazine (@FairwaysMag): I’d argue that Norman and his backers are in this for the long haul. Even if they don’t get the top players now, they’re bound to get some very good players to get started. Once they stage a series of 3-day events with a team component and large purses that generate fan excitement, more players may gravitate to the new league. This has never been an all or none scenario, so I don’t think it’s dead. I’ve said all along that I think eventually there will be three Tours. Nothing that happened this past weekend has changed that belief.

Phil Mickelson is still in the thick of it though, alleging that he had a part in drafting the agreement for Greg Norman’s LIV group, saying it was leverage to get the PGA Tour to release the player’s media rights, calling the Saudi regime scary mother******s but overall not saying which way he’s leaning or exactly what he’s after. It’s not the first time Mickelson has rocked the boat. Recall his comments in the press conference following the 2014 Ryder Cup when he scorched American captain Tom Watson. So, is there a bigger plot in play here or is this just Phil shooting his mouth off?

Deeks: I shot my mouth off above before I even read this question, so I kind of answered it there. Phil may be bright, but all too often, he clearly lets his lips move in advance of his brain. What’s confounding about all of this is he says he was playing ball with the Saudis, stringing them along, while all the while using his name and leverage to “secretly” get the Tour to change its rules so he (and others) could make more money from the Tour. That’s like being a double agent but forgetting which side you’re working for. As it stands right now, he may be working for none of them by Friday.

Loughry: I truly believe he thinks that the top players are underpaid in comparison to other major sports. And he may be right from a purse standpoint. The media rights, I struggle with, I see both sides. But I can assure you, every Tour member who signed their Tour membership agreement, gave those rights up to the Tour (whether they knew it or not). If there was an issue, why not address it there, or through several other avenues Mickelson has instead of the public. Now he looks like a complete ass. I think he was trying to make things better for players (compensation), but I’m not sure exactly what strategy he was trying to deploy here. Whatever it was, it went up in flames.

Schurman: Repeatedly, I have started past comments by saying “I am not a Phil fan” and now I’m seeing why. All this does is confirm what we already know. Money talks. I’ve heard rumours that Trump’s courses are available to the Saudis. What a perfect fit for like-minded people! Phil can no longer hide behind “Oh well, that’s Phil being Phil”! He is definitely going to have to put on his big boy pants. For any other tour players around the world who thought they get paid to perform on the course, they just found out the real money is paid for their image IF it coincides with someone who can use it to advance their own image. The medium is golf. This week I read where Phil spends ‘who’ge’ amounts of money gambling and might need an infusion. Whether he needs the money or is just plain ignorant of world affairs the fact that no other player is joining the Saudi League shows everyone else gets it except him and that is “Phil being Phil”.

Rule: Well, he really put his foot in it this time, didn’t he? And he was doing so well rebuilding his image over the past few years, I was even starting to like him! But I think this cements his reputation among those within the ropes, and beyond. It will be interesting to see how many events Phil plays this year, and the reaction he gets from the Tour and others when he gets there. Do you think this hurts his chances of being a Ryder Cup or President’s Cup Captain one day? Yikes.

Quinn: Phil’s “statement” was as bizarre as it was disingenuous. While not even mentioning the PGA Tour, he praised the Saudis as visionaries, defended his calling them “scary m@#%$#&kers” because it was ‘off the record” (which it was not), and attempted to claim that some of his nuttier comments were taken out of context. KPMG immediately dropped him. Can Callaway, Rolex, Workday and the rest be far behind? They combined to pay him $40 Million last year, topping up the $800 million in career endorsement earnings. Right, it’s the Tour that is greedy. As Golf Channel’s Eamon Lynch pointed out, if Phil needs the Saudi money, then there is more to come in this part of the story. His legacy and reputation are in tatters. He said he needs to take time away to focus on family and making himself a better person. May be too late for that.

Mumford: The old saying about making sure the brain is engaged before putting the mouth in motion is particularly apt here. Sure, this is Phil shooting his mouth off and maybe he knows what he’s talking about and maybe he doesn’t. But as always, there’s no shortage of entertaining drama when Phil has the mic. The more interesting outcome of the latest round of salvos is a total circling of the wagons in favour of the PGA Tour. Suddenly, there’s a loyalty test in place, the PGA Tour is the only place to be and Phil, Greg Norman and the Saudis are evil. What happened to “we’re all independent contractors”? I suspect there’s an equal mix of jealousy and disgust from his fellow members when it comes to Phil. And some genuinely like him. Mickelson may need to duck for a while, but his disruptions could still generate more fireworks and add momentum to the new rival league.

If you watched coverage of the Genesis Invitational you saw a couple of interviews with Tiger Woods where he was asked in many different ways when he was likely to return to play. All Woods would say was that he hoped to return again to play at a high level. That didn’t stop a lot of writers and podcasters from reading the tea leaves and speculating about what he meant, some even going so far as to suggest he would play The Masters in April. Did you see or hear anything to make you believe Tiger is close to playing on the PGA Tour again?

Deeks: I didn’t see or hear anything from Tiger, period. So, no tea-leaf reading from me. But even though I counted Tiger down and out after his infidelity scandal, and his many injury absences, only to see him rise again like a Phoenix, I wouldn’t count him out of “high level” golf ever again. And I wouldn’t mind seeing him return at all, as long as he doesn’t embarrass himself by trying.

Loughry: We saw him play 18 a day just before Christmas, and yes, he was gingerly walking towards the end of those rounds. But I like that he said we would see him again at some limited fashion back on Tour. He’s had another nine weeks of recovery since we last saw him hit balls. I can everything short of a guarantee that his short game is TOP NOTCH. I’m certain he’s swinging at some percent of full speed and has been for quite some time. I think he’s trying to put everyone off his scent and lowering expectations to explode back on the scene. I believe his goal is to play in the Masters, with likely no other reps prior. And I hope that he makes this a reality.

Schurman: Regardless of whether he plays a lot or not any time he does come out the cost of a ticket will be double or triple the face value. He is now becoming Hoganesque from that perspective. People are beginning to understand what they saw over the past 25 years is very special and they don’t want it to end. He did say he will only play if he thinks he can win and when he last played, I thought he swung better than at any point in his career. The big question marks will be can he still putt after this much time away and does he still have the focus for 72 holes at this age?

Rule: He has always been careful to not over promise when people ask him about returning to the Tour, each time it has happened! So, I thought it was relatively positive that he wasn’t just outright dismissing the thought of returning. Clearly at the Father-Son event, he was able to play relatively well, he just needs to be able to walk a golf course. So that’s why Augusta might be hard to imagine for 2022, but maybe not the Old Course. That’s my prediction, he’ll be playing events before The Open in preparation for that event.

Quinn: Despite Nance trying to go all 60 Minutes on us – except he didn’t ask if Eldrick was driving his own Genesis courtesy car this year – the tourney host gave no indication that he’s anywhere close to playing. He accurately said that he’s lucky to be alive, lucky not have lost his leg, and lucky to be walking and being able to play with son Charlie. That’s more than enough.

Mumford: Tiger clearly said, “I’ll be back for the Masters and plan to kick everyone’s ass.” NOT. Although it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s ready to play sooner than he wants to say, it’s futile to speculate. I do think he’ll make his return at a major and probably contend. His game at the PNC looked sharp so it’s really about stamina and the ability to walk 72 holes that’s in question. I’ll get on board and say St. Andrews in July but if he showed up at TPC Sawgrass in three weeks that wouldn’t be a shocker either.


The Round Table
The Round Table is a panel of golf writers, PGA members and industry experts.

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