The subject of this week’s Local Knowledge, Golf Digest’s narrative podcast, is Australia’s most-famous golfer of all time: Greg Norman. His golf accomplishments are beyond reproach – two Major championships, more than six years as the world’s No.1 player and a wide range of successful off-course business pursuits.
The American-produced podcast, however, focuses not on Norman’s playing or marketing prowess but his three-decade battle with the PGA Tour. In October, Norman was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, the Saudi-funded entity planning a new tour that would compete with the PGA Tour for top-level talent.
With Norman, it’s not the first time.
Back in 1994, with The Shark near the end of his prime, the Aussie devised a plan with countryman Rupert Murdoch for an eight-event World Golf Tour featuring purses that dwarfed those on the PGA Tour and, crucially, offered a white whale for professional golfers: guaranteed money. Essentially, the World Tour sought to expose weaknesses in the PGA Tour model that some say still exist 28 years later. Namely, that the top players are not fairly compensated for the attention they bring to the game. There has always been a schism between the superstars and the rank-and-file on tour, and Norman believed the biggest names would gravitate towards the WGT and its stars-first business plan.
It never happened. New commissioner Tim Finchem was successful portraying the World Tour as a rich-getting-richer proposal while the PGA Tour was a charity-first community. Arnold Palmer, still the dominant presence among his fellow players despite being 65 years old at the time, eviscerated the proposal in a players-only meeting. And, as Peter Jacobsen told me, that was that.
“It was very simple,” Jacobsen says. “When Arnold said he didn’t want any part of it – we all said if it’s not good enough for Arnold, it’s not good enough for us. That was it. It was as simple as that.”
Current PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has played the role of Finchem, drawing a hard line against any competing tour and threatening players with suspension or expulsion from the PGA Tour should they jump ship. And a number of key players, including Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, have planted their flag in the PGA Tour’s camp, just as Palmer did in ’94. But LIV Golf investments has absorbed those body blows and continues its mission undeterred. At least for now.
What’s to say this time would be different? For one, our attitudes towards athletes, and their financial decisions, have shifted. Whereas they were once decried for chasing the dollar, athletes are now lauded for realising their own value and maximising their earnings potential.
The looming variable here is the source of the money Norman is offering Bryson and Phil and Co. The Saudi Arabian government has a long and ugly history of human rights abuses and punishing dissenters. Just last week, the Washington Post ran an article headlined “Take note of the PGA golfers who play in Saudi Arabia. They’re accepting blood money.”
Norman would argue that no money is clean, and the players committed to play in the Saudi International next month sure didn’t have any issues with accepting their appearance-fee cheques. The PGA Tour still has the clear upper hand here, with decades of history and tradition on its side as well as the backing of crucial players. On the new tour, players would likely lose their ability to choose their own schedule, a freedom tour players have long cherished. If we’re speaking honestly, then, there’s hardly any justification for leaving the tour other than the Almighty Dollar.
“People can see it for what it is – a money grab, which is fine if what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible,” McIlroy said in May. “Totally fine, then go and do that if that’s what makes you happy. I’m just speaking about my own beliefs; I’m playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win Major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world. I honestly don’t think there’s a better structure in place and I don’t think there will be.”
But not everyone’s motivations are as pure as McIlroy’s, nor does everyone have hundreds of millions in the bank like he does. The PGA Tour, to its credit, has acted quickly to address some of the shortcomings in its model – the Player Impact Program being the most salient example of this self-evaluation – and pump up money across the board. The Saudis, however, have essentially bottomless pockets. Part II of Greg Norman vs the PGA Tour, then, will serve as a case study in just how loudly money talks in 2022.
Ultimately, the whole thing could all come down to the players’ – or their lawyers’ – interpretation of the term “independent contractor” and what such employment status in golf may entitle them to. Here is a sampling of some recent comments from players in relation to their rights as a professional golfer and rival golf leagues. it all makes for some interesting reading:
Phil Mickelson, Five Clubs podcast, Sept 14, 2021:
“The competition (from rival golf leagues) is going to be good. It’s going to be good for the good players. Because for the first time, the top players are being valued by the PGA Tour. Really the question is, are we so far down the line on kind of the bullying tactics that are being used to suppress the top players on the PGA Tour to where we can’t really fix it internally, and you just need to start fresh? Or is it fixable? I don’t know. It’s hard when you have 200 guys on the PGA Tour and only four people have a vote.”
Justin Thomas, at Mayakoba, Nov 2021:
“I know for one, my first couple years I felt like I didn’t necessarily have the place or the voice to go to a Jay Monahan, to go to [chief tournaments and competitions officer] Andy Pazder to say how I feel about what things are going on in the Tour. In reality, it sounds disrespectful to say, but they work for us, you know what I mean? It doesn’t matter if you’re the 120th ranked player on the FedExCup or the second, if you have a problem and you think it should be changed, you should go voice that opinion to the Tour and that’s their job to try to fulfill that or at least give you an answer.”
Rory McIlroy, Chairman of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council and staunch Tour defender (Dec 1, 2021 at Hero World Challenge):
Regarding PGA Tour waivers for players to play in the Saudi International:
“So in my opinion I think the tour should grant releases. It’s an Asian Tour event, it’s an event that has OWGR rankings, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. I do see reasons why they wouldn’t grant releases, but I think if they’re trying to do what’s best for their members and their members are going to a place other than the PGA Tour and being able to earn that money … we’re independent contractors and I feel like we should be able to do that if that’s what our personal choice is. My personal choice is not to do that, but obviously a lot of players are doing that, and I think it’s fair to let them do that.”
Q. Going down the road there could be legal battles and arguments.
“I think the professional game needs to get to a point where we as professionals need to know where we stand. Are we actually independent contractors? Are we employed by a certain entity? That’s stuff that’s just – there’s a lot of grey area in that and that’s what sort of needs to be sorted out, I think.”
“I think the players just need to understand where they stand, where are we, because we feel – I think the players feel like they’re pawns at the minute in this big sort of global game of golf and we just want to know where we sort of stand.”
Xander Schauffele, reigning Olympic Gold Medallist, said he would have a problem if the PGA Tour made a blanket statement that players couldn’t play on other Tours (Dec 1, 2021 at Hero World Challenge):
“I feel it’s very absolute. I feel like there just needs to be some sort of counter in the way certain things work. I’ll try and do what I need to do, and they’ll tell me what I can and can’t do at a certain point, but I feel like they need to counter. They can’t just tell me no, you can’t do this and then just kick rocks, kid. That’s not really how I’d want to do things.”
Collin Morikawa, Open champion and Race to Dubai winner when asked about his interest in rival tours (Dec 1, 2021 at Hero World Challenge):
“You know, look, I’m 24, and I’m keeping all eyes and ears open to everything. But the PGA Tour has been the focal point of my entire career, right? You grew up watching the PGA Tour, you grew up watching guys like Tiger and Rory just dominate the game, and that’s what you want to do, you come out here and win.”
“At 24, it’s thinking how do I make that impact in five years, in ten years. But even, you know, in a month or a year? How do you make that impact so young? So, look, when it comes to Saudi, when it comes to the PGA Tour, I think the underlying message that everyone needs to realise is we are here to grow the game.”
Bryson DeChambeau on Full Send podcast, Oct 2021:
“We’re independent contractors. We’ve got to pay for all of our expenses – every hotel we have to pay on our own, food etc. You do everything yourself. And you’ve got a family to feed. And you’re missing cuts. And when you miss a cut, you make nothing. You think it’s great (on Tour), but once you start getting into the nitty-gritty and it’s your livelihood, it’s a very interesting scenario.”
Viktor Hovland, Hero World Challenge Champion, Dec 2021:
“There are a lot of great tournaments out there that many of us can contest but at the end of the day I just want to see where I stack-up against the best players in the world. So, when you see that there are already a lot of good players committed to go play in Saudi, that makes it attractive for players who want to test themselves against the best players in the world and for that reason, I don’t see why we should be stopped from wishing to play in Saudi. It boils down to the fact you have to make your own decisions and where certain events fit in your own schedule. At the end of the day we just want to play golf.”
Q: Do you consider yourself an ‘independent contractor’?
“I guess I am (smiling) but then I don’t get into the nitty gritty with the definitions of everything. So I guess I am an independent contractor.”
Justin Rose, at the Hero World Challenge, Dec 2021:
“I think if the PGA Tour maybe doesn’t give the releases, I think it is only going to heighten the tensions around what is trying to go on right now in the world of golf and amongst the players.”
“In my mind, the PGA Tour needs to keep the players on side. Obviously Saudi is controversial, but I’ve been down there and I enjoyed my time there. It’s actually a fun golf tournament and a good golf course. Listen, they are trying to edge towards a more socially-acceptable stance on their policies and you’ve got to start somewhere, right?”
“Players deserve the opportunity to play around the world and also capitalise. Guys like Xander and (Open champion) Collin Morikawa deserve the chance to play in the Middle East and show off their games.”
“It’s good for growing the game of golf and it’s part of your responsibility as a talented young golfer who is doing incredibly well to do that the best you can. A lot of these guys are now the idols that kids are looking up to and, if you can showcase yourself in different markets, it can only be good.”
“A lot of the young Americans have the opportunity to just stay home because the tour is so great. So I think it is good for the world of golf that they do travel. I think that’s really important.”
Bubba Watson at QBE Shootout, Dec 2021:
“Anytime Greg Norman’s involved, I mean, that’s the guy I looked up to. There’s so many guys I looked up to. That’s one of the reasons we’re here, right? Greg Norman has pushed this event, QBE. He’s pushed it from the player side, but also from the charity side. That’s why we’re here supporting Greg and what he’s committed to the game of golf…Greg’s going to try to do some great things if that league does happen.”
Tyrell Hatton, December 2021:
“I guess I’m an independent contractor,” he said. “I think as long as you support the tour in the right events like the Rolex Series ones, which I certainly feel like I have done, I don’t really see what the issue is.”
PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh dmitted disruption is good for the game while simultaneously threatening to ban players from the Ryder Cup for playing on rival tours (May 18, 2021 at PGA Championship):
“If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the US, they’re going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the Tour. I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don’t know that we can be more clear kind of than that. We don’t see that changing.”
On if change/disruption is good for the game?
“I actually think it’s healthy. You either disrupt or you get disrupted. That’s what this is. You know, should it be a hostile takeover of the game? I think is way too far. They’ve created this conversation, which by the way isn’t new. It’s been around since 2014 in different forms, has created change. It’s created an alliance of the European Tour and the PGA Tour, which we think is really healthy for the game.”