TULSA, Okla. – Those thinking about making the jump to the LIV Golf series would be wise to re-watch Tiger Woods’ remarks Tuesday at the PGA Championship.
Here at Southern Hills, he made clear the dividing line: You’re either following him down the path he helped pave – or you’re walking with Phil Mickelson into the great unknown.
You’re either interested in legacy – or you’re only in it for the loot.
You’re either a Tiger Guy – or a Phil Guy.
Take your pick.
Somewhere, Jay Monahan had to be smiling. The most important player in the sport had done his part to minimize the Tour’s existential threat while further alienating Mickelson and his controversial views.
At least until the first tee shot is struck, the focus at this PGA Championship remains more on the player who is not here than the 156 who are. Only four times since 1960 has a reigning major champion not turned up for his defense, but never under the extraordinary circumstances of Mickelson’s current absence.
As a fellow competitor with a keen sense of history, sure, Woods said: “We miss him being out here.”
“He’s a big draw for the game of golf,” he said. “He’s just taking his time, and we all wish him the best when he comes back.”
But Woods also made clear – repeatedly – that he strongly disagrees with Mickelson’s idea of a new world order. That the best place for the top players to compete is on the PGA Tour, not the upstart league, backed by Saudi money and fronted by Greg Norman, that promises guaranteed paydays but also 54-hole tournaments, a murky team format and no historical context.
“Phil has said some things that I think a lot of us who are committed to the Tour, committed to the legacy of the Tour, have pushed back against,” Woods said. “I think that some of his views on how the Tour could be run, should be run, there’s been a lot of disagreement there.”
And that’s why Woods hasn’t felt compelled to connect with Mickelson over these past few months. Mickelson hasn’t played on Tour in nearly five months and hasn’t made any public statement since Feb. 24, when he apologized to LIV officials but not the Tour, his home for the past quarter-century.
Woods said there weren’t personal issues between the two mega-stars. “It was our viewpoints of how the Tour should be run and could be run, and what players are playing for and how we are playing for it,” he said. “I have a completely different stance on it.”
Initially, a reporter had tried to couch his question by saying that Mickelson had reached out to Woods over the past decade-plus when Woods dealt with his various scandals. But an important distinction was overlooked: Woods’ transgressions affected himself, mostly, as well as his family. Throughout his unparalleled career, however, he never put himself above the game, even when given ample opportunity to do so, as one of the most famous and powerful athletes on the planet.
Mickelson, meanwhile, was (is?) attempting to stage a mutiny. It’s somehow been lost in all his incendiary comments, but he also admitted that he had recruited other players to help draft the operating agreement for the new league. He wasn’t just thinking about joining a new rival; he was helping build it, which would disrupt the lives and careers of hundreds of pros.
And so, among his peers at least, there’s been little public support. Rory McIlroy called Mickelson’s absence here “unfortunate, sad.” Jon Rahm said he’s “got to do what he’s got to do.” Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas basically shrugged. If there’s room for reconciliation, it’s unclear.
“I don’t know if he has to resolve it or not,” Woods said. Mickelson has his opinions. And Woods has his, formed from watching legends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer create the breakaway Tour, then strengthened through Woods’ relationships running events on the Tour schedule for the past two decades.
“There’s a legacy to that,” he said. “I still think that the Tour has so much to offer, so much opportunity. I understand different viewpoints, but I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, in comparisons to historical figures of the past.”
That’s not to suggest that Woods thinks the current Tour model is perfect. He’s had “arguments” with both Tour commissioner Monahan and his predecessor, Tim Finchem, about how he and his peers are marketed and promoted. He believes the $50 million Player Impact Program has the right concept – rewarding those who boost the Tour through more than on-course performance – but likely needs to be tweaked. He argued that, for decades, the “top players have carried the tours,” in terms of interest and exposure, and that needs to be reflected.
Still, he said, “There’s plenty of money out here. The Tour is growing. But it’s like tennis: You have to go out there and earn it. You’ve got to go out there and play for it. We have an opportunity to go ahead and do it. It’s not just guaranteed upfront.”
Woods hasn’t needed to worry about money since his Stanford days (Forbes recently published a story entitled, “Inside Tiger Woods’ $1.7 billion career”), but his words still carry weight. Up and down the range are Tiger Guys – players who grew up idolizing Woods, who picked up the game because of Woods, who modeled their swings and their mannerisms and their aspirations after Woods. It’s not a coincidence that the game’s under-30 set has almost universally rejected the rival tour. Because Woods has – and for many, that’s reason enough.