HARTFORD, Conn. – The head of a fledgling and mysterious professional golf league says he won’t proceed with his idea unless everyone wants it to happen, including the best players in the world.
Well, if initial returns for the Premier Golf League are any indication, London financier Andrew Gardiner can stop wasting his time in his bid for “a true test of the best” in an alternative global golf tour.
Rory McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked player in the world and first player to commit to the Travelers Championship in June, is the first domino among the game’s elite to fall on the concept after marquee players had taken a wait-and-see approach to the subject.
“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it,” the personable, straight-shooting Northern Irishman said before this week’s World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. “The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do. If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice.”
Thanks to his lofty status and popularity around the world, there will always be a degree of gravity to McIlroy’s eloquently reasoned rejection, but his decision to speak out so early and so vehemently sent an undeniable statement. The PGL concept isn’t on the mat yet, but it certainly took a blow toward trying to woo the game’s leading actors.
“For me, I’m out,” said McIlroy, the PGA Tour Player of the Year and winner of the Tour Championship and FedExCup title in 2019. “My position is I’m against it until there may come a day that I can’t be against it. If everyone else goes, I might not have a choice, but at this point, yeah, I don’t like what they’re proposing.”
McIlroy said early feedback from his comments has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I received some nice messages,” he said after shooting a 6-under-par 65 to take the first-round lead in Mexico. “I wasn’t hoping for anything. I was just sort of providing my point of view and getting it off my chest, and that’s what I felt. I wasn’t trying to do anything or prove a point or try to get any sort of praise. … I’ve sort of been sick of talking about it for the last few months, and I’m happy that everyone knows where I stand on that, and I’m happy that I know where I stand on it.”
Though funding and corporate structure of the PGL remains a mystery, the proposed tour aimed to launch in January 2022 will feature 12 four-man teams (similar to the Formula One racing circuit) in 18 no-cut, 54-hole tournaments with purses of $10 million and the final event being a team competition worth $40 million. It would run from January to August and not conflict with the four major championships while played on four continents: 10 events in the United States, four in Asia (including one in the Middle East), three in Europe and one in Australia.
As for how the PGL would coexist with longstanding tours such as the PGA and European Tour, Gardiner hopes to “achieve collaboration.”
“We want as many people to watch this sport as possible because we believe that there is a connection between the number of people who will watch [golf] and the number of people who will actually play it. … This is in the best interest of the game,” Gardiner said.
Gardiner added the PGL, which “has a lot [of financial backing],” has built relationships with many people in the game, from funders to broadcasters to players. But he declined to talk about specific conversations, including talks with Tiger Woods and other stars deemed vital to the league’s existence. He did bring up the possibility for bids and prefers some consistency with the tour stops. He also couldn’t confirm if PGL events would receive world-ranking points – he reasoned they would – or if women’s events would be added, though he said he’d be “delighted” to have that as part of future plans.
But Gardiner did offer up these further details: shotgun starts for each of the first two rounds; no dress codes except for potential team uniforms and colors; a draft system, transfer window and promotion and relegation similar to professional soccer; and a “team principal” concept where team captains, playing or non-playing, would select two individuals from their team to count each day, similar to how college golf coaches select lineups.
Then there’s the playoff concept. After 17 events, an individual champion will be crowned and the teams will be seeded for the final event. Top seeds would get byes and choose their second-round opponents. Gardiner didn’t fully explain, but it’s reasonable to expect some sort of bracket, head-to-head format that leads to one world team champion.
It remains to be seen if other players will follow McIlroy’s lead, but the most influential target is Woods. Speaking before last week’s Genesis Invitational, he acknowledged he has been briefed on some details surrounding the PGL but remained noncommittal about its prospects.
“Have I been personally approached? Yes, and my team’s been aware of it and we’ve delved into the details of it and are trying to figure it out, just like everyone else,” Woods said. “There’s a lot of information that we’re still looking at, and whether it’s reality or not, but just like everybody else, we’re looking into it.”
While it remains to be seen if the PGL can transform from concept to reality, Woods believes the core concept propelling the idea – one of a lucrative splinter group challenging the PGA Tour for the loyalty and involvement of the game’s biggest stars – likely won’t go away anytime soon.
“I think that just like all events, you’re trying to get the top players to play more collectively,” Woods said. “And so this is a natural evolution, whether or not things like this are going to happen. But ideas like this are going to happen going forward, whether it’s now or any other time in the future.”
Phil Mickelson, the only back-to-back winner in Travelers Championship history (2001-02), played with Gardiner in the Saudi International Pro-Am last month and is “intrigued” by the concept of a team-owner aspect that could be used to incentivize some of the game’s mega stars.
“Not really ready to talk about [it],” Mickelson said. “I’m going to play Bay Hill and the Players Championship, and I’m going to guess by The Players, I’m going to have a pretty good opinion.”
McIlroy said money is a primary motivator for some and realizes if all other top players decide to join the PGL, he would probably have to follow them, but that doesn’t mean he likes the idea. As he explained during last week’s Player Advisory Council meeting, this is about legacy.
“I would like to be on the right side of history with this one, just sort of as Arnold [Palmer] was with the whole Greg Norman thing in the ’90s,” McIlroy said. “I value a lot of other things over money, and that’s sort of my stance on it at this point.”
In a memo sent to players last month, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, explained Tour members are limited to three conflicting event “releases” under the current regulations and also references “strict enforcement of the Conflicting Event and Media Rights/Release rules.”
“It doesn’t matter to me, I’m playing on the PGA Tour,” three-time Travelers Championship winner Bubba Watson told Golf Channel. “Why go anywhere else? We have the best tour in the world.”
Xander Schauffle said, “Our commissioner set us straight, you have to pick which tour you want to play on and the benefits we have on the PGA Tour are pretty hard to beat. For me, how young I am and how early it is in my career all the history is made on the PGA Tour and that’s where I want to be.”
As the world’s top-ranked player, there will always be a degree of gravity to McIlroy’s comments, but his decision to speak out so early and so vehemently sent an undeniable statement. The PGL concept isn’t on the mat just yet, but it certainly took a blow.