By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Greg Norman braced for another fight with the PGA Tour and was equipped with what he often referred to as the tour’s “playbook” from the first time he tried to start a rival league.
This version might have a similar ending.
Norman’s first attempt to assemble an exclusive field to play for big money around the world never got off the ground. The PGA Tour wielded its political influence, Arnold Palmer stood behind the heritage of the tour and that was that.
And then the PGA Tour stole his idea.
What emerged were the World Golf Championships, the richest events (back when a $5 million purse meant something) with no cut and a limited field. Former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem publicly thanked Norman for his “determination and suggestions of 1994” when the first WGC was played.
In that respect, this is starting to feel like a repeat.
Reports over the weekend — the most thorough from No Laying Up, which has engaged top players on its podcast for years — pointed to a plan to create up to 15 tournaments offering some of the richest purses for a limited field of elite players.
Those were the most pertinent details that emerged from a players-only meeting last week. Norman must feel as though he has seen all this before.
But this was less about trying to quash Saudi-funded LIV Golf and more about taking the PGA Tour in a modern direction that emphasizes its biggest names. And what makes this different from 1994 is how the movement unfolded.
No Laying Up reported 23 players in attendance at the invitation-only meeting. That included — it starts with, really — Tiger Woods, who flew to Delaware from Florida for the meeting.
“We need to get the top guys together more often than we do,” Rory McIlroy said the next morning, the closest any player came to a public revelation. “I’m talking about all in the same tournaments, all in the same weeks.”
For now, the plan is somewhere between a vision and reality. The players have been in touch with Commissioner Jay Monahan, and he could provide a better sense of where it all stands when he speaks Wednesday ahead of the Tour Championship.
But the value of that meeting went far deeper than details.
By all accounts, the players left inspired, unified and unusually quiet. Xander Schauffele smiled when he referred to the silence as a “code,” which is not to suggest he was joking.
Said one player, speaking on condition of anonymity to honor such a code, “When was the last time all the top players got together in the same room? That has never happened before.”
It spoke to the ownership the players have taken of their tour, and their determination to stave off the greatest threat professional golf has faced.
Worth noting is 16 of the top 20 players in the world ranking were in the room. Among those missing, one didn’t become a PGA Tour member until three weeks ago (Tom Kim). Another is reported to be leaving for LIV Golf after this week (Cameron Smith).
Hideki Matsuyama and Sungjae Im might have required translation, though they should have been included. Matsuyama was said to be curious why he wasn’t invited. Two people who know of his plans say the Japanese star is not going anywhere. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because Matsuyama has not said anything publicly about his plans.
Some of those players still might leave for LIV one day. After Brooks Koepka did an about-face in the span of one week in June, no one should be surprised by any defection.
If so, what they leave behind might be similar to what they are joining.
If this is the path forward for the PGA Tour, is it the answer?
Short fields, no cuts, big money. Where you have heard that one before? More than a WGC concept, it sounds like it was torn from the gospel of what Norman was preaching, minus the concept of team golf with silly names.
But it will have far more relevance under the umbrella of a tour, the identity of professional golf for more than 50 years. And it won’t have the scrutiny over the source of funding — the Public Investment Fund — that LIV Golf seems to constantly face.
One other difference in the playbook is Norman’s first challenge in 1994 never made it to court.
For the three LIV golfers who sought a temporary restraining order to compete in the FedEx Cup playoffs, the ruling against them was a big setback. At this point, players who sign with LIV Golf should not expect to play anywhere on the PGA Tour until at least 2024, and the majority of them might miss out on all the majors unless they go through open qualifiers.
All the while, the PGA Tour could be headed toward a new model of small fields, big purses, guaranteed money because of no cuts and the option to play other PGA Tour stops that have special meaning to them and still have a good purse.
Perhaps the tour should have thought of this sooner.
In the long run, maybe it’s better this way. One of the messages that came out of the antitrust lawsuit filed by defectors is that every PGA Tour player had a right to feel like a defendant. “This is your tour,” they were told.
Now they’re acting like it really is.