open: The Open Championship has evolved into a battleground for more than just precious silver
In a year of drama, the golf establishment on both sides of the Atlantic is scrambling to maintain the status quo. The 72-hole championship golf course is under attack. Shotgun starts, a 54-hole fest, an eight-event exhibition, no cuts and a bunch of oil money are all at work to reinvent golf and remarket the sport. The fight has only just begun.
It started out pretty harmless. The major tours would not falter with the departures of Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. However, the slide of those experiencing a mid-career crisis was only the beginning. The abdications of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka have raised the heat significantly.
The R&A kept Greg Norman away from Monday’s Celebration of Champions. It was also “decided” not to invite the CEO of LIV Golf to the Open Champions dinner the next day. They also reached out to Mickelson in advance, suggesting it might be best for him to skip the celebratory events.
Tiger Woods got involved in the dispute ahead of the Open. He was scathing in his accusation. “I think what they did is they turned their backs on what allowed them to get to that position,” Woods told the media. “Greg (Norman) has done some things that I don’t think are in the best interest of our game.”
It appears that the United States Department of Justice (DoJ) disagrees with Woods’ interpretation of the situation. Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA TOUR, suspended all players who had entered the LIV golf series. The DoJ launched an investigation Monday to determine whether the TOUR’s conduct amounted to an anti-competitive practice towards its contracted players.
The fight is intense and complicated. A number of players were awarded a stint on the PGA TOUR to play last week’s Scottish Open. There could be more skirmishes as the TOUR’s charter, which prevents its contractors from participating in other televised events, comes under increasing scrutiny.
LIV makes the most of a good run for some of its players. Johnson and Talor Gooch are in the top ten at halftime. Three more were in the top 20, with a total of eleven making it into the open cut. But this is the last major of the season. It’s unlikely that either of them will play another ranking event this year. Meanwhile, the rafters at the Open bled with enthusiasm as fans returned in droves to celebrate a historic event for the sport.
At 24, Woods finished his career grand slam in 2000 on the Old Course. As he walked up the Swilcan Bridge for what was perhaps the last time, thousands of fans rose in a crescendo of applause that echoed through St Andrews. It was a poignant moment that reminded everyone of the importance of the great traditions and history of the sport.
The contrast cannot be stronger.
A rich history and celebrated traditions on the one hand and unlikely financial rewards on the other.
It’s this connection to tradition that has many questioning whether LIV Golf could turn on its head, especially as it grows into a 14-event series next year. Ranking Points could be the next big milestone for LIV. The Official World Golf Rankings confirmed last week that they had started reviewing applications for points.
But even with LIV Golf gaining formal recognition in golfing circles, it remains unclear how they will adapt to proper championship golf. Playing through 54-hole events without a cut is far from comparable to the traditional stroke play format.
The Open champion will walk away with a check for $2.5 million and, of course, temporary possession of the most valuable prize in golf – the Claret Jug. The silver from LIV is not worth more than the goods on Amazon. The trophy is alongside the $4 million raised by Charl Schwarzel and Branden Grace for their victories in London and Portland.
Money is the core problem of the established tours, which are finding it increasingly difficult to raise funds. The LIV circuit is backed by billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund.
Conventional tours are accountable to a host of stakeholders who, as sponsors and broadcasters, expect a return on their investment. At least for now, RoI seems to be the lowest priority for LIV series backers.
According to multiple reports, hundreds of millions have changed hands to secure involvement from Mickelson, Johnson, Koepka, DeChambeau and the like. Each tournament on the LIV circuit offers a pot of 25 million US dollars to the 48 participants. And the season finale will reward them with a $50 million bonanza.
The PGA TOUR faces this head-on, combining player bans with the announcement of increased purses for 2023. At least eight events next season are expected to offer $20 million in prize money, alongside more money for the FedexCup at the end of the year season.
The players willing to ply their trade on LIV deserve their “freedom of action” at the price of pride and tradition. As long as they don’t care about a career and their records. However, if the DoJ or OWGR ratifies the LIV Golf through their actions, the game of golf could see the beginning of a tectonic shift into a new future.
The author is a veteran journalist with over two decades of experience in the field of sports