Player withdrawals on the eve of a tournament are nothing new. The reason why most pros who find themselves near the top of the alternate list actually travel, register and begin to practice is that there are always a couple of players, usually through injury, who decide on the week of a tournament not to play, bumping each of the alternates up a spot and allowing one replacement in.
This week, Davis Riley was the first to withdraw from the Waste Management Phoenix Open, meaning Ryan Fox was in, but since Riley would be classed among the PGA Tour ‘mules’, few eyebrows were raised. When Viktor Hovland and Xander Schauffele withdrew, however, that was a different story.
Both Hovland and Schauffele, at various stages over the past couple of years, have been strongly linked with a move to LIV, though obviously neither have gone. The last semi big-name to withdraw from a PGA Tour event was Adrian Meronk, who took his name out of the Farmers Insurance field at Torrey Pines and made his LIV Golf debut just over a week later at Mayakoba, so naturally, when genuine stars like Hovland and Schauffele withdrew, the rumour mill went into overdrive.
Jon Rahm’s signing was touted as the potential gamechanger, adding a level of legitimacy to the competition that even its most ardent critics couldn’t deny, even if they still refused to give it the credit that it now clearly deserves.
And LIV’s stock has never been higher than it is following the 2024 season-opener last week. Fortune favoured it, of course, with weather seriously disrupting the PGA Tour’s ‘Signature Event’ at Pebble Beach and leaving LIV the only show in town on Sunday. Throw in Rahm in contention, Cam Smith and Brooks Koepka making a run, and Joaquin Niemann edging Sergio Garcia in a playoff in darkness, it made for great viewing.
Having started with 12 teams and 48 players, Rahm’s move meant the addition of a 13th team and, with the shotgun start format, 14 teams and 54 players seems the limit, allowing for groups of three to start on each of the 18 holes. Were Hovland and Schauffele to make the move, one of them, and Hovland most likely, would surely become captain of the 14th and final team, and LIV would have legitimate claims to having a stronger leading five than the PGA Tour. Which would be some going, considering it’s less than two years since it was called “dead in the water.”
Of course there are countless reasons why Hovland and Schauffele may have pulled out of Phoenix – and there is no evidence to suggest that there are ulterior motives such as a move to LIV – but in the current environment, tongue-wagging and panic-button hitting were virtually guaranteed.
And until such time as LIV and the PGA Tour are brought under the same umbrella, this will be the narrative going forward any time that any player of note gets the sniffles and withdraws, any time they refuse to adamantly shoot down any kind of speculation that they may be interested in jumping ship, and any time they are even remotely critical of PGA Tour policy or leadership.
If for no reason other than ending the constant ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ speculation, a deal and unification can’t come quick enough.