The LIV effect: Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm welcome changes to PGA Tour schedule


The best golfers in the world are gathered in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., this week for the sport’s self-anointed fifth major — except, of course, for those who aren’t. The latter group includes Cam Smith, who won the Players Championship a year ago and lives just a few minutes away from TPC Sawgrass. He isn’t allowed to defend his title because he absconded last summer to the competing LIV Golf circuit and is now a golfer non grata at PGA Tour events.

“Yes, it’s awkward,” conceded Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner. “But ultimately that’s a decision he made.”

While LIV players are nowhere to be seen this week, the Saudi-funded breakaway circuit’s influence is impossible to miss. PGA Tour players met Tuesday morning to discuss upcoming changes to the schedule that bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the much-ridiculed staples of LIV Golf: a high-end series with smaller fields, no cuts, bigger purses and guaranteed paychecks.

Rory McIlroy, top PGA players defend move to smaller, no-cut events

When LIV adopted similar measures, golf traditionalists and many PGA Tour players bristled. This week in Ponte Vedra Beach, the tour’s high-end players celebrated some of the coming changes.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie: I think the emergence of LIV or the emergence of a competitor to the PGA Tour has benefited everyone that plays elite professional golf,” Rory McIlroy told reporters. “When you’ve been the biggest golf league in the biggest market in the world for the last 60 years, there’s not a lot of incentive to innovate. This has caused a ton of innovation at the PGA Tour, and what was quite an antiquated system is being revamped to try to mirror where we’re at in the world in the 21st century.”

Next year’s PGA Tour schedule, the framework of which was first revealed last week, will include eight designated, no-cut events, each limited to 70 to 80 players with eligibility based on FedEx Cup points and the Official World Golf Ranking. That’s about half the players of a typical PGA Tour event, leaving many rank-and-file players out in the cold.

James Hahn, ranked No. 305 in the world, has been among the most outspoken of this group, noting on social media this week that, under the new format, “the rich get richer.”

He wrote on Twitter that the changes “[give] the ‘top players’ more opportunities to stay on top. We have basically given them 8 more tournaments with guaranteed money and points, by taking away from average players. If I play 28 events a year, it doesn’t seem likely I will be playing 28 events next year given the same status and especially not with the same amount of points.”

Monahan defended the proposal at his news conference Tuesday, saying the limited-field events will inject more intrigue in other tournaments throughout the season. The stakes at lower-profile events will be more pronounced as players aim to move up the rankings and crack the field for the elevated events. Similarly, Monahan noted that those players ranked in the 50-to-70 range will be trying to maintain their status and remain in the mix.

“I would say to our fans that this is just a different form or flavor of a cut,” he said.

Monahan said the tour ran models that suggest slightly more than 60 percent of players in the top 50 would maintain their position, leaving plenty of room for movement in and out of tournament fields.

“That was an important element to the changes that we’re making,” he said. “We wanted to make certain that there was real consequence and there’s real promotion, there’s real relegation.”

While LIV Golf has been heavily mocked for its format, Monahan defended the PGA Tour’s designated events, noting that tour members have long played in specialized tournaments with different formats. He also took pains to note that many wins by Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods came in such events.

“To me, the format did not diminish those accomplishments,” he said.

Monahan was not interested in entertaining any LIV comparisons Tuesday. He deliberately did not mention the Saudi-funded rival by name during his hour-plus meeting with reporters.

“I would ask you: ‘Do you think we really look the same?’ ” he said at one point. “You know, the players that are competing in our events in this new format next year will have earned the right to compete in them and they will have earned it through top-50 position in the FedEx Cup this year, as well as their performance in the fall and ultimately in these swings. That’s what this organization has always stood for.”

The PGA Tour and LIV Golf are locked in a legal battle in federal court, with each side suing the other. Unlike PGA Tour players, LIV golfers have guaranteed contracts and a locked-in spot at each LIV event, which features 48 golfers playing 54 holes, as well as a corresponding team event.

The PGA Tour is still the runaway leader in the space with ratings that dwarf LIV’s, the vast majority of the world’s top players and a pathway for its players to earn points in the Official World Golf Ranking. But even the tour players who didn’t leap at the lucrative offers from the Saudi financiers are now seeing a LIV effect that continues to revamp the sport.

“Without LIV Golf, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Jon Rahm, the world’s top-ranked golfer. “So to an extent, like I’ve said before, we should be thankful this threat has made the PGA Tour want to change things. … I wish it didn’t come to the PGA Tour being under fire from somebody else to make those changes and make things better for the players, but I guess it is what we needed. So, yeah, it is because of LIV Golf. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen any of this.”

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