As the long, clumsy minuet between Cameron Smith and the LIV Golf Invitational Series finally morphed into a marriage Tuesday morning, with Smith and several other golfers defecting from the PGA Tour as expected, everyone seemed to leave the dance for now feeling curiously, tolerably happy.
The PGA Tour did seem happy, heading from Atlanta and its enshrined season-closing event.
For a months-long ruckus of defections and bile, that’s a lot of happy, even as LIV sues the PGA Tour and as PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan did field a question last week about whether defectors can return with, as follows:
LIV, the infant Saudi Arabian circuit that has poured oil into the sport and shaken it with humongous contracts, just lured its first top-five player, second-ranked Smith. It just snared a second current top-20 player in No. 19 Joaquin Niemann. It has gobbled up 12 of the top 50 and 27 of the world’s top 100 players of the moment, even while LIV players’ rankings figure to slide if LIV events cannot attain the rights to rankings points. It has mastered the corridor from No. 90 to No. 95, missing out only on No. 94. It has 13 major winners who have claimed an aggregate 24 majors. It has an exhibition-style format — music, shotgun starts, 54-hole events, no cuts — and bottomless money.
The PGA Tour, the 54-year-old organization hatched by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus et al. that has defended itself against the interloper through sentiments and upgrades, just had a meeting of top players Aug. 17, adding to sports’ long history of sudden player meetings deemed significant. It has all the rest of the top players, all the top events and fresh proposals for more events stuffed with top players. It still has Hideki Matsuyama, the No. 16 player and 2021 Masters winner from a passionate sports country (Japan) with 125 million sets of eyeballs. It has No. 1 player Scottie Scheffler, off a $14 million season on the course, just giving an impromptu treatise in Atlanta on money being nice but meaning being nicer. It has a long-revered format — 72 holes, cuts, earning it “in the dirt,” as Tiger Woods put it — alongside boatloads, if not frigate-loads, of money.
“I feel like the PGA Tour has a lot of momentum right now,” Jordan Spieth said in Atlanta.
“In a way,” Rory McIlroy said, “there’s been a really — there’s been a great thing that’s happened, and that’s that the 20-whatever of us that met in that room in Delaware all committed, most of us, maybe 22 out of the 23, committed to each other and committed to ‘Guys, what can we do to make the tour the best possible product so we can all benefit?’ I think that was a huge turning point in all of this, and I think all of us getting on the same page that like — there’s opportunity in every challenge, and that was an opportunity for all of us to get together.”
The 23rd in McIlroy’s reference to the meeting would have been Niemann, the Chilean who won at Riviera in Los Angeles this year and who follows chums such as Sergio Garcia and Carlos Ortiz to LIV. He’s 23, a number that boosts a LIV outfit often seen as a way station for sun-beaten sorts on the downslope of prowess. He joins now with new defectors Smith, 29; Harold Varner III, 32; Anirban Lahiri, 35; Cameron Tringale, 35; and Marc Leishman, 38. That’s Chile, Australia, the United States, India, the United States and Australia, deepening LIV’s bid for global flavor.
They join an outlet often condemned as aiming to “sportswash” the awful human-rights record of Saudi Arabia, and Tringale joins “after much reflection, prayer and conversations with trusted advisers,” as his Twitter handle still noted both “living my dream playing on the PGA Tour” and the Bible verse Mark 8:36, the one that goes, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Tringale would be the quietest of the new entries, with four runner-up showings in 13 years, plus a win in a 2014 non-tour team event.
The loudest, Smith, won both the Players Championship and the British Open this year, a staggering double on courses dissimilar enough to reveal a towering talent. He’s a Masters master with four top-10 finishes already. He has majors exemptions for five years up ahead, a boon to LIV in times uncertain. Barely had the Florida-based Australian shot his closing 64 at St. Andrews when the public part of the LIV dance began with a knowledgeable question Smith answered with: “I just won the British Open, and you’re asking about that. I think that’s pretty not-that-good.”
It went on from there with a near-wordless awkwardness, with the Daily Telegraph popping up amid the dance to report impending defection, all the way to PGA Tour season’s end in Memphis (tied for 13th) and Atlanta (20th) with a quiet exit of the closing Tour Championship and the closing hope. He’ll yield his spot in the Presidents Cup coming in late September in Charlotte, but it can’t hurt that LIV Golf and another Florida-based Australian, LIV CEO Greg Norman, plot Australia-based events.
Niemann’s win at Riviera became his second already, and multiple reports out of Atlanta forecast also the defection of Niemann’s friend and Chilean countryman Mito Pereira, whose bold bid for a shocking PGA Championship win in May in Tulsa croaked in a creek alongside No. 18. (Pereira is 27 and is ranked 49th.)
In Varner, LIV gains charisma, a grand smile, a compelling story about learning his way on a municipal course in Gastonia, N.C., and the winner last February of the Saudi Invitational, that event notable for Phil Mickelson’s bratty early blasting of the PGA Tour to John Huggan of Golf Digest. Leishman has six PGA Tour wins and turned up in the 2015 British Open playoff at St. Andrews with winner Zach Johnson and fellow LIV defector Louis Oosthuizen. Lahiri, who has two European Tour wins, seven Asian Tour wins and 12 Tour of India wins, finished second to Smith at the Players last spring.
They move along, and their old tour waves farewell with plans to stay happy.
“They’ve joined the LIV Golf Series, and they’ve made that commitment,” Monahan said in Atlanta, before this latest wave. “For most of them, they’ve made multiyear commitments. As I’ve been clear throughout, every player has a choice, and I respect their choice, but they’ve made it. We’ve made ours. We’re going to continue to focus on the things that we control and get stronger and stronger. I think they understand that.”
His tour, meanwhile, finished with McIlroy trailing Scheffler by six, pipping him on the 70th hole of a 72-hole event, calling it “a nice place to take the lead of a golf tournament — yeah, or the 52nd hole if you play somewhere else,” then hugging Scheffler’s family members as if the happy family had broadened.