Detroit — On the PGA Tour, it’s become us vs. them.
This week on the PGA Tour, it’s the Rocket Mortgage Classic vs. the LIV golf tour, the controversial upstart tour that is playing opposite Detroit, some 590 miles away, in Bedminster, New Jersey.
The conflicting events almost assuredly will take some of the national attention away from Detroit and on LIV, though the Rocket’s rarely had a national narrative in three previous playings, outside of last year’s Phil Mickelson fiasco that lit up the internet. It’s mostly a local story, while LIV is international.
But if all that is bothering Jason Langwell, the executive director of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, well, then he’s got a darn good poker face.
“We’re not worried about it,” Langwell said in a lengthy phone conversation with The News last week. “Our narrative is ours. No one else will have the narrative we have.
“We’re excited about the story we’re going to tell, and the players we have here to support it and tell it.”
The LIV golf tour, launched this year with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of Saudi Arabia cash, continues to pull PGA Tour players into the mix every week. The latest, for next week’s tournament, were Charles Howell III, Jason Kokrak and Henrik Stenson.
They join the biggest names who’ve accepted massive paydays — some at least nine figures — to ditch the PGA Tour: Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed.
But LIV has yet to land a top-15 player in the world golf rankings. Johnson is tops, at No. 16. The LIV plays 54-hole tournaments, with no cuts, and with shotgun starts. First place pays $4 million ($4.75 million if the team finishes first, too). Last place pays $120,000.
Many have called the LIV tour a series of exhibitions, at best, and playing with blood money, at worst, given the Saudis’ atrocious human-rights record.
“I think that what they’ve done is they’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position,” Tiger Woods, who rarely takes a stance on anything controversial, said earlier this month at the British Open, taking a stance on something controversial. Woods, himself, was reportedly offered nearly $1 billion to join LIV, and he flatly rejected the offer. “I just don’t understand it.”
Woods also took issue with the players who took an offer from LIV right out of the amateur rankings, like Michigan State’s James Piot, the reigning U.S. Amateur who received a $3 million signing bonus and is guaranteed nearly another $3 million in prize money over the next two years (the LIV is playing eight tournaments this year, and as many as 14 next year).
(Of course, it’s worth noting Woods had $40 million in the bank from Nike the minute he turned pro — and let us not go there when it comes to Nike’s human-rights record.)
Piot struggled quite a bit with the decision, but ultimately couldn’t refuse — costing the Canton native a spot in this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, which was almost certain to give him a sponsor’s exemption.
“Unfortunately,” Piot said softly in an interview after joining LIV. “Yes.”
The sustainability of LIV is a question mark. The Saudis have hundreds of billions to pour into this, without the expectation of making a dime. They’ve had decent crowds through two events, but also have apparently given away thousands of those tickets. They’re also not on broadcast TV, instead streaming on YouTube and Facebook, with no corporate sponsors to run ads — though there is a strong effort to beef up the broadcast crew, adding David Feherty last week, and they’re in talks with Charles Barkley.
It’s not about making money, though. It’s about cleaning up the Saudis’ reputation in order to lure global business partnerships in the future, or, as it’s being called, “Sportswashing.” From that perspective, the tour could last as long as it wants.
But then there’s the issue of the viability of the tour when it comes to actual competitive golf. As of now, the tournament isn’t awarded Official World Golf Ranking points, which means, eventually, the players are going to fall out of contention to play in major championships — unless they have exemptions from winning one of said majors (the British Open and Masters let past champions play as long as they want).
Plus, all four governing bodies of the four major championships are considering banning LIV players from future tournaments, as the PGA Tour and European tour already have done, as well as the governing bodies of the Ryder Cup (Stenson recently was stripped of his European captaincy for 2023, after he joined the LIV, with Howell and Kokrak.
Golfers live for majors. Well, at least, they used to.
“What these players are doing for guaranteed money, what is the incentive to practice?” Woods said. “What is the incentive to go out there and earn it in the dirt? You’re just getting paid a lot of money up front and playing a few events and playing 54 holes.
“They’re playing blaring music and have all these atmospheres that are different.”
How’s this for different: On the final-round Saturday of the LIV’s tournament in Portland, Oregon, earlier this month, Pat Perez shot 80 — and won $900,000. His teammate, Talor Gooch, went on to say that while he’d never played in a Ryder Cup, he couldn’t imagine the atmosphere being better than it was in Portland. (Johnson, his winning teammate standing nearby, actually rolled his eyes.)
The emergence of the LIV tour — which also plays for players’ travel and lodging, and caddies’, too — and the defections to it, have caused some major riffs among PGA Tour players. There probably would’ve been fewer hard feelings had the LIV players not uttered, to a man, the same talking points about how they’re helping grow the game, and instead actually been honest that they left for the cash.
Rory McIlory has anointed himself Point Person A when it comes to defending the PGA Tour. On the weekend where the LIV debuted in London, McIlroy and Justin Thomas put a final-round slugfest at the Canadian Open, before McIlroy prevailed for his 21st career PGA Tour victory — one more, he was sure to point out, than Greg Norman, the front man for LIV.
Thomas, too, has been a PGA Tour protector, though he’s clearly tiring of talking about it, as many are.
“It’s the unfortunate spot and time that we’re at right now,” said Thomas, who had talks with Rocket officials about playing in Detroit but ultimately will sit this one out — while keeping the door open for a future trip here, as an endorser of Greyson Clothiers. “But hopefully there will be a time and a place where we can just focus on and talk about the event going on and not some other stuff elsewhere.”
That’s the hope this week for Langwell.
He said LIV had little effect on the Rocket field, except for DeChambeau, the 2020 champion here and now-former Rocket spokesman, and Reed, who was a regular here. Mickelson played here last year and had a feud with this media outlet, but said he’d be back. Turns out, Rocket couldn’t match $200 million.
The Rocket will have six top-30 players; LIV has five.
Likewise, Langwell said there has been no effect on ticket sales, despite this tournament arguably lacking a huge name. Patrick Cantlay, No. 4 in the world, is a great golfer, but he’s easily the least recognizable name in the world top 10. The Rocket drew huge crowds in its first year, then none in its second amid COVID-19. They didn’t get notice from the state until weeks before last year’s tournament that it could open up to more fans, so while galleries were decent, they didn’t match 2019. The expectation this year is to match 2019, hence the addition of more public viewing decks (even a treehouse) and an additional story on the grandstands located behind the 18th hole.
Still, people will be talking about LIV in Detroit, and players will be asked about LIV in Detroit, even though LIV will be playing in New Jersey — not far, by the way, from Ground Zero, which is going to lead to big protests at Bedminster, owned by former President Donald Trump.
“I think we’ll have additional conversation about golf,” said Langwell, who pointed out that before LIV, you might see one golf headline on ESPN’s home page at any given time; now it’s not uncommon to see several at the same time. “That’ll be the case next week. The more conversations going about the golf, and more opportunities for our narrative and platform to be seen and to be heard.
“We’ve got a really good platform and good opportunity — regardless of what’s happening in other places in the United States.”