It would be unwise to place blind faith in the comments of a judge during a commercial dispute. In the case of LIV Golf and associated chaos, a sporting resolution chamber in the UK placed a stay on suspensions of DP World, formerly European, Tour golfers long before this week’s dramatic events in a courtroom in California. Interpretations of the law, however, are rarely an exact science.
In contrast to the UK, Judge Beth Labson Freeman determined the PGA Tour was well within its rights to exclude Matt Jones, Talor Gooch and Hudson Swafford from a playoff berth they had earned via on-course pursuits because it was undermined by an off-course swag grab. “If LIV Golf is elite golf’s future, what do the players care about the dust-collecting trophies of a bygone era?” asked Freeman in her written reasoning. It felt a valid point.
In an open letter to Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner, the LIV chief, Greg Norman, once stated: “You can’t ban players from playing golf.” Norman’s sentiment was equally clear during correspondence with Sergio García. “They cannot ban you for one day let alone life,” said Norman. “It is a shallow threat.” The entry list for this week’s St Jude in Memphis says otherwise. “I said to some of the guys personally, I think they’ve been brainwashed by the way they feel so adamant that they’re going to be back out on the PGA Tour,” said Billy Horschel, the world No 15. In court, Judge Freeman had stated: “These LIV contracts lock up players up in a way the PGA Tour never imagined. They are so restrictive.” So much for Norman’s insistence of bringing “free agency”.
No sooner had the LIV trio been denied a tee time in Tennessee than Rory McIlroy touched on an intriguing aspect of the ongoing civil war. “I certainly have a little more respect for the guys that haven’t put their names to the lawsuit,” said the Northern Irishman.
The broader, antitrust case to which McIlroy referred involves Jones, Gooch and Swafford plus Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Ian Poulter, Peter Uilhein, Jason Kokrak, Pat Perez and Abraham Ancer. Carlos Ortiz’s name was removed from the claim in recent days.
The distinction – and it is necessary – between LIV golfers and their attitudes is an important one. That is absolutely the case in the minds of McIlroy and others, who do not take kindly to potential harm, monetary and reputational, being inflicted on the PGA Tour by a group who at least gave the impression of riding off into a superior world.
This week, Richard Bland – an early LIV convert – is competing in the $1.5m World Invitational at Galgorm Castle on the DP World Tour. Nothing stops Bland from doing this – just as Poulter or Henrik Stenson cannot be prevented from competing in the Czech Masters and PGA Championship at Wentworth – but it is a terrible look. And for what? Dust-collecting trophies?
Maybe the Ryder Cup falls into that category. The main court battle between Mickelson et al and the PGA Tour is not likely to begin until next autumn which will rule DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka out of the meeting with Europe in Rome barring exceptional performances in the majors to earn ranking points needed for qualification or unlikely captain’s picks. Johnson, Reed and Koepka have been nowhere near litigation, which lends itself to the theory LIV, for them, really is only about money rather than a fresh professional domain. DeChambeau has made great play of being the best he can be yet here he is, all-but excluded from a team competition where legends are created.
García ruled out legal challenges the moment he joined LIV. The Spaniard awaits the exact lie of the land regarding European Ryder Cup qualification before resigning or retaining membership of the DP World Tour. Poulter is involved in litigation against tours on both sides of the Atlantic. Stenson threw his hands up and cried foul having been removed as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain. Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer and a batch of others could have entered last month’s Scottish Open after the stay against a ban was issued. Instead, they stayed well clear. Unlike Norman and Mickelson, Oosthuizen – who considered retirement before LIV came calling – appeared for the past champions’ celebrations at the Open minus any fuss at all.
Cameron Smith’s glory at St Andrews means he can defect to LIV while safe in the knowledge of major exemptions for the foreseeable future. Smith’s insistence this week that he will compete in this year’s President’s Cup was curious given he will be banned from that event, presided over by the PGA Tour, if he tees up in the LIV tournament in Boston early next month.
Golf is presently the most volatile of all sports. Judge Freeman made plain golfers were handsomely rewarded for following the LIV path. A tacky, tawdry, non-competitive sportswashing scene is hardly appealing. It would be a mistake, however, to assume every golfer has adopted the same approach while entering it.
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