Senior Service – How LIV’s arrival could have healthy payoff for golf’s legends

Mike Wilson
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Senior Service – How LIV’s arrival could have healthy payoff for golf’s legends

Padraig Harrington (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Intro – The Saudi-backed disrupter start-up has got underway to the obvious detriment and chagrin – and potentially, the very future of the established member-owned professional circuits as we know them on the line – but its roster of players recruited to date comprise several self-confessed PGA TOUR mercenaries, a legion of fading European stars many consider to be reaching the twilight years of their stellar careers, with fields padded out with a group of talented youngsters who are hardly household names, who, quite frankly, can hardly believe their luck at the rich pickings on offer. But, while the PGA TOUR and the DP World Tour are clearly shaken to their very foundations by the defection of some of their shimmering stars, an opportunity opens-up for an impressive array of over-50s playing on the American Champions Tour and its European cousin, the Legends Tour, big-name players with multiple titles, character, personality and the wider benefit of the royal and ancient game at heart…

You pays your money and takes your choice.

That’s how it currently is in the upper echelons of men’s professional golf; there are those – let’s call them for the sake of argument, ‘The Mercenaries,’ men like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio García and Paul Casey, fine players for sure but many without a ‘Major’ title yet to their name who, it could be argued, care more – much more – about the size of their already groaning, gargantuan bank balances than playing meaningful, truly authentic competitive golf.

Meanwhile, in the other corner, there’s what we shall call – again for the sake of argument – ‘The Traditionalists,’ players loyal to their ‘home’ tours, the circuits that made them, rewarded them for being amongst the best in the business, guys who, in the main, have played their golf as much for the values and honour of the game, the unique competitive camaraderie of the tour as a sporting endeavour, where the rich rewards, important and welcome as they have been and continue to be, are at worst equal to and at best, second to their passion for and commitment to golf.

And we, the fans can also pay our money and take our choice, some will be seduced by the eye-watering millions of dollars on offer just for turning up to LIV’s travelling circus – with much more on top for winning – other golf aficionados will prefer their golf to be more about the royal and ancient game, the purely competitive motives of those who chose to stay and ply their trade on the traditional circuits, in the main the PGA TOUR and the DP World Tour.

Neither viewpoint – of both players and fans – is 100% right or wrong, opinions are mixed, shades of grey prevail, but four-time ‘Major’ champion Ernie Els, a man who rightly courted criticism in 2007 when he side-stepped the European Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship, the Volvo Masters, when he was still in contention ahead of Pádraig Harrington for the prestigious Order of Merit saying, “How can I say it; the end of the year you’ve got the wheelbarrow out, too, you want to cash in a little bit.”

But the South African, nicknamed ‘The Big Easy’ expressed an altogether different view to Golf Digest ahead of playing in – and finishing a creditable tied-third – in the European Legends Tour ‘Major,’ the Senior Open at Gleneagles, won by Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke in a thrilling one-shot victory over fellow-Irishman Harrington.

“Just because you are playing for US$20 million U.S. a week doesn’t change anything,” the four-time ‘Major champion reflected, adding, “It’s still 54 holes, there’s no basis to it, there’s no substance to it.”

Upping the rhetoric and putting the boot into Norman’s LIV Golf project, Els continued, “You can’t have a 48-man tour playing no-cut golf and expect the world to take you seriously,” concluding, “It’s not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, as the rain poured down at Gleneagles as the Senior Open awaited its grand finale with a three-hour interruption in play, the Els remarks caused Bunker Mentality to consider and compare the field at the US$2.75m Senior Open, in which Darren Clarke won a handsome US$432,204, and the forthcoming third leg of the LIV Golf series, held at the Trump National Golf Club, Bedminster, New Jersey, New York.

The Gleneagles field boasted no fewer than 15 players with no fewer than 26 ‘Major’ titles between them, not counting senior ‘Majors,’ Irishmen Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington, first and second respectively, four between them, multi ‘Major’ champions Els (4), his South African compatriot Retief Goosen (2), Vijay Singh (3), the evergreen Bernhard Langer (2), Sandy Lyle (2), José Marí Olazábal (2) and Paul Lawrie, YE Yang, Ian Woosnam, Corey Pavin, Michael Campbell, David Duval and Rich Beem one-apiece.

Meanwhile, over at ex-President Donald Trump’s Bedminster resort, the LIV Golf line-up boasted only nine ‘Major’ champions, with 17 Grand Slam titles between them, Phil Mickelson, the bête noire and prime mover of Norman’s rebel initiative – who had called his Saudi paymasters,  “Scary mother f***ers,’ in a book ahead of the LIV launch – comments for which he subsequently apologised, the most decorated man in the Bedminster field with six ‘Majors’ in all, followed by Brooks Koepka (4), German Martin Kaymer and American Dustin Johnson with two each, Bryson DeChambeau, his compatriot Patrick Reed and the two South Africans, Oosthuizen and Schwartzel all with one ‘Major’ title.

The best of the rest arguably also leans in favour of a Legends Tour Senior Open now short of great stars like Tom Watson, Gary Player and Nick Faldo – and, ironically, Greg Norman himself – colourful characters Colin Montgomerie and Miguel Ángel Jiménez, 100-plus professional wins between them, including five senior ‘majors,’ ex-Ryder Cup captains Paul McGinley and Thomas Bjorn, Asian stalwarts Jeev Milka Singh (India), Charlie Wi (Korea) and Thai veteran Thongchai Jaidee all embossing a field high on quality and international appeal.

And while LIV Golf can also boast a host of non-‘Major’ winners such as English triumvirate Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey, before jumping ship from the PGA TOUR and DP World Tour – all Ryder Cup stalwarts and possible future captains, the roster for Trump Bedminster is also packed and padded-out with makeweights, players – very good golfers in their own right, but hardly household names with the ‘wow’ factor, men such as Englishman Sam Horsfield, Americans Turk Pettit, James Piot and Hudson Swafford, Australian Scott Vincent, none likely to get the pulse beating or tickets flying off the shelf.

Indeed, following the early events on the highly-vaunted inaugural LIV Golf schedule, including the launch event at the Centurion Club in London and Pumpkin Ridge in Portland Oregon via its online streaming service, this was a strange semi-detached and distinctly dreary experience, some great golfers for sure, playing some wonderful golf, but with a somewhat soulless demeanour, a sense of going through the motions that one might get from knowing, regardless of performance and outcome, especially for the top stars on show, that t job was already done, money – big money – already in the bank.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘ground-breaking’ innovations, a shotgun start, hardly something new to the game of golf and the team component featuring 12 teams, many with obscure titles such as Niblicks GC led by Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell and Sergio García’s Fireball GC failed to resonate, the aim of replicating Formula 1 with individual and team competition running in parallel will take time if and when it is ever to catch the public’s imagination, not, in truth that it has to, bankrolled from the deep, deep pockets of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, no return on investment required, the received wisdom of commercial sports sponsorship do not apply.

But back on the Kings Course at Gleneagles, the entire ambience of the Senior Open Presented by Rolex was altogether different; titans of the game lining-up for a prize fund 65% less than the US$4million South African Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion banked in winning the LIV Golf debut event in London was diametrically-opposed to the somewhat soulless fare on offer at Greg Norman’s behest.

144 players representing 27 different countries on every continent in the world lined-up in search of – by comparison to the riches on offer at LIV Golf events – the meagre US$432,204 first prize, no guarantees, miss the cut, as 70 of them would, while the financial rewards were important, they were clearly secondary to the intensity of the contest and the primary objective of taking home the venerable Senior Open trophy previously held by icons of the game such as Gary Player, Bob Charles, Tom Watson, Freddy Couples and Christy O’Connor Jnr.

In contrast to the somewhat sombre, mechanical golf being played over at LIV, players, fully focused and deep in the zone, barely a smile to be had behind the shades and visors, the vibe at Gleneagles was palpable, intense competition for sure but players interacting with each other, with fans and even the media, winning clearly the name of the game from start to finish, but winning in style, with grace and enjoyment, professional sport as it ought to, indeed must be played if it is to thrive.

And thrive the Legends Tour, along with its sister circuit, the Champions Tour in the USA, where Pádraig Harrington opened his senior’s account, adding the 2022 U.S. Senior Open to his three ‘Majors’ on the regular circuit, and recent stars such as Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and the colourful John Daly will certainly do, highly appealing to players, fans and the media because the golf is played in the correct spirit and for the right reasons, sporting endeavour first, winning meaningful titles and generous sums of money not far behind.

2022 British Senior Open champion Darren Clarke summed up the experience rather eloquently, commenting while clasping the famous old trophy, “[I’m] obviously very privileged, very privileged to get my name on The Open trophy and the Claret Jug, and now to get my name on this one as well and go beside some legends of the game. I feel very humbled and very honoured.”

‘Privileged, ‘Humbled,’ and ‘Honoured,’ three words unlikely to be uttered by an unnecessarily aggressive and confrontational LIV Golf CEO & Commissioner Greg Norman, who preferred pursuing his burgeoning entrepreneurial career rather than chase further honours in the senior ranks might well just have handed seniors golf if not a reprieve – because it was already in good health – but a massive shot in the arm by offering and delivering the authenticity, the character and personality his financially-focused LIV Golf comprehensively – to date at least – fails to provide.

And, with Tiger Woods turning 50 in three-years-time, and given his antithesis towards the LIV Golf concept and apparent support for the status quo, should the PGA TOUR authorities manage to persuade the world’s greatest golfer – assuming he remains fit and healthy – to follow in the footsteps of his hero Jack Nicklaus, who won eight seniors ‘Majors’ to add to his record 18 Grand Slam titles and commit to the Seniors / Legends circuits, in an ambassadorial and occasional competitive role, that would be the sweetest cherry on top of the icing on a very appetising cake.

LIV Golf, it seems, could very well be here to stay and has already irreversibly shifted the tectonic plates of men’s professional golf, and there is no doubt the incumbent circuits, the PGA TOUR and the DP World Tour are reeling, struggling to find a solution to what has become their worst nightmare, and some.

But they will survive, regroup, compromises will probably be found, perhaps after years of expensive litigation, but, for those true legends of golf, those men who carved out a stellar career by winning major titles and multiple tournaments playing golf the right way and for the right reasons, the future of the Champions and Legends Tours not only seem assured, they could well be magnified beyond their wildest dreams.

And, as Irish legend Pádraig Harrington, already a multiple ‘Major’ winner, a pragmatist who plays his golf hard, fair and for the right reasons recently said so succinctly, “A bit of rivalry won’t do us any harm at all.”

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