The traditional curtain-raiser each year on the PGA TOUR is the Tournament of Champions (since rebranded as The Sentry), which brings together all of the players that had won an event the prior season.
It’s supposed to be an attention-grabbing way to start the new calendar year, with the best in the business heading to Hawaii to set the tone for another campaign of gripping golf.
The 2018 edition was Dustin Johnson, while the 2022 tournament was won in record-breaking fashion by Cameron Smith, who took apart the rain-softened Kapalua Resort course with a winning score of -34.
The 2024 edition should have seen Jon Rahm defend the title he won 12 months prior, but he – like Johnson and Smith – has decided to make the switch to LIV Golf, which has decimated the playing strength of the PGA TOUR and left a massive gulf in the history of events like the Tournament of Champions, where the honours board reads like a ‘where are they now’ rather than a ‘who’s who’ of world golf.
Rahm’s move to LIV could finally move the needle in the direction of the Saudi-backed rebel tour, who despite boasting the talents of multiple major winners and huge personalities, has failed to capture the attention of the public – it barely even has a TV deal in the United States or overseas.
As for the PGA TOUR, there is a feeling of a ship very slowly sinking – more and more players likely to be attracted by LIV’s ‘play less, earn more’ mantra. The battle between money and heritage is being won by the former, it seems.
Ultimately, nobody wins. So will 2024 or beyond bring a solution to golf’s civil war?
New Year, New Woe
There was a hope that a potential peace agreement might break out in time for the start of the 2024 season.
Representatives of the PGA TOUR and LIV Golf were supposed to meet to flesh out some kind of partnership deal, but the deadline for that passed as the players began limbering up for the Tournament of Champions.
To be able to compete with LIV, which is powered by the deep pockets of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, the PGA TOUR needs more money – it’s sad but true that winning more cash is a primary driver for many players, as opposed to the chance to build a golfing legacy and ply their trade at some of the most iconic courses on the planet.
They hope that 2024 will be the year that an investment deal, perhaps penned with Liverpool FC and Boston Red Sox owners Fenway Sports Group, will achieve exactly that.
If the PGA TOUR can match LIV dollar for dollar, the reasons to join the Saudi project become less obvious. Sadly for golf lovers, the horse has already bolted – decimating any chance of seeing the best take on the best until a resolution is found.
How is LIV Golf Different from the PGA TOUR?
Whether you’re pro or anti-LIV, we can all agree that we’d like to earn more money while doing less work – even if that utopian state is derived from a paymaster with a rather questionable human rights record.
And that’s the basic vibe of LIV Golf, where the players duke it out for huge purses over just 54 holes – instead of the traditional 72 played on the PGA TOUR. What’s more, the LIV schedule features just 14 tournaments….on the PGA, there’s an event pretty much every week between January and August.
LIV Golf Tournaments for 2024
|Feb 2nd to 4th
|El Camaleón Golf Course
|Feb 8th to 10th
|Las Vegas Country Club
|Mar 1st to 3rd
|Mar 8th to 10th
|Hong Kong Golf Club
|Apr 5th to 7th
|Apr 26th to 28th
|The Grange Golf Club
|May 3rd to 5th
|Sentosa Golf Club
|Jun 7th to 9th
|Golf Club of Houston
|Jun 21st to 23rd
|Jul 12th to 14th
|Real Club Valderrama
|Jul 26th to 28th
|JCB Golf and Country Club
|Aug 16th to 18th
|The Old White at the Greenbriar
One of the other appealing factors about LIV for players in the autumn of their careers is that prize money is guaranteed – there’s no cut, meaning that everyone in the field has secured take-home pay in the form of appearance fees….unlike on the PGA TOUR, where not finishing in the top 50% or so players after the opening 36 holes means you go home with nothing.
So the differences between LIV Golf and the PGA TOUR are both financial and ideological, although the bottom line is that some pretty ordinary players – relatively speaking – are making big bucks with LIV, which they simply wouldn’t be able to do on the PGA TOUR given their inability to finish inside the best-paying places.
The downside to all this is that, at the time of writing at least, LIV Golf events are not recognised by the official world rankings, meaning that those who ply their trade on the rebel tour are slipping further and further down the pecking order year after year.
That’s important, because only the top 50 or so players in the world are guaranteed invitations to the majors each year – unless they have a legacy invite having won the event before. That means that the likes of Rahm, Johnson, Smith and Koepka can still play in some of the big ones….but it’s a situation that is preventing other quality operators from LIV from playing in The Masters, The Open Championship and the like.
In theory, LIV players are also banned from competing in the Ryder Cup – although the fact that the captains of the European and American teams are allowed wildcard picks does circumnavigate that.
Which Golfer Earned the Most Money Last Year?
And so we reach the crux of the PGA TOUR vs LIV Golf debate: sweet cashola.
If you’re ever asked in a pub quiz to name the richest sportsman on the planet, thanks to this column you will know that 2023 brought a new answer to the question: Jon Rahm.
In leaving behind the PGA and cashing in his chips with LIV Golf, the Spaniard has guaranteed himself at least £400 million – and that’s before he’s even dusted off his clubs and started playing for the huge prize money pots available.
And this is the real point of difference between the two tours. Here’s a look at the top earning golfers of 2023 based upon prize money won and other bonuses:
As you can see, the earning power of the top PGA Tour players (listed in red) is higher than that, for the most part, of the best-paid LIV stars, highlighted in the graphic in white.
Viktor Hovland trousered $37.1 million, of which a large chunk came from winning the PGA TOUR’s season-long FedEx Cup – $18 million, to be precise. That required him to play in 23 events across North America and overseas.
But compare and contrast that to Talor Gooch, a functional rather than world-class player who won LIV Golf’s season-long championship in 2023. He banked $18 million for winning the title as well as $17.3 million in prize money from the individual events, plus $800,000 for the efforts of he and his colleagues in the team competition.
Crucially, Gooch’s haul came from playing in just 13 of the 54-hole events on the LIV circuit – a rather more handsome pay scale, pro rata, than that of Hovland and his PGA TOUR peers. But Gooch does not qualify for any of the majors, which shines a brighter spotlight on the money vs legacy debate.
It should, however, be noted that the earnings of the leading PGA TOUR players has been inflated by the bizarre Player Impact Program (PIP) pay scheme implemented by the TOUR….
What is the PGA PIP Payout?
Introduced in 2020, the PIP scheme is a poorly-disguised attempt at guaranteeing the biggest names on the PGA TOUR a whopping payday – the complete antithesis of the organisation’s meritocratic stance.
Now, they ringfence a pot of money – including $15 million to the winner – to the players that deliver the ‘biggest positive impact’ to the TOUR.
That’s a definition that can be construed in many different ways, but for the most part consider it a PR contest: the player that consistently brings the most attention to the PGA TOUR wins the loot. That can be via social media posts, newspaper headlines, public appearances and so on.
In an era of golf in which money talks, it’s a way for the PGA TOUR to seduce the most popular players and keep them on side – Rory McIlroy, the 2023 PIP champion, saw his earnings supplemented to the tune of $15 million.
PIP is proving to be a handy form of income for Tiger Woods too, whose ongoing injury problems saw him play in just two events in 2023 and earn $59,000 for his troubles. Not to worry: the ‘Big Cat’ finished second in the PIP standings, ensuring a payout of some $12 million.
If anything highlights the preposterousness – and the hypocrisy – of the PGA TOUR, it’s PIP.
Even the players are not sold on the idea, with Jordan Spieth – the players’ policy board representative – stating:
“I think that its goal was to help prevent players from accepting high-dollar Saudi offers, LIV offers. I think that’s the goal. If you’re going to see numbers that are thrown out at players now, a couple specific players, it doesn’t really do that.”
And another pro, Nate Lashley, hit out at the tour’s officials on his Instagram page, writing:
“There’s 150-200 members of the PGA Tour and they just spent $100 million on 20 players. Seems a little ridiculous. Time for new leadership on the PGA Tour. This is an absolute kick in the face to the rest of the PGA Tour players.”
The PGA TOUR has since reduced the PIP prize pool from $100 million to $50 million, instead divesting the money to payouts for player performances in the FedEx Cup and the like.
Can LIV Golf Players Play in Majors?
At this point, we’ve detailed the financial prerogative of joining LIV Golf over the PGA TOUR – the amount earned per shot struck is greater for many in LIV than the traditional home of golf.
But what about those other things that all young golfers dream of: winning titles, majors, green jackets?
As documented, the only way for LIV Golf players to qualify for a major (at the moment) is by ranking inside the world’s top 50 players – the likes of Rahm have plenty of scope on this front thanks to their recent performances in ranked events on the PGA TOUR, or by having performed admirably in past editions of the majors.
For 2024, and accurate at the time of writing, just 15 of LIV’s 48 members will be eligible to play in major events.
Rahm, Koepka and Smith are all likely to remain in the top-50 for the foreseeable future; besides, the trio are all former major champions, so they secure an invite alongside the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson.
Overseas wins for Joaquin Niemann and Dean Burmester will get them into the Open Championship, but for the most part if you’re a LIV golfer that hasn’t won a major already, then your potential pathway into The Masters, US Open, PGA Championship and Open Championship is effectively closed.
When those players retire, lying on their beds made out of cash a la Scrooge McDuck, will they look back on their careers and be concerned with opportunities missed?
PGA TOUR vs LIV Golf: What Next?
The biggest problem facing world golf is that the civil war between the PGA TOUR and LIV Golf is not a zero-sum game – in fact, both parties are missing out, while the biggest losers of all are fans of the sport.
While LIV golf continues to be denied access to the world rankings points system, their product cannot be considered to have long-term viability – unless, of course, you’re a player that has already secured legacy invites to the majors.
For context, here’s how the world rankings of some of LIV’s players have fallen from the moment they joined from the PGA TOUR. Remember, these individuals do not have legacy invites to all of the majors:
LIV Golf Impact on World Ranking
This quintet has all previously won on the PGA TOUR, and would – some more than others – have a chance of winning majors year on year. Now, their world rankings have plummeted to the point that they aren’t even on the radar.
The team-based format of LIV Golf means that the tour lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the OWGR, who oversee golf’s world rankings, and so the players are stuck in a Mexican standoff. Do they care? If they don’t, you worry for the future of the sport’s supposedly greatest prizes.
As for the PGA TOUR, they too are in a bind. Although taking the moral high ground, there are those – including some of their own players – that believe the circuit is out of touch with modern times, and lacking the leadership to create a future-proofed product that will stave off LIV long after the Saudis have got bored and ploughed their money into a new plaything.
What fans want is to see the best players competing against one another more often – a solution, the PGA TOUR believes, has been found in their Signature Events schedule, which will attract the best players on account of the huge prize funds on offer.
PGA Tour Signature Events in 2024
|Jan 4th to 7th
|Feb 1st to 4th
|AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am
|Feb 15th to 18th
|Mar 7th to 10th
|Arnold Palmer Invitational
|Apr 18th to 21st
|May 9th to 12th
|Wells Fargo Championship
|Jun 6th to 9th
|Jun 20th to 23rd
The best solution would be a merger between the PGA TOUR and LIV Golf, which would give the players the choice of managing their own schedules as they wish. It would also see the best players going head-to-head – perhaps with added spice, given the in-fighting that has broken out ever since LIV’s foundation in 2021.
All we want to see is the best vs the best….regardless of the behind the scenes machinations. But will such a luxury ever exist in men’s golf ever again?