Rory McIlroy faced the elephant in the room on Wednesday, as he readied to play in a long-awaited Canadian Open that’s being upstaged by a Saudi-backed breakaway golf tour.
“I think it’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the game,” Mr. McIlroy said about the new LIV Golf Invitational Series, stressing that he’s not interested in joining it.
“I’m certainly not knocking anyone for going. It’s their life. It’s their decision,” Mr. McIlroy said. “Obviously money is a deciding factor in a lot of things in this world. But if it’s purely for money, it never seems to go the way you want it to.”
After a wait of 1,093 days, through two years of COVID-related cancellations, Canada’s national men’s golf championship returns to the PGA Tour calendar this weekend. Yet, as the long-awaited event tees off at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto on Thursday, it is unwittingly entangled in the most divisive story in pro sports.
Golf is at a crossroads as the Professional Golf Association Tour, home of the world’s best golfers, loses some of its superstars to the lucrative LIV Series. The controversial alternative tour is backed by big money from Saudi Arabia and will make its flashy debut this weekend in England – at the same time as the Canadian Open, stealing some of its thunder.
On Wednesday, two young major champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, were reportedly the latest to join. Mr. DeChambeau, 28, and Mr. Reed, 31, are still in the prime of their golf careers, unlike most of the players committed to the rival startup golf circuit.
The two Americans are not in the field for the inaugural LIV event in London this weekend, but have agreed to multimillion-dollar deals, according to The Telegraph. The next LIV Golf event starts June 30, outside Portland, Ore.
It’s an about-face for Mr. DeChambeau, who as recently as last week at the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament denied being drawn in by the huge offers being made to the world’s finest golfers.
LIV’s growing roster had already included Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson – the 2018 Canadian Open champion and an RBC-sponsored athlete who just three months earlier said he was “fully committed” to the PGA Tour. Mr. Johnson’s decision last week blindsided Canadian Open organizers, who had been promoting him in pre-event marketing.
“Of course, it’s disappointing that there’s a past champion that is a fan favourite in Canada, and we would have rather seen him here, but at the end of the day, our field is so strong that we’re able to just continue rolling,” tournament director Bryan Crawford said. “I know if people want to watch the best players in the world playing, they’re watching the Canadian Open.”
LIV, which gets its name from the Roman numeral for 54, is financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. There are eight events in the series, each with no cut and a shotgun start, 54 holes over three days (compared with the PGA’s 72-hole, four-day competition), on smaller courses with lavish purses far exceeding those on the PGA Tour. At each event, there is US$25-million in prize money (US$4-million for the winner and US$120,000 for the last-place player).
By comparison, the Canadian Open has a purse of US$8.7-million, with the winner taking home US$1.566-million.
Last week, the PGA Tour released a statement about consequences for tour members who play in a LIV invitational event:
“As communicated to our entire membership on May 10, PGA Tour members have not been authorized to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event, under PGA Tour Tournament Regulations,” the tour’s statement Wednesday said. “Members who violate the Tournament Regulations are subject to disciplinary action.”
While some of the LIV participants have resigned pre-emptively from the PGA Tour, others have not. Several have stated they want to keep playing the majors on the tour calendar as well. The fast-arriving U.S. Open is set for June 16-19 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and although it’s on the PGA Tour schedule, the U.S. Open is conducted by the United States Golf Association, not the tour.
The USGA put out a statement this week saying that it will allow all qualified participants to compete, including those who play in the LIV event.
Despite all of this, the Canadian Open has still drawn a stout field, including five of the world’s top 10 players, Mr. McIlroy, Cam Smith, Justin Thomas, Sam Burns and world No. 1 and reigning Masters champion Scottie Scheffler.
Eight Canadian PGA Tour golfers are entered, including Corey Conners, Mackenzie Hughes and Adam Hadwin, plus former Masters champion Mike Weir.
Mr. McIlroy won the last Canadian Open, held at Hamilton Golf and Country Club. To put in perspective how long ago that was, he attended Game 2 of the Raptors 2019 NBA Finals series against the Golden State Warriors that week and sparked a friendship with then-Raptors standout Kyle Lowry.
“I’m a self-confessed golf nerd, historian and traditionalist. Some of the oldest events in our game are national opens, and I’ve been very fortunate enough to win quite a few,” Mr. McIlroy said. “You’re putting your name in history by winning these national championships, and it’s something that money can’t get you.”
First held in 1904, the Canadian Open is one of the oldest continuously run events on the PGA Tour, behind only The Open Championship and the U.S. Open. It was the only North American tour event to be cancelled in both 2020 and 2021.
Organizers have increased the scope and scale at this Canadian Open, buoyed by the growth in Canadian participation in golf during the pandemic. The tournament landed big musical concert acts in Maroon 5 and Flo Rida. The 2019 event had nine corporate partners; this one has 24.
Mr. McIlroy acknowledged it’s “a weird time” in professional golf and everyone will have to see how the season plays out.
“The professional game is the window shop into golf,” said the Northern Irishman. “If the general public are confused about who’s playing where and what tournaments are on this week … it just becomes so confusing. I think everything needs to be more cohesive, and I think it was on a pretty good trajectory, until this happened.”