Premier Golf League: Big On Promises, Short on Substance

As cris de coeur go, Premier Golf League’s opening salvo sounded less passionate than petulant. The proposed rival circuit to the PGA Tour sent its first tweet on Friday, one that included an audacious appeal to individualism given that it is partly financed by a regime that dismembers free thinkers.

“Nobody owns golf,” the message read. “Golf is owned by everyone who enjoys it, watches it, and thinks about it – in other words, you. #PGL”

As an implicit call to arms against the reign of King Jay of Ponte Vedra, it fell flat. But that idea of ownership – not of the game, but of the players –explains why the League’s CEO, Andrew Gardiner, has finally moved into the open to speak publicly. He was on a salvage operation after Rory McIlroy holed the entire concept below the waterline earlier in the week.

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“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it. The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do,” McIlroy said. “If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice … I’ve never been one for being told what to do, and I like to have that autonomy and freedom over my career, and I feel like I would give that up by going to play this other league.”

In a series of interviews, Gardiner conceded there wouldn’t be much wiggle room for players to skip some of the 18 proposed worldwide tournaments, an all-in requirement that might also dissuade a guy like Tiger Woods, who has young kids at home, a balky back, and scant interest in playing much more than a dozen times a year (including the four major championships).

Gardiner also confirmed a source of PGL funding: “The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia is incredibly passionate about golf and its future and I’m delighted to have them involved.” The PIF invests on behalf of the Saudi government and is passionate about many things. Reputation management, for one. It was the PIF that paid a public relations firm – ironically named Karv Communications – $120,000 a month to help wipe the bloodstains from its image after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi chopped up.

Just the kind of outfit a global athlete would want a brand association with.

For all the attention Premier Golf League has garnered, it’s still little more than spitballs against a whiteboard. There’s the promise of financing, but no hard assets. No players. No tournaments. No infrastructure. McIlroy’s stiff-arming isn’t quite a fatal blow – he admitted that if everyone else jumps then he’ll have to follow – but having the world No. 1 say he’ll join only at gunpoint doesn’t much recommend it to his peers. Guys like Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose have teased interest, but they are players who don’t have the longest competitive runway ahead of them.

To be viable, PGL needs commitments from multiple younger stars, and the biggest star in that constellation just said no. Six years after it was conceived, Premier Golf League is all promise, no delivery.

That PGL has lingered for so long speaks to the depthless focus on finances among some players and agents, but also to how urgently the PGA Tour needs a reckoning with its own reality. Because even Woods predicts this will not be the last renegade challenge the Tour faces.

For all the fan-friendly piffle the PGL has peddled – fresh formats, team play, more head-to-heads among elite players – this is at heart a naked cash grab, and the PGA Tour will have to defuse it as such. Revenue from the new broadcast rights deal will boost purses and FedEx Cup bonuses, and Commissioner Jay Monahan will find a way to reward key players who move the needle, regardless of how they perform inside the ropes.

It might look like a shakedown by the players, but that’s the cost of continuing to do business.

At a recent meeting of the Players Advisory Council, McIlroy told players in the room that they can be about legacy or they can be about money. In choosing legacy, he has exposed just how large that leap of faith will be for others who might go overboard hoping there’s an alternative that can actually float.

Golfweek.com, February 23, 2020.

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