ORLANDO, Fla. — If only Arnold Palmer, with all of his cachet and clout, were around today like he was three decades ago to shut down a potential rival and thwart the possible ruin of the PGA Tour.
As 23 of the top 35 players in the world teed off in the first round of Arnie’s tournament — the Arnold Palmer Invitational — on March 5 in Orlando, there remained a lingering dark cloud hovering over the PGA Tour.
There is a proposed alternative world golf tour on the horizon, purportedly and ominously to be funded by the bottomless oil well of Saudi Arabian money. Many of the details of the proposed Premier Golf League have not been released, but there have been reports the PGL wants to sign up the top 48 golfers in the world, put them on 12 four-man teams, play 18 events (54 holes instead of 72) during the meat of the PGA Tour season, guarantee purses of at least $10 million, with the final championship event of the season being a team competition worth $40 million.
There’s no question the PGL has piqued the interest of players on the PGA Tour, and why wouldn’t it? What athlete (or any other contracted employee, for that matter) isn’t interested in more guaranteed money for less actual work? PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan must be more than a little concerned or he wouldn’t have sent a memo to players a few weeks ago telling them that anyone joining the Premier Golf League would have to give up their PGA Tour membership.
Monahan, though, is going to have to do more than just send out toothless memos. He’s going to have to lead the charge to, at the very least, change the PGA Tour’s long-standing policy and start guaranteeing lucrative appearance fees for the Tour’s top draws.
Don’t kid yourself, losing its top 48 players would be the end of the PGA Tour as we know it. If the PGL successfully forges ahead with its plan, the PGA Tour would suddenly become the Web.com Tour or whatever they’re calling it these days. How sad would it be if The Arnie were being played this weekend in front of empty galleries with none of the top 48 golfers in the world competing?
“I’ve been around the game long enough and understand history enough to understand that these have been talks that have gone on for many years,” says Sam Saunders, Arnie’s grandson and a PGA Tour Pro. “There’s always a threat like this; there’s always someone out there who wants to do something like this. I think the PGA Tour has always been and will always be the best tour in the world to play on and it’s where the best players are always going to play.”
Hopefully, Saunders is right, but his grandfather is no longer around to save the PGA Tour like he did a generation ago when Greg Norman was trying to start a World Golf Tour for the top 30 players across the globe. At a meeting with Norman and PGA Tour players in the 1990s, Arnie asked for the floor and delivered an impassioned endorsement of the PGA Tour.
Arnie told younger Tour players then about his heyday in the 1960s when another start-up operation tried to convince the Big Three — Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — to break away from the PGA Tour and become the centerpiece of their own league. Palmer then ended his impassioned speech with, “I voted NO then and I vote NO now.”
The King had spoken, and that was the end of Norman’s World Golf League.
The question is are today’s players as loyal to the PGA Tour as Arnie? Well, at least we know at least one of them is. Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, has strongly sided with the PGA Tour and, according to GolfChannel.com, stood during a recent Player Advisory Council meeting and said, “This is easy, either you are about money or you are about legacy.”
McIlroy, it seems, is trying to take the lead on this much like Arnie did back in the day. In fact, he even evoked Arnie’s name a couple of weeks ago when he explained to reporters why he opposed the new league.
“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.
“For me, I’m out,” McIlroy added. “My position is I’m against it until there may come a day that I can’t be against it. If everyone else goes, I might not have a choice. But at this point, I don’t like what they’re proposing.”
McIlroy evidently got an earful during a phone call from the 65-year-old Norman after his comments were publicized. When I asked him what Norman said to him, McIlroy politely deferred and said, “Not for publication discussion.”
You wonder, too, how some of today’s other top players feel about McIlroy’s comments, considering most of them are being tight-lipped about what they think of the PGL. Tiger Woods said he and his people are “looking into it.” Phil Mickelson is said to be intrigued. When I asked four-time major winner Brooks Koepka about the PGL, he simply said, “I just want to play where the best players play; it’s as simple as that.”
Here’s hoping Rory wins this battle.
With an historic assist from the King.
But, more important, with some major concessions by Monahan and the PGA Tour.