MEXICO CITY – In the closing minutes of last week’s Player Advisory Council meeting, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was asked an off-agenda question regarding a concept that, until a few weeks ago, existed only in corporate filings and hushed tones.
For years the concept of a team golf league had only been whispered about within golf circles. Tales of astronomical purses and new formats abounded until these rumors revealed a hint of truth last month as the Premier Golf League was unveiled in what would best be described as a soft opening.
Talks of limited fields, team captains and massive amounts of money have consumed golf ever since and yet the PGL has remained largely a mystery. Phil Mickelson played a pro-am with a few of the proposed league’s organizers in Saudi Arabia earlier this year and said he was intrigued by the concept, but who is in charge and where the money is coming from has remained a secret, at least to the general public.
Top players have largely tread lightly around the subject, with Tiger Woods speaking for the majority last week when he said, “There's a lot of information that we're still looking at and whether it's reality or not, but just like everybody else, we're looking into it.”
Rory McIlroy, on the other hand, has seen enough.
In January at Torrey Pines, the Northern Irishman tiptoed around the subject, but during last week’s Player Advisory Council meeting he left no room for ambiguity. “He stood up and said, 'This is easy, either you are about money or you’re about legacy,'” recalled a member of the PAC who asked not to be identified.
On Wednesday at the WGC-Mexico Championship, McIlroy echoed those thoughts on the proposed new tour in a more public format.
“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.”
For McIlroy, and likely a majority of top players, the PGL seems to represent a challenge to the status quo and a fundamental shift in historic priorities.
In a memo sent to players last month PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan made it perfectly clear that players would need to choose a side. The PGL would feature 12 four-man teams playing an 18-event schedule during the heart of the PGA Tour season. For Monahan and the Tour, that’s unacceptable.
“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 commissioner wrote.
McIlroy has chosen and chosen wisely, although that can’t be a surprise given the Ulsterman’s thoughtful ways. As he explained in the PAC meeting, this is about a player’s legacy and how you want to be remembered. For players of Rory’s ilk, careers are defined by major championships, Ryder Cup performances and victory totals, not earnings. Although, to be fair, it’s easy for McIlroy to say that given that he’s just a few months removed from cashing a $15 million check having won the FedExCup.
He acknowledged as much on Wednesday, but that doesn’t refute his thoughts on the issue.
“Money is cheap. Money is the easy part. That shouldn't be the driving factor,” he explained. “For some people it is and we're professional golfers and we're out here playing golf to make a living, but at the end of the day, I value my freedom and my autonomy over everything else.”
Although much of what the PGL hopes to accomplish remains a mystery, rumors have been circulating that “team owners,” which would include a player of McIlroy’s caliber and profile, could expect nine-figure earnings. Walking away from that, even for someone in McIlroy’s tax bracket, would be difficult, but for Rory this isn’t about individual fortunes as much as it is the direction the game is heading.
“I would like to be on the right side of history with this one, just sort of as Arnold [Palmer] was with the whole Greg Norman thing in the '90s,” McIlroy said. “I value a lot of other things over money, and that's sort of my stance on it at this point.”
Norman’s world tour concept was met with similar curiosity but ultimately was shelved thanks to the efforts of Palmer, who took a stand against the concept, and some deft maneuvering by then-Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
Those currently undecided on how they feel about the PGL concept can take some solace that Norman’s world golf concept evolved into the World Golf Championships which, if nothing else, have drawn together the game’s best players more often.
Perhaps the PGL and all of its out-of-the-box thinking – specifically fewer events with fewer players – will lead to a similar generational adjustment, and McIlroy conceded that if the top players do opt for the PGL it would force his hand to reconsider, but at the moment he believes those for and those against the concept are “split.”
History is written by the winners and it’s far too early to say which side McIlroy will end up on, but if nothing else his decision to bypass untold riches certainly feels like the right thing to do.