There are now two phases to every golf tournament: the Monday-to-Wednesday interview sessions, which largely focus on the threat that the upstart LIV Golf tour presents to the existing order, and the Thursday-to-Sunday run of play, in which the golf itself is the story. Players and officials alike lament that we all have to go through the first part to get to the second, but the simple truth is that LIV is unlike any threat/challenge/opportunity in professional golf history, and it demands a response.
Tiger Woods issued his sharpest condemnation yet of LIV and its players on Tuesday, and the next day, Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, took his turn. The R&A regulates golf around the world in every area outside North America, and Slumbers clearly sees LIV as both an existential threat and a deceptively packaged operation.
"In my opinion the continued commentary that this is about growing the game is just not credible and if anything, is harming the perception of our sport which we are working so hard to improve," Slumbers said. "We believe the game needs to focus on increasing participation, achieving greater diversity, and making sure that golf is truly open to all, rather than this narrow debate involving a small number of players. As importantly, it detracts from what makes golf, as Arnold Palmer stated, the greatest sport that mankind ever invented. Golf is far more than just professional golf, and we should all remember that."
Slumbers put a bit of distance between himself and the PGA Tour, embracing the idea that professional golfers, as independent contractors, have the right to play wherever they can get paid.
"I firmly believe that the existing golf ecosystem has successfully provided stable pathways for golfers to enter the sport and develop and realize their full potential," Slumbers said. "Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prize money that's offered to them. I have absolutely no issue with that at all." The PGA Tour has suspended players who have begun play on the LIV tour, and rejected those players' requests for waivers to play in LIV events.
"But there is no such thing as a free lunch," Slumbers added. "I believe the model we've seen at Centurion and Pumpkin Ridge [the sites of the first two LIV events] is not in the best long-term interests of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money. We believe it undermines the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special."
Those concepts of "merit-based culture" and "open competition" are significant hints at how the R&A, at least, will treat LIV players attempting to qualify for future Open Championships. Most notably, Slumbers indicated that players who join LIV could face a much tougher path to returning to the Open Championship in the future.
"We have been asked quite frequently about banning players. Let me be very clear. That's not on our agenda. But what is on our agenda is that we will review our exemptions and qualifications criteria for The Open," he said. "And whilst we do that every year, we absolutely reserve the right to make changes as our Open Championships Committee deems appropriate. Players have to earn their place in The Open, and that is fundamental to its ethos and its unique global appeal."
Currently, players can qualify for each year's Open in a variety of ways, but most involve performing well on the PGA Tour, the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour), or other accredited tours — which the LIV tour, at present, is not. The top 50 players in the Official World Golf Rankings qualify for the tournament, but as LIV tournaments are not currently recognized by the OWGR, LIV players will soon find themselves plummeting down the rankings.
Slumbers stressed that his intention was not to block LIV players, but that they may need to go through the regular qualification process in order to earn their way into the field.
LIV tournaments are 54-hole, no-cut events in which every player receives a paycheck regardless of finish. That's a sharp departure from the traditional 72-hole tournament at which players must make a cut to get paid.
Slumbers also addressed the fact that LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, a two-time Open champion, was not invited to the festivities surrounding the championship this week.
"We are absolutely determined to ensure that this goes down in history as about The 150th Open. We decided that there would be, based on noise that I was receiving from multiple sources, that that was going to be potentially unlikely," Slumbers said. "We decided that we didn't want the distraction. We wanted to ensure that the conversation was all about this week and playing golf and balls in the air tomorrow and the Champion Golfer on Sunday."
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.