As the first chapter of golf’s civil war nears completion, accusations of betrayal, a pledge from Henrik Stenson to take a lie detector test and more Donald Trump bravado cloud LIV Golf’s finale in Miami.
The Team Championship punctuates what has been an unsettling period for the sport, which will reemerge in 2023 never to be the same again. This whirlwind inaugural season has been more divisive than the Saudi benefactors could have ever imagined. And, in truth, probably more successful too, with the disruptive nature of Greg Norman’s rebel tour not even close to the incompetence some traditionalists naively hoped for. The rumour mill has dried up for the time being with the star-studded roster of golfers nearing saturation as both sides take stock ahead of a retreat throughout the winter.
LIV Golf may grumble at how Rory McIlroy’s resurgence, having harnessed his resentment towards the rebel tour to devastating effect, has somewhat overshadowed their event once again. A polished Sunday finish, the kind that alluded him at St Andrews last summer, captured the CJ Cup and elevated him back to world No 1, snatching the headlines just like his FedEx Cup victory days out from LIV Golf Boston.
The Team Championship, with a distorted version of the beloved Ryder Cup format, including two singles matches and one match of foursomes per match, has arrived at Trump National Doral. In the aftermath of McIlroy’s latest bludgeoning counter to LIV Golf’s assault on the sport’s status quo, there is a palpable satisfaction ahead of an eighth global event.
McIlroy bristled at the mere mention of the Ryder Cup heroes who have defected to LIV Golf. “It’s a weird thing,” McIlroy told the Guardian when discussing Sergio García, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter’s move. “I think it is the first time in my life that I have felt betrayal, in a way. It’s an unfamiliar feeling to me. You build bonds with these people through Ryder Cups and other things. Them knowing that what they are about to do is going to jeopardise them from being a part of that ever again?
“I would like to think the Ryder Cup means as much to them as it does to me. Maybe it does. But knowing what the consequences could be, I just could never make that decision. OK, it might not be 100% certain but that it could be the outcome? It just isn’t a move I would be willing to make. I thought they felt the same way.”
McIlroy emphasises “legacy” and “brand”, while recently-promoted Majestics captain Poulter, naturally, could not resist snapping back.
“Betrayal? We can still qualify for the team as far as I’m aware,” Poulter smartly pointed out, with the elephant in the room at each DP World Tour event the presence of LIV Golf players after the U.K. arbitration court injunction.
“I’m still ready to play as much as I possibly can to try and make that team. My commitment to the Ryder Cup I think goes before me. I don’t think that should ever come in question. I’ve always wanted to play Ryder Cups and I’ve played with as much passion as anyone else that I’ve ever seen play a Ryder Cup. So you know, I don’t know where that comment really comes from to be honest.”
Poulter is technically correct, but with Luke Donald unlikely to use a wildcard on any LIV Golf player, he would need to capture one of six automatic places - three for the European Points List and three from the World Points List. Adrian Otaegui, hardly a LIV Golf stalwart but conveniently reinstated this week after his victory at the Andalucia Masters, is currently 10th, but Poulter currently languishes down in 130th.
Never reluctant to pour fuel on the fire, Phil Mickelson appeared to rile McIlroy with his “trending downwards” comment when discussing the PGA Tour in Jeddah. While still a controversial figure in the game, Mickelson is correct in that LIV Golf is “past” condescending remarks from earlier this year that the rebel tour was “dead in the water”, correctly emphasising that LIV Golf is a “force in the game that’s not going away”.
The exorbitant stacks of cash, which totals $50 million this week and delivers the winning quartet $16 million, has mostly failed to resonate with fans. But this is not merely a criticism of LIV Golf, the FedEx Cup badly needs a shot of adrenaline to capture the imagination of the non-hardcore fan with more live sport options than ever. A promising antidote emerged when Tiger Woods held a secret meeting among PGA Tour players with added emphasis to collaborate when planning scheduled for 2023 to routinely place the best players in the same fields.
LIV Golf will remain emboldened that the team format can work, but the evolving cast of characters and the almost comical presence of Pat Perez as a member of 4 Aces, despite barely contributing to any of their four regular season victories to capture the No 1 seed this week, needs attention.
The jovial mood and light-hearted criticism in Florida, with captains publicly selecting their opponents for Friday’s quarter-finals, certainly brought a freshness and intriguing element that could elevate the Ryder Cup. Mickelson was at the mercy of Open champion Cameron Smith, but relished a feisty exchange with Brooks Koepka. By design or not, LIV Golf may start to lean into rivalries in the future, considering the pleasantries this year.
Golf must prepare for more squabbling over world ranking points, not to mention the looming decision from Augusta National over the involvement of past champions at next year’s Masters. That certainly brings added trepidation to the PGA Tour, but while McIlroy blazes to new heights, LIV Golf, despite a promising start, remain on the ropes.