Cut Line: ‘Global’ (again) golf’s buzzword; pathway back for LIV?

Cut Line: ‘Global’ (again) golf’s buzzword; pathway back for LIV?
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In this week’s edition, we celebrate another comeback, question how sponsor exemptions are doled out on the PGA Tour and exam the nuances of negotiating a definitive agreement.

Made Cut

Play better. It’s been a winning proposition, however hackneyed, since the beginning of time in professional golf.

Whenever a player had a gripe about the system, the concept was bulletproof – play better. Any time the “have nots” pushed back on the “haves” – play better. When change threatened to upend the entire ecosystem … well, maybe not.

During one of the most contentious player meetings in PGA Tour history last summer following the announcement of the circuit’s framework agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the concept of “play better” was put to the test when, according to multiple sources who were in the meeting, Grayson Murray challenged Rory McIlroy.

“I bet you wish you would have taken your $400 or $500 million [to join LIV Golf],” Murray reportedly said to McIlroy. “Play better, Grayson, play better,” McIlroy shot back.

“That’s not fair,” Murray said.

Last week at the Sony Open, Murray did play better, winning his second Tour title in a playoff following a long professional and personal climb back from alcoholism.

Murray, who has not been the most popular player on Tour, is now in the coveted events that prompted him to question the circuit’s direction last June. But his message is still valid. The shifting sands all favor the current stars and “play better” can no longer be the end of the conversation.

Berger ‘feeling great’ in PGA Tour return at AmEx

After carding a 4-under 68 at the American Express, Daniel Berger describes the “challenge” of making his return to the PGA Tour after being sidelined 18 months due to injury.

Comebacks. Following back-to-back feel-good stories to start the season in Hawaii, it’s apropos that the Tour’s first event on the mainland would have the potential for another comeback.

Daniel Berger is playing his first professional event in 19 months following a bout with a back injury.

“It’s been exciting. Leading up to this week I was kind of on the edge of whether I was ready to play or not. Then you kind of just have to rip the band-aid off after that amount of time and just get out there. I actually played really well today, which was nice,” Berger said, following an opening 4-under 68 at The American Express. “I really didn’t hit any bad shots. The couple bogeys I made were two good iron shots. Just get better every day and get better every tournament and get into the flow of things and seeing the same people and just doing the routine that you’re used to doing.”

Berger, who was six shots off the first-round lead, is probably too far back at The American Express, but following Chris Kirk’s victory in Maui and Murray last week at the Sony Open, the 30-year-old is in the right place for another comeback.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

Messaging. When those with influence start reading off the same talking points, it’s likely the precursor to something more official. That appears to be the case based on comments this week from both McIlroy and DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley, who plans to step down in April.

“This is a global game. Every business now that is growing wants to be global. What I would like to see is the game becoming unified with a global strategy,” Pelley said this week in Dubai. “I think the PGA Tour is coming to the realization [that] global is the key for growth. They have heard me say it once or twice.”

In the same news cycle, McIlroy offered his thoughts on the direction of professional golf.

“The way I view it is a bit like [the] Champions League in football,” McIlroy told reporters Wednesday. “It’s like the best of the best in Europe, and then all of the other leagues feed up into it. There’s lots of different tours getting interest and a lot of great players, but if you want to create something that is real value for the game of golf, I think it’s this top-level tour and then all the other tours feed into it.”

The messaging from McIlroy and Pelley is clear: the professional game is headed for a world tour.

Sponsor exemptions. Who gets a sponsor exemption has always been a flash point on Tour, but as the circuit moves to a signature-event model with smaller fields, the art and science of doling out coveted spots is being scrutinized even more.

To be fair, the Tour has become more transparent when it comes to sponsor exemptions into signature events with the four spots (five spots at some tournaments) earmarked for specific categories (Q-School and Korn Ferry Tour graduates, for example). Where there appears to be push back is when one of those spots goes to a player director on the circuit’s policy board.

“Not surprising that two of the four sponsor exemptions [for the second signature event at Pebble Beach] go to policy board members,” said one Tour winner this week. “The Tour is handing out favors to those who voted for it like candy on Halloween. These sponsor invites need to be pointed out so that John Q. Public will start to understand what is going on.”

The most recent example of this is Charley Hoffman, whose term on the policy board ended in December. Playing out of a limited category last year, Hoffman, who finished 159th in FedExCup points in 2022, played 31 events. The average number of starts for players in Hoffman’s category last year was 24.3, but he received seven sponsor exemptions (he didn’t have to use all seven after getting into a few fields via his status).

No one is saying Hoffman or any of the other player directors aren’t worthy of sponsor exemptions, but as starts in marquee events become scarcer the scrutiny will only increase.

McIlroy: Golf must ‘align interests’ to advance

The Golf Today crew discusses Rory McIlroy’s comments on the state of the PGA Tour-LIV merger, where the superstar explained why it’s difficult to ‘align interests’ between multiple parties.

Missed Cut

Pathways. According to the Sports Business Journal, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was in the Middle East this week meeting with PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan.

According to the report, it’s “believed to be” the first time Monahan and Al-Rumayyan have met in person since last summer when they negotiated the framework agreement that opened the door to a larger deal. A separate report in the London Times said the meeting was preceded by a lengthy phone conversation between the two.

According to one source familiar with the negotiations, the meeting between Monahan and Al-Rumayyan addressed how players who joined LIV Golf could be allowed back onto the Tour which would benefit both organizations and pave the way toward a world tour.

The devil in the detail is how Monahan will be able to negotiate the delicate void between creating a pathway that’s attractive and not viewed as overly punitive for those who joined LIV Golf and maintain his commitment to determine “fair criteria and terms of readmission consistent with each tour’s disciplinary policies,” according to the framework agreement.

The multi-billion-dollar deal that would see the Tour, LIV Golf and the European circuit packaged together under a new for-profit entity with investments from both PIF and private equity is plenty complicated. Adding to that, the human desire for atonement will certainly complicate things.

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