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PGA Tour’s Commissioner Avoids Saying ‘LIV’ but Is Bullish About Changes

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A year ago, Cameron Smith walked off the 18th green at TPC Sawgrass as the winner of the PGA Tour’s premier event, the Players Championship. But this time around, Smith is absent from the tournament—in a stark sign of the game’s radical upheaval since the launch of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed circuit where Smith now plays. 

“Yes, it’s awkward,” PGA Tour commissioner

Jay Monahan

said Tuesday. “But ultimately, that’s a decision he made.” 

Speaking ahead of this year’s Players Championship, Monahan managed to entirely avoid using the words “Saudi Arabia” or “LIV”—referring to the latter only as “that tour”—but there’s no tournament that so clearly reflects the seismic changes Monahan has made in response to its upstart rival. This year’s Players features a $25 million purse, the PGA Tour’s highest ever, as part of its efforts to increase prize money in the wake of LIV, which happens to have $25 million purses at its events. (“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” LIV tweeted about the PGA Tour changes last week.) 

The Players Championship will look even more different next year: it will be one of the PGA Tour’s elevated events that feature limited fields of 70-80 golfers—versus the 144 there this week—and no cut after 36 holes. Monahan touted those changes and struck a bullish tone about the Tour’s standing, coming off several buzzy tournaments that featured close finishes and strong viewership. 

“We are coming into the players with a tremendous amount of momentum, both on and off the course,” Monahan said. “It’s a great time to be a PGA Tour fan and a PGA Tour player.” 

Despite those elevated events reflecting LIV’s format—which features limited fields of 48 players and no cut—Monahan noted the PGA Tour has long had events with that structure and made a not-so-subtle contrast when he emphasized that the Tour remains a meritocracy. Unlike LIV, which has a largely set group of golfers, Tour players will qualify into the elevated events based on their performance. 

Monahan repeatedly made remarks emphasizing what the PGA Tour believes makes it distinct from its rival. He spoke of “the dynamic, consequential competition that will always be our calling card” and said that “it’s clear that the PGA Tour stars have been inspired by the opportunity to compete head-to-head more regularly on some of golf’s biggest stages.”

At one point he referred to continued membership of the PGA Tour as “the ultimate prize.” That idea is at the heart of intensely fought litigation in a federal court in California, where LIV players and the golf circuit itself are suing over the players’ ejection from PGA Tour events and allegedly monopolist behavior. The Tour has filed a countersuit against LIV for trying to poach its stars and interfering in its business deals. 

Monahan deflected questions about whether the Tour would ever consider allowing LIV players to return, saying “players that are playing on that tour are contractually obligated to play on that tour” and that “our proposition…has not changed.”

The closest he came to a barb aimed at Saudi Arabia was when he questioned LIV’s stated goal in standing up a golf circuit, “to grow the game.” 

“Grow the game, I don’t fully understand that expression, it’s what’s your impact on the game? What’s your positive impact on the game?” he said. 

Jay Monahan presented the Players Championship trophy to Cameron Smith after last year’s tournament.



Photo:

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Monahan’s tone represented a marked shift from comments last June, shortly after LIV’s launch, when he remarked: “This is an arms race, and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can’t compete.” 

Instead, ahead of the Tour’s signature event teeing off, Monahan hyped the popularity of the behind-the-scenes Netflix golf docuseries “Full Swing,” the changes that will bring together the top golfers more often in the elevated events and the competitiveness of the Tour, with the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings changing hands between three players in recent weeks. 

Monahan didn’t say so, but in golf these days, even those rankings are contentious—LIV hasn’t been accredited by the OWGR. 

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

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