KILKENNY, Ireland – Awkward.
That’ll be the tone Monday morning at stately Adare Manor when the game’s stars, be they sanctioned or otherwise, gather for the J.P. McManus Pro-Am. It’s far too easy to imagine an uncomfortable brush as Tiger Woods, who is playing publicly for the first time since the Masters, passes Bryson DeChambeau, who was among the second wave of PGA Tour players to join LIV Golf last week.
Imagine at some point Rory McIlroy, the outspoken front man for the anti-LIV set, offering LIV convert Graeme McDowell or Ian Poulter or Lee Westwood a nervous head nod and nothing more.
It’s an unsettling status quo that professional golf appears bound for as the divide widens by the day (Paul Casey became the latest player to bolt for LIV late Saturday) and the news cycle is only accelerated.
Last week saw the first LIV event on U.S. soil, another seven Tour players added to the list of the excommunicated, and the apparent first of what promises to be a parade of lawsuits, appeals, motions and filings. Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has been clear that there is no path back for those who have been wooed by the deep pockets of the Saudi-backed rival league, but the game will march on.
Here’s what we know, what we think and what might be next:
An alliance. Last week the PGA Tour and DP World Tour announced an enhanced alliance that will now include a direct path to the U.S. circuit for the top 10 finishers each season in Europe. But how far is either side willing to go?
The new agreement didn’t come with any additional co-sanctioned events, like the original deal that will include next week’s Scottish Open and Barbasol Championship as well as the Barracuda Championship.
The deal provides the Tour with additional ownership (now 40 percent) of European Tour Productions and the European circuit gets a valuable marketing partner who was crucial in landing title sponsors for both the Irish Open and the Scottish Open. But where the alliance goes from here remains unclear.
Asked during a player meeting earlier this week if the current alliance was a precursor to an outright merger, European chief executive Keith Pelley appeared to be intentionally vague, “Only if [a merger] makes sense and if [the membership] wanted to do it,” he said.
The enhanced alliance creates a united front at a crucial moment for the sport, but it’s not seamless.
A distinction. Just moments after the opening tee shots were played at the first LIV Golf event last month in London, the PGA Tour announced that its members who defied tournament regulations and played the breakaway circuit were indefinitely suspended. It was a similarly swift response last week when the circuit suspended an additional seven players who were in the field at the second LIV event.
The DP World Tour’s response, however, has been noticeably more nuanced.
Pelley, after weeks, finally ruled on how to handle its members who joined LIV, it was far less definitive than the PGA Tour’s response. The European players were fined (about $105,000) and banned from playing the co-sanctioned events (Scottish Open, Barbasol Championship and Barracuda Championship). According to various sources, the European tour doesn’t have the regulatory license to suspend players indefinitely like the PGA Tour.
As much as Monahan and the Tour would prefer a united front, when it comes to the LIV players it’s not that easy.
A divide. What had been a uniquely golf response among players to the LIV Golf challenge has started to unravel.
The view across the professional ranks had clung to the “independent contractor” notion of live and let live. But as the uncomfortable economic realities have settled in, that tolerance has been tested.
“To be honest most of the players on this side [the DP World Tour] will think that the sanctions are too light, way too light,” Padraig Harrington said at the Horizon Irish Open. “The players would be wanting more.”
Justin Thomas offered a particularly personal response to the expanding divide last week on the No Laying Up podcast.
“It hurts us,” Thomas said. “I heard someone that brought up a good point is they’re saying that I’m sure at some point, you know, some sort of lawsuits will be going and if any of those guys that left to go play the other tour sue the Tour, they’re suing me, they’re suing Rory, they’re suing Tiger, they’re suing every single one of us that they’ve looked in the face, looked in the eyes and played rounds of golf with, played on cup teams with, shared moments, whatever, with and they’re suing us.”
At best, interactions between factions are bound to become tense. At worst, longtime friendships will be replaced by animosity.
An answer. Considering Monahan’s hard line, it’s difficult to imagine an ecosystem where everybody – the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf – can coexist. But if everyone involved were to reach a tipping point, there could exist a path to détente.
According to Monahan, the Tour has not met with representatives from LIV Golf or Golf Saudi, and by all accounts there’s no appetite to start a dialogue. Pelley, however, didn’t dismiss the idea.
“We’re not adverse to working with Golf Saudi in the future,” he told his members at last Tuesday’s player’s meeting. “But that would have to be within the current professional framework.”
While the PGA Tour has made this a moral line that can’t and won’t be crossed, the sensitivities on the European tour appear to offer more flexibility.
“Remember, everybody, depends where you come from the in the world, has a completely different idea. Your idea what's right and wrong is not my idea,” Harrington said. “We are all different and it hugely depends on where you're brought up and your cultures and things like that.”
Any chance of a potential compromise between the established tours and LIV Golf is riddled with non-starters and deal-breakers – not the least of which is LIV’s Greg Norman, who has become more of a Twitter troll than a CEO in recent weeks.
But if there is any chance to find common ground, it will likely be found on this side of the Atlantic.