A shiny new object in the professional game has generated all kinds of conversation in the past two weeks. The Premier Golf League, an idea that has been kicking about for six or more years, emerged publicly following its organizers’ wooing of players and agents during the past several months. With promise of a king’s ransom for the top 48 players in the world, no-cut, 54-hole competitions around the world, and a new team format starting in 2022 or 2023, “the League,” as it wants to be called, has stirred the pot of the global game.
Let’s be clear: It is DOA. Dead on arrival.
The league’s organizers released a statement during the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open, proudly stating that they intend “to work with, rather than challenge, existing tours.” In fact, this is a full frontal attack on the status quo. And you can expect it to be treated as such by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley.
If there was any doubt about the organizers’ desire to cooperate, you need look no further than the bottom of a second release, where a vague reference to “restraint of trade” was included. Those are legal fighting words.
Monahan launched his first response at the Farmers Insurance Open by reportedly announcing to players that this year’s Players Championship will offer a $15 million purse, an increase of $2.5 million compared to last year. The timing was not coincidental.
Despite league organizers’ assertion that they have “spent six years listening and learning” and “establishing relationships with key stakeholders,” Monahan told PGA Tour members in an e-mail that the organizers “have never contacted the PGA Tour directly.” Pelley likewise addressed the concept in an e-mail to European Tour members in which he classified the league as “a threat to the very fabric of professional golf as it stands.” Both missives no doubt served as warnings to players who might be inclined to participate in the proposed venture.
The premise of the league is that the top 48 players in the world will jump to a new tour for money. Lots of money. League organizers believe that the top-of-the-pyramid pros are subsidizing the rest of the players and thus not earning what they are worth. They claim the league will pay $240 million a season, an average of $5 million a player, without mentioning where this money will come from. Organizers have not identified sponsors or television broadcast partners, but it has been reported widely that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will provide substantial backing.
At the European Tour’s stop in that country last week, the key figures behind the league courted Phil Mickelson, with whom they were paired in the pro-am. In his comments to reporters afterward, Mickelson was more complimentary than dismissive of the concept.
One source close to this situation told me that the league might have had a better shot at success if it had tried to launch two years ago. His reasoning is this: The PGA Tour is on the cusp of signing new TV deals that will net the tour an incremental $200 million to $250 million annually starting in 2022. Much of this will find its way into the bank accounts of the already well-heeled brotherhood of the PGA Tour. The league may have missed its best opportunity.
Given the additional TV money, do the top world’s top 48 players, most of whom call the United States home, want to play as many as eight tournaments overseas? Do they want to give up the ability to pick and choose events to accommodate family considerations, business obligations or golf course preferences?
Not likely. Especially for the younger set, who are getting married and starting families. The PGA Tour money is really good, and they understand that.
Most observers believe this concept will not fly without Tiger Woods’ participation. The league contemplates 18 events to be played between January and September. All 48 players would be required to play each event. Add in the four majors and a top player would be obligated to play 22 events each year. As our Ron Green Jr. pointed out in last week’s issue, Woods hasn’t played in 22 events in a year since 2006. There is no reason to believe his tender back will allow him to play that often, much less endure long flights to exotic locations.
What the presence of a new pro tour might do is serve as a catalyst for a much closer relationship between the PGA Tour and the European Tour. It is no secret among close observers of the pro game that several “what-if” scenarios have been discussed in recent years. The league may hasten those discussions, and perhaps lead to more alliances, if not an outright combination of the tours, in the not-too-distant future.
This situation also may cause Monahan to take a deep dive into the PGA Tour’s status quo and make some changes. Maybe fewer events or smaller fields make sense at certain times of year. Maybe pace of play is a bigger issue than has been thought previously. Maybe the very best players do deserve to be paid more, relative to those who make cuts but rarely contend.
It is not known if writer and philosopher George Santayana was a golfer, but he is credited with the line, “Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it.” League organizers are aware of the Greg Norman-Tim Finchem dustup about a proposed world tour in the mid-1990s, and that’s why they allude to changes in restraint-of-trade laws since that time. What they fail to grasp is that the PGA Tour is a member-run organization. The players make the rules. And the rules they enact are reasonable, legal and enforceable. Norman discovered that the hard way.
Peter Jacobsen told me an interesting story about Norman’s effort to launch the World Golf Tour in 1994. Just ahead of the public announcement, Norman assembled the field at his Shark Shootout in the boardroom at Sherwood Country Club, the tournament’s host site. He made the case for what he was about to unveil. Jacobsen’s playing partner, Arnold Palmer, spoke first. He related how, back in the day, the Big Three – he, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus – often were approached by entities hoping to create an alternative pro tour, built around them. Palmer said they didn’t pursue those opportunities because it would have been bad for the PGA Tour and bad for the game. “I didn’t do it then, and I am not doing it now,” is what Jacobsen remembers Palmer saying before Palmer promptly stood up and walked out of the room.
Lanny Wadkins spoke next, according to Jacobsen, saying, “If it’s not good enough for Arnold, it’s not good enough for me.” He followed Palmer out the door.
And we all know what became of the World Golf Tour.
Tiger needs to walk out of the room when the Premier Golf League’s organizers make their case to him. Rory McIlroy needs to follow him.
Despite more than six years of work, “The League” is an idea whose time has not come.