LIV Golf is here, and it's not going anywhere, at least anytime soon.
The Saudi-backed, Greg Norman-fronted league has managed to poach two dozen notable players -- including current world No. 3 Cam Smith -- from the professional golf ecosystem led by the PGA Tour. Upfront money, large purses (whether collected against an advance or not), shorter tournaments and an on-paper shorter schedule have been attractive lures.
However, for the LIV players, there are two huge drawbacks to taking the money and joining LIV.
The first is losing access to the PGA Tour. While there is an ongoing lawsuit, which LIV has joined with several of its players, against the PGA Tour, it seems clear the judicial system is not presently working in their favor. Even were LIV to find a sympathetic judge, a trial would take years and extend well into 2024 or 2025 -- and that's before any kind of appeal on either side.
The second, and perhaps most critical, is not being able to earn Official World Golf Ranking points. While LIV has attracted a variety of Masters winners and other major champions, only a few players have exemptions into the majors as current or recent champions. For the bulk of LIV players, they may have access to a major through a prior win, but they need standing in the top 50 or 60 of the Official World Golf Ranking to get into three of the four. (The PGA Championship doesn't expressly invite players based on the OWGR, but they do strive to get as many of the top 100 in the field as possible.)
LIV Golf players knew up front about both of these realities, and they still signed the dotted line, figuring the economic and other benefits of joining their new league would outweigh these major inconveniences. Some players probably just as well assumed -- either because of confidence from LIV Golf or their representation -- that all this stuff would be worked out in due course. After all, LIV Golf formally applied for recognition by the Official World Golf Ranking in July. Many players, likely not fully understanding how the OWGR process would work, just as well assumed it would be a rubber-stamp process.
That was not the case.
Now the players are getting impatient. Just two months after submitting the application, LIV Golf is making a public plea to the OWGR and its board chair, former R&A chief exectuive Peter Dawson, to speed up the process of not only ranking LIV events moving forward but -- quite audaciously -- retroactively as well. A Sept. 16 letter, signed by 50 LIV players, fluffs Dawson over his service to the game but also warns the OWGR would be rendered irrelevant if it doesn't give LIV points now.
What the letter ignores, however, is that LIV Golf does not meet the criteria to earn points. In fact, it fails to meet a variety of criteria -- most, if not all, which need to be met before the OWGR board would even consider offering points.
Here are just some of the criteria LIV fails to meet:
- The Tour has to be in existence for at least two years: This clock would likely start with the beginning of the LIV Golf League next year, which is expressly different than the Invitational Series from this year.
- The Tour has to have a 36-hole cut line: There are no cuts right now on LIV, and the introduction of a token cut would probably not appease the OWGR board, which is made up largely of people who have views antithetical to LIV.
- The Tour has to have an average field size of 75 players: LIV Golf fields are 48 players, well short of the average of 75 required across a schedule.
- The events are 54 holes: While the OWGR does offer some points to events on smaller tours with 54-hole events, those points are capped dramatically. Events largely have to be a scheduled 72 holes.
- The Tour has to have a qualifying school: LIV plans on fixing this, but they do not currently have what amounts to a Q-School or qualifying system that's codified. Fields are hand-selected. Starting next year, the LIV Golf League will have the same 48 players all season, which is problematic. Also working against LIV is the public knowledge that a number of players have guarantees to not face relegation from the circuit for at least several seasons.
- The Tour doesn't have open qualifying: The OWGR wants there to be a way for players to earn their way into fields outside of a tour's standard exemption criteria. That's not always true on the DP World Tour, though.
Beyond not meeting these criteria, the OWGR simply isn't set up to measure LIV Golf properly. LIV Golf events are 48 players, competing over 54 holes in a shotgun-start format. Players in the fields have been placed there arbitrarily and, in some cases, not on merit. How does the OWGR measure the value to the field of James Piot as compared to Cameron Smith? It's hard to see that working.
Further, the recent changes to the OWGR make it more difficult to award points to LIV. Every player in the field is now considered in how the OWGR formula rates a field's strength. If the same 48 players are always competing, the strokes-gained consideration for each player relative to the field should largely net out, meaning the rating will basically be the same every week.
Players who make the cut in rated events now earn points. Since there are no cuts on LIV, players would conceivably earn points every week, regardless of finish. That simply wouldn't work for the OWGR or any participating tour.
There are also reasons why LIV Golf might actually not want OWGR points and recognition:
- LIV players may actually get hurt in the long haul by getting OWGR points. Small-field events are impacted the most by OWGR changes. For example, the gross stroke-play winner of the 2021 Tour Championship was to earn 64 points. This year, with the changes in place, that 30-player event offered just 38 points to the winner. Unless LIV drastically expands its field, the points would be meager every week and depress a players' ranking anyhow over time.
- The LIV Golf League schedule is set to be 14 events next year and moving forward. If players compete in all 14 events and somehow get into all four majors, they'll likely play a total of 18 times (provided the OWGR gave them points for the LIV Golf events and they didn't need to seek points on other tours). The OWGR formula hurts players who do not compete at least 20 times per year on a rolling basis. LIV players could have their ranking artificially dragged down because they're simply playing less.
Could LIV make changes to appease the OWGR governing board and its requirements? Sure. They could add a cut (maybe down to the top 30 after 36 holes; paying out the field frozen after the cut). They could expand the field and have two shotgun starts per day (although that may dilute payouts to the players' chagrin or require the Saudis to make a much bigger investment). They could expand events to 72 holes. They can easily appease the open qualifying requirement. It could be done. Even still, points aren't going to be awarded retroactively, and the points moving forward probably wouldn't come until at least 2024, if not 2025.
The point of the LIV players' letter wasn't to make a technical case to the OWGR. Rather, it was yet another part of the LIV Golf public-relations (propaganda, depending on how you read it) campaign to convince some golf fans that they, in fact, are the victim here. Of course, they're not. LIV Golf created their invitational series knowing full well that their events did not meet OWGR criteria and that there would be a multi-year waiting period to gain points.
Players should have been apprised of that as well. If they were, then the players either don't understand the process or collectively feel entitled to circumvent the established rules. If they weren't, then they were fed bad information and should be livid.
Either way, what happens next isn't up to the Official World Golf Ranking. It's up to LIV Golf. If LIV Golf can make the changes it needs to qualify for OWGR points -- and that's a big if, considering the swallowing of pride potentially required -- then it may mean fundamentally changing a product that was meant to be disruptive and making it look a whole lot like tournament golf as we've long known it. Is that worth it?
Even if the OWGR eventually awards points, the majors can move away from using the ranking as a criteria for determining fields. While the OWGR has evolved to become a reliable marker for ranking players across a global golf ecosystem, the majors got by for a long time without using it whatsoever to determine their fields. They could simply do so again, taking the example of the PGA Championship. LIV Golf can not guarnatee its best players access to the majors, no matter the outcome with the OWGR. At this point, it may be in LIV's best interest to create their own parallel ranking and hope that's good enough.