The politics behind Premier Golf League-PGA Tour struggle

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — There’s an elephant in the room, lording over the PGA Tour establishment, and it doesn’t carry a driver, a putter, a world ranking or have any FedEx Cup points.

In recent months, a surge of momentum — that can best be described as somewhat nebulous and behind the curtain — has gained steam in the form of the Premier Golf League, a new-world concept with reported formidable financial backing that could threaten to obliterate old-world professional golf as we know it.

We know professional men’s golf as essentially the PGA Tour and the European Tour. The Premier Golf League wants to trim the fat from the weekly tournaments, discard the lower- and middle-class players, and present a collection of the top players in the world for each of its events.

The league, which is reportedly backed by Saudi money, proposes to conduct 18 events consisting of 48-player fields for $10 million purses, with additional individual and team bonus monies. Instead of the traditional 72-hole tournament format, it would feature 54-hole, no-cut, individual stroke-play championships in all but the season-ending match-play event, with a team component to the entire schedule.

According to a cryptic statement released last month by the PGL, the tour will be “an individual and team league” and will have 12 teams of four players each vying for a world championship.

“If you want the world to watch, you have to showcase your best product week-in-week-out,” the statement read. “Golf doesn’t do that currently.”

The backers of the PGL have very much moved in the shadows, quietly speaking to some of the world’s top players — including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.

There have been unconfirmed rumors swirling at the Genesis Invitational this week that league officials have been at Riviera speaking to some top players. The Genesis, with 9 of the top 10 players in the world rankings and 19 of the top 25 in the field, has been fertile ground for the PGL people to roam.

Mickelson was the first to publicly comment on the PGL, using the words “curious” and “intriguing,” though not dishing any details because he claims not to know a lot yet.

Woods this week revealed he has been “personally approached” by PGL people.

“My team’s been aware of it and we’ve delved into the details of it and trying to figure it out just like everyone else,” he said. “There’s a lot of information that we’re still looking at and whether it’s reality or not.”

McIlroy delivered the most thoughtful comments.

“If you look at sports leagues in general, everything evolves and everything tries to get better and tries to cater to what the fans want,” McIlroy told The Post. “That’s what the PGL are trying to do. They’re trying to bring the top players together a little more often. I think that’s what people want to see more of in the game. It’s definitely a different time than what it was before.”

Unlike McIlroy, some players seem uncomfortable talking about the PGL’s potential infiltration of the PGA Tour. Justin Thomas, the fifth-ranked player in the world, wanted no part of talking about it when approached by The Post, saying, “We’ve heard about it and gotten our information about it,” while declining to elaborate.

Charles Howell III, ranked 67th in the world and one of the players who would be in jeopardy of being on the outside looking in at these PGL star-status fields, didn’t sound averse to the idea.

“The top players in the world are what drive the ship, and any time you get a group of the best players in the world together at one event, it’s obviously a premier event, very sellable,” Howell told The Post. “So, yes, I can see it could work.”

The hope of the PGL is to begin its tour in 2022 or 2023. It’s an aggressive plan that’s not without a number of potential pitfalls, including where the likes of Woods (44 years old) and Mickelson (49) will be in their respective careers in three years, and what golf courses these events will take place on.

McIlroy raised the point that, between the four major championships, the World Golf Championships and a handful of other events like the Players Championship and even the Genesis, “There are between 10 and 15 events per year when we sort of do that anyway,” referring to the star-packed fields.

The PGL concept seems akin to the NFL presenting only games between top and most popular teams — Patriots, 49ers, Packers, Chiefs, Cowboys — every week or in baseball only Red Sox-Yankees, Giants-Dodgers, Cubs-Cardinals and the like. In that way, it doesn’t seem realistic.

There, too, is a don’t-mess-with-a-good-thing element here that tugs at some players, most of whom have made an unthinkably profitable living on the PGA Tour.

“I certainly wouldn’t want a massive disruption or an upheaval in the game, because I think golf’s in a pretty good spot right now,” McIlroy said. “But things have to move with the times. I mean, Jack [Nicklaus] and Arnie [Palmer] broke away from the PGA of America back in the ’60s to form the PGA Tour. If 50 or 60 years have passed and this is sort of the new thing that’s happening, I guess the top players have to at least be kept aware of it and we’ll see what happens. “We’ve had open communication with Jay [Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner] and all the rest of the PGA Tour team, and we’re talking all the time.”

McIlroy added the PGL “might be a catalyst and push the PGA Tour to improve their product, reward the top players the way they should be, and I think that would be a good thing.”

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan recently sent an email to players expressing the PGA Tour’s view of the PGL, with the essential message that the Tour would take steps in an attempt to prevent the competing tour from launching — including adding to its regulations, which presumably would include appearance fees (supposedly banned by the PGA Tour).

“If the Team Golf Concept or another iteration of this structure becomes a reality in 2022, or at any time before or after, our members will have to decide whether they want to continue to be a member of the PGA Tour or play on a new series,” the letter read in part.

“I think the concept is very, very good,” Adam Scott said Friday. “It’s been thrown around since the mid ’90s, so as an international player I certainly see some good in that. It makes sense. I think [the PGA Tour] would be concerned because [the PGL] are not messing around.They’re taking it very seriously, and I think they should be concerned.”

A number of other older, established authorities in the game are not keen on the PGL working.

“I just don’t think it’s viable,” Nicklaus said this week, according to the Naples (Fla.) Daily News. “I just don’t think financially they can make it. I don’t think they’ll ever get the golf courses. I don’t think the [PGA] Tour would ever let it happen. I don’t think the guys would leave [the PGA Tour]. There’s just so many things that have to happen, I just don’t think it’s possible.”

This is not the first potential threat to the PGA Tour. Aussie Greg Norman tried to launch a world tour that had similar goals to the PGL in the early ’90s, but it never got off the ground.

According to Golf.com, the Raine Group, a New York-based investment firm and PGL backer, has consulted Norman about the project.

“They asked me a few questions [like], ‘What are the potential hurdles and stopping blocks?’ ” said Norman, who isn’t affiliated with the PGL. “[It] was just trying to understand a little bit more from someone with experience.”

Norman said he sees similarities between the PGL and his plan — smaller fields, fewer events, bigger purses — and added, “Honestly, I do love the concept,” particularly citing the chance for players to earn ownership equity in PGL teams.

“The whole concept of owning a team, I think that’s brilliant,” he said. “So, as you fade away as a top player[Mickelson, as a perfect example], you still own a team, like Formula 1.The whole idea of owning a team is something I wish I’d thought about in my concept. There are smart people behind this. The Raine Group, they’re Wall Street geniuses. They’re not doing this to give away money, they’re doing this to get a return on their investment.”

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