By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Perhaps it was only fitting that a violent thunderstorm hit the TPC Southwind right about the time a federal judge in California ruled against a motion that would have allowed three players who cashed in on LIV Golf to play for $75 million in bonus money on the PGA Tour.
On the eve of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the ruling still resounded.
“Common sense prevailed, and I thought it was the right decision,” said Rory McIlroy, a player-director on the PGA Tour board and the strongest voice against the rival league. “And now that it’s happened, I think it just lets us focus on the important stuff, which is the golf, and we can all move forward and not have that sideshow going on for the next few weeks, which is nice.”
The important stuff? More money.
The tour’s postseason starts Thursday with the FedEx St. Jude Championship, the first of two tournaments offering a $15 million purse. The top 30 after two weeks advance to East Lake in Atlanta for a shot at winning the FedEx Cup and its $18 million prize.
Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford and Matt Jones wanted a piece of the pie and sought a temporary restraining order in a case that featured both sides accusing the other in court documents of wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.
U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman, who had access to LIV contracts and how much the players were paid to join, ultimately ruled they could not show irreparable harm because they have made more to sign with LIV Golf than they could reasonably make in the playoffs.
“Those guys were given an opportunity to go play, and just go play,” PGA champion Justin Thomas said. “You can have your cake, but you don’t need to eat it, too. And they got their share of a large, large amount of cake. Go eat it on your own means. You don’t need to bring it onto our tour.”
Swafford and Gooch brought it as far as Memphis. They were seen outside the course Tuesday evening, presumably waiting for a favorable ruling from the California court that would allow them to be part of the field for the first playoff event.
And then they were headed home, no longer welcome at the moment at tournaments run by the PGA Tour. Still to be determined are the majors, which are operated by separate organizations, and who have not determined eligibility criteria for 2023.
The Masters, U.S. Open and British Open have exempted players who reach the Tour Championship since as early as 2008.
The top 125 qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. Even without the three LIV Golf players who unsuccessfully sought to play, the field is only 120 players for the TPC Southwind. Former Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama cited a sore neck and withdrew Wednesday morning, making him the fifth player to withdraw.
Only the top 70 after the first event will advance to the BMW Championship next week in Delaware, and the priority for half the field is to make sure they stay in the game.
The lead attorney for LIV Golf cited PGA Tour hype in calling the FedEx Cup the “Super Bowl” of golf and the hardest trophy to win. McIlroy would know from experience, as one of only two players — Tiger Woods was the other — to win the FedEx Cup twice since it began in 2007.
“You have to put yourself in position, but then you have to really turn it on for the last few weeks,” McIlroy said. “It’s a weird one. It’s like you have to play consistently good golf over the course of a 30-week season and then you have to get hot at the end of it, as well.”
That’s what Patrick Cantlay did last year, winning the second playoff event in an epic duel with Bryson DeChambeau, and then holding off Jon Rahm at the Tour Championship.
“I’m not sure it’s the hardest trophy to win — I haven’t won any of the others, so maybe ask me that question when I’ve knocked down a few of the others,” Cantlay said, referring to the majors. “This is more of a compilation than a single week. That’s one of the cool things about it.”
Whether it’s a wide-open race from the start is up for debate. Bill Haas not only is the highest seed at No. 25 going into the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup (2011), he is the only player who started a PGA Tour outside the top 40 in the world ranking to win the prize.
The $75 million in bonus money is distributed to the top 150 players, including LIV Golf players who have not resigned their PGA Tour membership.
It’s a lot of money, enough to take their attention off antitrust lawsuits and rumors swirling about who might be next to defect over to LIV Golf.
“I just want to play golf and stop worrying about it,” Thomas said.
That won’t be easy. Thomas told of going to a friend’s wedding a few weeks ago. On his way to the bathroom, he was stopped by someone who said he was big fan. And then the conversation immediately flipped to LIV Golf and how it will play out.
“Instead of going to the restroom, went straight to the bar to get a drink,” Thomas said.