Lynch: The USGA just fired a major shot in the LIV war, but it was aimed at PGA Tour players

PINEHURST, N.C. — For an organization that has long labored against the perception that it’s led by austere, nerdish killjoys, the U.S. Golf Association must be comforted by the fact that, in these discordant times, it has a CEO that could talk a dog off a meat truck. Mike Whan is a highly polished presenter — a notch shy of slick, but trending that way — with more upbeat aphorisms at hand than a sales clerk in a Hallmark store. It’s a skill particularly well suited to our current moment.

That’s because, in part, there are things worth celebrating. Participation in golf has grown at the recreational level. So too has investment in sustainability, a rare oasis of social conscience in a sport seen as an arid desert of amoral accounting. And the 124th playing of the national Open is just hours away, and on one of the world’s finest courses. Whan is accustomed to selling such positivity and to receiving good notices in return, that being the norm for anyone who has served as commissioner of the LPGA Tour (Carolyn Bivens is the exception who proves the rule).

Leading a governing body, however, places Whan in an altogether different position: making decisions that are widely criticized and sometimes very unpopular, pushing back on unflattering narratives about his organization and its mission, and protecting his assets from being sideswiped in someone else’s wreck. He is proving quite adept at that too, as evidenced by two thinly-veiled warning shots he fired during the USGA’s annual press conference Wednesday at Pinehurst.

The topics were familiar — distance and LIV Golf — even if the intended recipients of his message went unmentioned.

The USGA and R&A introduced new conformance rules for golf balls that take effect in 2028 for elite competition and two years later for the rest of us. What they haven’t done is tackle drivers with highly forgiving faces, but one word from Whan today was enough to get the attention of club manufacturers from Fairhaven to Carlsbad: “Yet.”

Chief executive officer Mike Whan with the USGA , USGA president Fred Perpall and chief championships officer John Bodenhamer address the media during a press conference for the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst No. 2. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

“We had and have real interest in figuring out a way to provide a difference as it relates to the driver as well,” he said, while admitting that any action previously contemplated was dismissed because it would have had an adverse impact on recreational golfers. “We didn’t really come up with something that wouldn’t have a much more negative effect on the recreational game.

“We shelved it for now…. but we didn’t retire the idea. We just didn’t, quite frankly, have an idea that we believed was worthy of going to the market yet. But I would just put a ‘yet’ on that statement.”

Pity the public relations professionals who face another long stint in rooms wargaming esoteric scenarios.

Whan’s second broadside was ostensibly about LIV Golf, but was aimed squarely at players competing on all tours, and at the executives charged with resolving the grubby, divided state of men’s professional golf.

Twelve LIV members are in the 156-man field at Pinehurst No. 2, all of whom earned a berth through final qualifying or long-established exemption criteria. Whan was at pains to point out that every LIV player had an opportunity to be here.

“We had 35 players from LIV that were exempted right into final qualifying. So if they really wanted to be here, they could go play 36 holes and qualify, and some did, to their credit,” he explained. “There is no out-of-bounds stakes on our field criteria … it’s not a closed field. It doesn’t require a committee or an invitation. If you want to play in this field you’ve got an opportunity to play in this field, and we’re proud of that.”

But avenues exist directly from other professional tours into the championship, so the USGA’s head admitted that he and chief championships officer John Bodenhamer will discuss a potential pathway for LIV golfers deemed worthy but otherwise ineligible by other established criteria. “We’re going to talk about it this off-season, whether or not there needs to be a path to somebody or somebodies that are performing really well on LIV that can get a chance to play in that way. I think we are serious about that,” he said.

Translated from Whan’s positivity patter, that was a candid warning to the PGA Tour to get its house in order, that the USGA isn’t prepared to see its premier event diminished in the future because relevant golfers are absent. Whan isn’t quite drinking the ‘Gooch hooch’ favored by PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, whose outfit contorted itself to invite LIV’s Talor Gooch to last month’s PGA Championship, despite his having made no effort to qualify on merit. But Whan is at least suggesting he might pour himself a shot for the 125th U.S. Open if there is no more clarity on the future of the men’s game.

“If I’m being perfectly honest with you, we’ve always felt like for the last maybe year and a half that we’re always three months away from kind of understanding what the new structure is going to look like,” he said, echoing every other golf fan. “What is LIV going to be? What’s the PGA Tour? So we always kind of felt like we’re just about to know that answer. Now I think the reason we’re being more vocal about looking at that for next year is maybe this is the new world order, and if that’s the case, we wanted to take a look at that … We know that there’s an option to get there.”

His comments will be celebrated in the LIV locker room — a hotbed of whining entitlement about deserving places in major championship fields — but they’ll land with a thud on the PGA Tour’s side of the room. Tour loyalists have long banked on access to majors being a reason for players not jumping to LIV. A potential pathway from Greg Norman’s folly into the U.S. Open will give pause to any Tour members who might be resistant to whatever settlement terms are agreed with the Saudis. Decisions will have consequences for all parties, but the USGA just made clear that it isn’t planning on bearing any more of that load.

“Exactly what that looks like and how that’ll curtail, I’m not just being coy; we haven’t done that yet,” Whan said flatly.


Story originally appeared on GolfWeek