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Change Is Coming To The PGA Tour

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy crouch together.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy led a meeting in Delaware last week, pulling together a chunk of the PGA Tour's top remaining pros. The subject: How to improve the PGA Tour's footing as it competes with the breakaway LIV Golf tour. LIV Golf can't yet compete with the history, prestige, or visibility of the PGA Tour, but what it can do is move around mountains of cash, and facing no real time sensitivity or profit considerations, LIV Golf can use its limitless resources to essentially lay siege to golf's staid old guard. The PGA Tour's prestige and visibility come from having the best product, and the best product comes from having the top players; if it doesn't have the best product, and it also isn't paying the most money, then what it is is the minor leagues. The challenge taken up at the Delaware meeting was how to make the PGA Tour maximally attractive to top players.

If you were hoping this brainstorming session landed on More Colorful Jackets as its proposed solution, or anything similarly quaint, prepare to be disappointed. As first reported Friday by Alan Shipnuck of The Fire Pit Collective, the group finalized a proposal to be sent to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan that, if adopted, would funnel more money into the pockets of the tour's big-name players by creating a series of special events with limited fields and inflated, $20 million purses, around which the players in the meeting would agree to build their schedules. These new, elevated events—No Laying Up reported Sunday that there would be as many as 15 spaced throughout the year, with the number of participants still to be determined—would naturally have a higher profile, for featuring fields composed mainly of the Tour's best and brightest, which presumably would justify their dramatically increased purses.

If 15 or so no-cut events with limited fields and robust eight-figure purses sounds awfully familiar, that's because it matches very closely what LIV Golf is hyping for next season, plus or minus soundtracked holes and some very goofy team names. The breakaway tour plans to jump next year from eight to 14 events, each with $25 million purses, and each featuring 48 players. This proposal for the PGA Tour might look like a concession, and maybe it is, but the selling point is clear: If you like what LIV Golf is offering, you'll like it even better with stronger competition, better visibility, no music, and access to all of the sport's marquee events, and without ever having to answer questions about whether the people who cut your paychecks assassinated a journalist.

The stacked fields of these events might appeal to the casual golf fans courted by LIV Golf—"We need to get the top players together more often than we do," said McIlroy, who like the other players involved has so far declined to get into the specifics of the proposal, at least on the record—but that is ultimately a second-order concern. The purpose of the proposal is to halt the flow of top players to LIV Golf, and it does that by guaranteeing those top players a dozen or more hefty paydays per season. In this way it calls to mind soccer's European Super League, a spectacularly failed proposed competition concocted by the wealthiest clubs for the express purpose of protecting their share of revenue from the unfortunate breaks of honest competition. The conditions and dynamics in golf are a little bit different: The parties here are responding to rather than initiating the hostile launch of a new and distorting force in the competitive landscape, and are doing so with a proposal that against the eye-popping largesse of LIV Golf contracts and purses at least has the appearance of moderation. But the adoption of this format would still need to be squared with the sport's ballyhooed and heavily overstated meritocratic traditions, at least for a certain segment of golf fans, to say nothing of lower-profile professionals, who'd have to scrape in diminished, traditional-style, lower-paying tournaments in order to earn berths at these lucrative new no-cut events.

Whatever comes of this, LIV Golf can no longer be treated as a nuisance. This proposal, coming from the PGA Tour's top remaining pros, represents the inflection point that the emergence of a quirky new competitor may not otherwise have forced. The exodus of brand-name players has given the holdouts enormous leverage, and they're using it now to advocate a set of changes to the established way of doing things, changes that look an awful lot like the product being offered by the competition. That's a dangerous game, in the end: A benefit enjoyed by LIV Golf and their infinitely wealthy benefactors is that nothing you or I would consider to be normal business shit can realistically destabilize its revenue, hinder its ascent, or dampen its ambitions. Which means it can always afford to up the ante.

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