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Monday Scramble: Will Saudi league be anything more than a mid-senior tour?

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The Saudi golf league has a new face, Lucas Herbert survives in Bermuda, amateur status rules change for the better and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

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Rumored for months, the shadowy breakaway tour finally started to emerge last week.

Here’s what we know, for sure: Greg Norman will serve as the commissioner of a Saudi-based golf league. There is a new 10-year, $200 million deal with the Asian Tour, with the promise of 10 new “marquee” events in 2022 and further “disruption” in the future. There is expected to be some sort of media availability soon, perhaps this week, with more details about the league format. And the launch date remains unknown, though Norman suggested they will begin hosting official tournaments next spring (even if that seems awfully ambitious for a circuit that’s only in the early stages of being unveiled).

Whether this is a legitimate threat to the Tour’s empire remains to be seen.

The decade-long commitment and financing of the Asian Tour – a shrewd way to remain in good standing with the OWGR – suggests this is less an immediate takeover and more of a long-term play. Even so, the league's viability depends on the players who sign up, and as of this writing there have been no sealed contracts or early indications that the superstars will bolt en masse. Seemingly unconcerned, the Tour hasn't even issued a statement about the news.

In a purse race, the Tour can’t compete with the deep-pocketed Saudis, but for those less interested purely in financial gain there are desirable aspects of the status quo: the best competition, history, security. Bloated Tour purses will be the norm, too, once the TV money kicks in.

Until more details emerge about the format, it seems like – for now – the breakaway league remains only an enticement for the aging warriors who have paid their dues, served their respective tours and now are eager for one massive payday. That ... doesn't seem like a successful formula or an appealing product.


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So miserable were the conditions at the start of Sunday’s final round that Lucas Herbert didn’t even hit any drivers on the range.

“It was just pointless,” he said.

The 25-year-old Australian knew the type of gut-check day he was in for, and he handled it better than anyone else. Taking advantage of Taylor Pendrith’s final-round free fall, Herbert’s 2-under 69 was enough to erase a four-shot deficit and claim his first PGA Tour title at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship.

During a wild, windy and wet final round, Herbert battled the conditions, a stoppage of play and a couple of out-of-nowhere contenders. Already a two-time winner on the European Tour, he birdied the 14th hole and then made four gritty pars to close to become the first first-time winner of the new PGA Tour season.

“To survive all that,” he said, “I’m very proud.”

With the victory, Herbert – who earned his card through the Korn Ferry Tour Finals – moved inside the top 50 in the world rankings (No. 43) and qualified for his first Masters. He’s also in the field for the 2022 lid-lifter in Kapalua as well as a host of other big-time tournaments.

Not a bad promotion for a guy who two months ago was fighting for Tour status. 

“The next 12 months are going to be really cool,” he said. “No matter how I play, it’s just going to be phenomenal to play in those tournaments.”


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Chris Keane/USGA


The governing bodies announced last week that they were loosening some of its amateur status rules beginning Jan. 1 and allowing players to cash in on their name, image and likeness without forfeiting their status.

Often criticized for being behind the times, the USGA and R&A had little choice but to rewrite their regulations following the NCAA decision regarding NIL rules this summer.

Will it matter? Probably not for the majority, at least not in a significant way.

College golfers obviously won’t be as sought-after as quarterbacks and power forwards, and we’ve already seen a few examples this fall (here's looking at you, Spencer Rattler) of players who inked lucrative deals this summer and failed to live up to expectations. That has 1.) angered certain fan bases, because those who are paid to perform naturally become easy targets, and 2.) led companies to be a bit selective in whom they’re endorsing. Players' families are exercising more caution, too. 

In the past few years only a handful of college golfers could have profited handsomely from this relaxed amateur environment – players like Jon Rahm, Matthew Wolff and Muni He. Looking ahead, only standout freshman Rose Zhang will draw significant interest from the outside market if she opts to stay in school for a few more years.

Other than that, the situation has little risk of getting out of control – only a generational talent will start earning more than his college coach.

 

THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ... 

Costume of the Week: Josh Allen. The Bills QB nailed his Phil Mickelson impersonation, from the visor to the calves to the thumbs-up to even the awkward cap tip. Well done. 

Don’t Mind If I Do: Lydia Ko. After initially saying she’d skip the LPGA’s penultimate event, Ko reentered the Pelican Championship, presumably to give herself a chance to capture the Vare Trophy, for the lowest scoring average. The top three players on the list (Nelly Korda, Jin Young Ko, Inbee Park) are ineligible for the scoring title because they either haven’t played 70 official rounds or 70% of the tournaments ... which is ample reason to blow up these eligibility rules and try again. The LPGA is a global tour, with worldwide demands, and this award clearly isn’t identifying the best player.


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Return to Form: Patrick Reed. A man among boys in the weak Bermuda field, Reed’s closing 65 made him the clubhouse leader and left him with an outside shot to steal the title. He wound up one shot shy, but it was his first top-10 on Tour since the Memorial in June. Finally, it seems, he has put his ankle injury and pneumonia diagnosis behind him, if not the weird burner account that only seems interested in defending him.

Ouch: Taylor Pendrith. Leading by three as he aimed for his first Tour title, the Canadian failed to record a single birdie on a difficult day of scoring and doubled the 71st hole to doom his chances. His closing 76 was the worst score of anyone inside the top 45. On the other hand ...

Best of the Rest: Scott Stallings. Beginning the day 14 (!!!) shots off the lead, Stallings actually made a valiant run at the title before falling just short. His 9-under 62 stood up as the best final round by THREE; his Sunday score was more than nine shots better than the field average. That rocketed him 45 spots on the leaderboard, into joint fifth. 


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Anyone Left?: Bermuda field. It’s happened only a handful of times in recent memory, but the Bermuda field had fewer participants than its intended field of 132. There were a couple of reasons for this, from the country’s strict COVID-19 protocols to its remote location, but it presented the rare week when there was a $1 million first-place prize, full FedExCup points on offer, a Masters invite on the line ... and not enough players to fill out a field. Of course, the Bermuda field was elevated in status this year because of the WGC-HSBC cancellation, so next fall it’ll be back where it belongs, in opposite-field territory. But at least ... 

This Week It’ll Be Better: Mayakoba field. A week after only 24 world-ranking points were awarded to the winner, a decidedly stronger field will tee it up south of the border at the Mayakoba, where Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler, Will Zalatoris and Tony Finau are among the headliners. Only three official events remain in the Tour’s fall slate.

All the Best: Brian Morris. One of the head pros in Bermuda, he got a sponsor exemption into the field after being diagnosed in December 2019 with stage IV brain cancer. Uncertain how much time he has left, he took advantage of this unexpected opportunity and teed it up among the best in the world. It mattered little that he shot 89-92. He inspired everyone who read about his story, or heard his interviews, and we can only hope last week gave him a bit of light amid so much darkness.  

You Love to See It: Q-School coverage. They’re jockeying for position and not necessarily their livelihoods, and it’s for the Korn Ferry Tour and not the big show, but the final stage of Q-School always delivers good drama. That’s why we’re pumped to see the news that this week it’ll be streamed, live – the first time that’s happened in this new era.

That’ll Do It ... Barely: Jim Knous. Heading into the week needing a solo 67th or better to earn a conditional Tour card and full Korn Ferry Tour status in the final event of his major medical extension, Knous eagled his second-to-last hole of the day Friday to make the cut on the number. Then he did just enough on the weekend (69-72) to survive and advance, tying for 57th to sew up the status.   

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Such was the Bermuda field that the South African entered the week as one of the headliners, at No. 43 in the world and coming off back-to-back top-5s worldwide. Alas, even while well-rested, his game didn’t travel, as a closing 74 dropped him all the way into a tie for 57th – his second-worst finish since summer 2020. Sigh.