The only current certainty in elite golf is uncertainty. A month has passed since confirmation that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has joined forces with the PGA and DP World Tours to promote peace on the fairways but nobody apparently has a clue about details for the future. The situation is so stark that golfers who prefer root canal treatment to media duties are suddenly stopping journalists to elicit information about how this all unfolds. This is a wonderful mess.
LIV and its much-maligned rebels have understandably seized upon the vacuum. Full steam ahead is the unrelenting message from this tour. It would be an exaggeration to suggest LIV golfers are crowing about the legitimacy afforded to their circuit by the mainstream tour alliance but smiles are barely masked. When Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter went on the front foot against the leadership of the PGA and DP World Tours on Wednesday, it was from a position of strength rather than nervousness. Nobody can really take the proclamations of golf administrators seriously any more, such has been the U-turn on all things PIF.
Next week will see representatives from the PGA Tour stand before a Senate committee in Washington. There, one assumes, they will attempt to explain why making a commercial agreement with a foreign entity of dubious human rights association, which they worked so hard to disparage and disrupt, makes perfect sense for corporate America.
Legal paperwork filed recently in Florida has emphasised the strength of the PGA Tour’s 2022 position, including, in their briefing notes, a certain Tiger Woods. He was due to press home to his fellow professionals why huge LIV offers should be rebuffed. PGA Tour loyalty was essential. “Do what I did: tell the Saudis to go fuck themselves. And mean it,” was among acerbic bullet points for Woods to convey.
Suitably embarrassed – presumably including the notion anybody could tell him what to do – Woods took the rare step of speaking out on social media when this paper circulated. “I have never seen this document until today,” said the 15-time major winner. “I did not attend the players’ meeting for which it was prepared.” Which is just as well. One of the world’s most famous sportsmen would otherwise be caught in the midst of an international incident.
As the PGA Tour plays verbal tennis with senators, the DP World Tour will be staging one of its marquee events. Close calendar proximity to the Open Championship helps the Scottish Open command a strong field. Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Viktor Hovland, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are among those who will tee up in East Lothian. The same court documents shone a light on the European Tour Group, which was branded a “borderline distressed asset” during analysis by the PGA Tour in 2022. Keith Pelley, the European Tour Group’s (ETG) chief executive, surely has a duty to respond to the scathing critique while focus is on one of his tournaments.
There is no guidebook for the kind of saga mainstream tours and their executives found themselves embroiled in as the Saudis waded into this sport. Desperately trying to cling on to what was already theirs can be defended. The ETG was a viable enough entity for the Saudis to pursue their golf objectives with them. The PGA Tour was bizarrely eyeing a merger with a company it seemed to have little regard for. Their attention may have been better served closer to home, given the ridiculous prize-fund commitments undermined by costly litigation and the subsequent shaking of hands with the PIF. Westwood, Poulter and others took a monumental gamble; which has paid off but carried huge risk. Golfers are wise not to gloat.
On 6 June, Pelley was among those to herald a great day for golf. For that to be true, previously jilted tours have to swallow some pride. Pelley can control one easy fix. The ongoing success of the Ryder Cup was, by its own admission, the key reason the PGA Tour had designs on its equivalent in Europe, the ETG. The fact the biennial meeting of Europe and the United States was dragged into golf’s civil war – who can be picked, who cannot be picked, who can be a captain, who cannot be a captain – has never felt satisfactory. Punters flock to Ryder Cups to support a cause, not a tour.
Henrik Stenson was stripped of 2023 European captaincy duties after signing for LIV. The Swede came across as optimistic with his belief he could combine LIV appearances with leading Europe in Rome this September.
Yet this was during febrile times, when lawsuits raged and relationships disintegrated. If we really are to accept golf is on the verge of coming together, if there is a genuine desire to meet on common ground, Stenson should be appointed, without challenge, to lead Europe in 2025.
It is such a blissfully obvious scenario, far removed from what corporate elements are flung into golf’s ecosystem. Ryder Cup Europe should already be plotting this move. Stenson sits apart from Poulter, Sergio García and Westwood in that he was already in position as a captain.
He was deemed worthy of the post. Cynically, the exodus to LIV by Ryder Cup icons left the continent desperately short of captaincy options. Moving away from individuals born in the UK or Ireland should always be encouraged. Since Bernhard Langer in 2004, only two captains have hailed from continental Europe.
Traditionalists within the DP World Tour setup will not like this notion, of course. Stenson, 47, resigned his membership as a means to avoid sanction for playing on LIV. This, however, is not a confrontational individual, nor one who would seem averse to playing at a sensible level in Europe in the future.
Stenson’s reinstatement would be a statement of sporting intent. It would offer proof of compromise and collective thinking. Without this, golf will rumble on in this state of unease and confusion until leaders offer proper insight into their proposed brave new world. You get the impression they haven’t come close to working that out for themselves yet.