Sound the dread alarm, the revolution is real!
On Thursday January 23rd, Geoff Shackelford – an independent journalist on the PGA Tour beat – broke news that’s been a long time coming. A world golf tour is on the cards.
Now, rumours of an alternate tour with elevated prize money have been circulating for years. In 2018, Reuters reported that a UK based group were attempting to create a world golf series and the name “Tour de Force” was tentatively put forward. Thankfully, that name has been scrapped and the latest news suggests that Premier Golf League is the new title.
Ok, it’s not exactly original, nor is the concept itself. In 1994, Greg Norman unveiled plans for a World Golf Tour to showcase the talents of the top players on a truly global stage. That the top six players in the world rankings at the time were all born outside the United States seemed to support his belief that the game – and the players themselves, of course – would benefit from a wider audience.
The PGA Tour’s reaction to Norman’s plans was as bold as it was brutal. Memos sent to every PGA Tour card holder informed them that any player to participate in a “renegade” event would be suspended. There would be no co-existence. And in reality, the classic “my way or the highway” approach was the only card they could play.
Fearful of the long-term sustainability of Norman’s venture, and cognisant of the “better the devil you know” philosophy, many players folded. And that was that. For the next 25 years, the PGA Tour went from strength to strength, thanks in no small measure to a certain Tiger Woods and has largely monopolised the top players in the world.
Yet that hasn’t stopped an eerily familiar email exiting the inboxes of Tour bosses more than 25 years later with players again being warned against any participation in a breakaway league. The only difference is, this time the Tour should be genuinely worried.
So, what has changed? Well, the PGA Tour is long established, and largely confined to the United States. Yes, there is an Asian swing in late Autumn, and they’ll visit Canada and Mexico, but they have cosy relationships with a number of high-profile corporations who will sponsor each event of the season.
But, of course, this has its limitations. You can’t expect event sponsors to start putting up $16 million dollars for the same event that they were putting up $8 million for last year. Even $10 or $12 million is a big step up. This means that prize money has stagnated somewhat, while players’ off course earnings continue to rise.
And all these tournaments must abide by PGA Tour rules. That means a field of around 156 on a weekly basis.
No offence to Keith Mitchell – a random name plucked from the FedEx Cup rankings – but he’s not exactly prime time television material. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, they are. So are more than a dozen others, but apart from the majors, and some of the WGCs, it’s rare that they all compete in the same event.
It is rarer still that all these names are at the top of the leaderboard, but smaller field events with huge prize money increases the likelihood exponentially. All of a sudden, a $20 million investment might seem like small change compared to the global impression achieved by whatever brand is sponsoring that specific event.
There is a strong argument to be made that players like McIlroy and Woods are being drastically underpaid by the PGA Tour. Sure, they’ll win more tournaments and earn more money than the likes of Keith Mitchell, but the PGA Tour isn’t making any money from Keith Mitchell. They are making a lot from Woods and McIlroy.
A new broadcast deal has reportedly been agreed with NBC and CBS which will see annual television revenue increase from $400 million to $700 million. And despite being largely responsible for the revenue hike, the marquee players don’t get a piece of the pie.
And yet, in many ways, they have become bigger than the game. If Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson can compete in a one-off match for $9 million, and the entire world top-10 can command hefty appearance fees for playing overseas, the PGA Tour is no longer in a position to play hardball with its stars.
Though a Premier Golf League spokesperson has claimed that their intent is to work with, rather than challenge the existing golf tours, it is clear that their proposed annual 18-event series and the PGA and European Tours cannot amicably co-exist.
Maybe this is all a ruse designed to look after the business interests of the elite players, and by doing so, they can negotiate a piece of the PGA Tour’s $300 million a year windfall.
But I prefer to look at it as a declaration of war.
Prepare the storming of the Bastille.
Vive la révolution.