SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — The winner at this weekend’s LIV Golf Invitational Series event stands to win $4 million. The last-place finisher will pocket $120,000. And all 48 golfers in the field will receive the same number of points in the Official World Golf Ranking: zero.
There are 28 pros in this weekend’s tournament outside Chicago who also played in LIV’s premier London event in June. All but four of those have steadily slid down the rankings — Phil Mickelson is down 48 spots to No. 120, for example, while Sergio Garcia is down 20 spots to No. 77.
“To have 48 of the best guys around the world playing and not to get world ranking points, I think is perhaps a little bit unfair,” Australian Cameron Smith, the world’s third-ranked golfer, said recently.
LIV Golf submitted its application in July for recognition by OWGR, which serves as a sort of doorman for the sport, playing a key role in deciding entry into golf’s biggest tournaments. Atul Khosla, LIV’s president and chief operating officer, said this week the group has received no feedback or updates. Outwardly, LIV officials remain hopeful, but they also feel the deck is stacked against them and fear they won’t get fair consideration as they continue to upend the sport with massive financial deals and radical rule changes.
“I’m hoping eventually cooler heads will prevail because it makes the best sense for the fans who just want to see the best guys compete,” Khosla said.
Typically, the top 50 or 60 players in the rankings are eligible to compete in majors. But if LIV players can’t accumulate points, they’ll continue to tumble down the rankings, putting them at risk of missing major championships and the Olympics.
There are 23 golf tours currently recognized by the OWGR, and the points available to players who make a cut and complete an event are based on the tournament’s strength of field. The formula includes two years’ worth of results, with recent finishes carrying more weight.
Recognition from OWGR is vital for players who dream of winning majors, but it’s similarly important for LIV Golf, which wants its players and its brand to appear on the sport’s biggest stages, a mark of legitimacy for a start-up operation that has already encountered plenty of turbulence.
LIV Golf submitted its application, which ran around 20 pages, knowing its unique format and structure wouldn’t perfectly satisfy several criterion for recognition. Among the issues:
- Recognized events must be 72 holes; LIV’s are 54. (Exceptions have been granted for developmental tours, and LIV officials believe OWGR language doesn’t make this mandatory.)
- The playing field should average 75 golfers over the course of a season; the LIV field is capped at 48.
- Tournaments should include a 36-hole cut; LIV events have no cut.
- Tours must host an open qualifying school before each season; LIV has handpicked its roster of golfers, although the circuit has plans for a promotion series, which would allow as many as 12 players to move up to LIV Golf events.
- Tours are supposed to hold spots for local and regional players. The PGA Tour, for example, typically stages an 18-hole competition the Monday before a tournament, with four finishers advancing to the actual tournament. LIV has announced no such offering, though officials say all but one of their events have included spots for golfers from other tours.
OWGR officials — who come from other golf tours — have occasionally made exceptions, but a person familiar with the process said no tour has received serious consideration with such a problematic application. LIV officials point to language in the application guidelines that characterizes the criteria as discretionary, and they argue that they fully satisfy most of the listed demands.
The review process typically takes one to 1½ years, and tours must be in operation for a full year before OWGR will recognize them. Even if LIV is ultimately accepted, golfers could go all of next season without accumulating points from LIV events, creating a steep uphill path for eligibility into upcoming majors.
Khosla said LIV officials “actually feel very good about the criteria we’ve applied against, and there are enough examples where exceptions have been made on those criteria.” His concerns, he said, are with the process.
The LIV application first must be reviewed by OWGR’s technical committee, which consists of 10 members: representatives of the system’s six founding members — Augusta National Golf Club, the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, the R&A, the USGA and the DP World Tour — plus the Japan Golf Tour, the PGA Tour of Australasia, the Asian Tour and the Sunshine Tour. That group reviews applications, often working with the applicant to address shortcomings, before passing along a recommendation to the governing board, which includes the founding members and is chaired by Peter Dawson, the former head of the R&A, one of golf’s international governing bodies. The 23 tours recognized include the sport’s dominant stakeholders, alongside developmental tours and lower-profile outfits, such as the Nordic Golf League and the All Thailand Golf Tour.
While OWGR has made no public comments on the LIV application and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment this week, many of its members have spoken out against LIV Golf or expressed concerns about the havoc it has wreaked on the sport. LIV Golf is part of a federal antitrust lawsuit that accuses the PGA Tour and DP World Tour of orchestrating a “group boycott” and says the tours leaned on the sport’s major championships to “maximize the threats and harm.” But LIV officials stress that the mission of OWGR is to rank the world’s top golfers and that a system that excludes major winners based on their affiliation is absurd on its face.
In an interview, Khosla said the OWGR board members are “conflicted” and can’t fairly judge the LIV application.
“For an independent board, that seems pretty absurd,” he said. “It’s like if the FDA board only has five pharma companies that sit on it. So if a sixth one comes into market and has a product, the five there say what? ‘We don’t like it. It’s not getting approved.’ ”
The golfers met with LIV officials before this weekend’s tournament and discussed the rankings impasse. As American Bryson DeChambeau put it: “We’re doing anything and everything to satisfy the criteria of the OWGR.”
“There will be tweaks. There will be adjustments on both ends. It’s going to have to be,” said DeChambeau, who has slid from No. 28 in the world to No. 43 since he made the jump to LIV. “This has never been done before, and there has to be compromise if we want to work effectively in this ecosystem.”
It’s not clear how much LIV Golf would be willing to alter its operation to satisfy OWGR officials. It has announced plans for a full 2023 season that will include 48 players competing in 14 events. While a news release made no mention of the 54-hole format or cut lines, it did promise “pathways for amateurs and the next generation of leading players” and “broad exemption categories so a wide spectrum of players can attempt to earn their way into the league.”
Several LIV golfers will still be able to compete in majors courtesy of exemptions they have earned from past performances. Smith, for example, won this year’s British Open, so he can play in all majors until 2027 and has a spot locked up in future British Opens until 2053, when he turns 60. And though Mickelson has struggled his year, he has lifetime exemptions into the Masters and the PGA Championship, and he can keep playing in the British Open until he turns 60 in 2030.
But many other LIV golfers are dependent largely on the rankings. They could still gain entry to the majors in other ways — the U.S. Open and British Open have qualifying events, for example — or lobby the majors to amend their qualifications and create spots specifically for LIV golfers. Otherwise, accruing points is the surest path.
LIV golfers also can earn points on the Asian Tour, but OWGR’s formula doesn’t reward those tournaments as handsomely as it does PGA Tour events. LIV Golf, which is sinking $300 million into the Asian Tour, will co-host 11 of its 2023 events, branded as LIV’s International Series, with larger fields, a 72-hole format and at least a handful of LIV golfers. (The series is separate from LIV Golf, but LIV officials argue their full-field international series and Asian tournaments should serve as qualifying events in their OWGR application.)
“We are all going to think about playing places,” Bubba Watson, one of the LIV team captains, said recently. “Because if you play in Asia, you get world ranking points, which is sad — that you have to go and do other things to get world rankings so you can get in majors. It’s sad.”
The LIV field this weekend features a dozen players who have won majors, and officials have been adamant about the competitive strength of their fields — and about the credibility hit they say OWGR faces if it ignores many of the world’s top golfers.
“You can’t tell me that just because Cam is playing here today, that he’s not the second-best golfer,” Khosla said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”