Thirteen years after he last competed in one, major championships are still proving a reliable source of disappointment for Greg Norman. At last month’s Masters, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley clearly signaled his support for golf’s existing world order, thereby tacitly rejecting Norman’s Saudi-funded effort to carve off the top of the professional game. On Tuesday at the PGA Championship, the Great White Pilot Fish was served even less nourishment.
In a sport where numbers are decisive, words matter a great deal these days. Norman’s LIV Golf outfit is busy parsing paragraphs for any hint of collusion between golf’s bodies and the PGA Tour, eager to float an anti-trust claim that they’re conspiring to exclude a competitor from the marketplace (never mind that the “competitor” isn’t held to the same profit and loss accountability as other tours). It’s not necessarily collusion if people or organizations reach the same conclusion, of course. Say, for example, agreeing that governments which dismember their critics are suboptimal business partners.
Norman won’t find any evidence of collusion between the PGA of America and the PGA Tour at Southern Hills, but nor will he find any daylight between them either. “We are big supporters of the ecosystem as it stands,” said Seth Waugh, the PGA of America’s CEO.
In a previous life—one he must occasionally miss, particularly on days when his officers are telling him how best to run a business—Waugh ran Deutsche Bank Americas. He understands risk and recognizes a bad bet. Especially a painfully obvious one.
“We do think that for a lot of reasons bringing outside money into the game is going to change it forever, if that, in fact, happens,” he said. “The Tour is owned by the players, and that means everything ultimately flows back to the players, and as soon as you put any money into it, it’s going to create a need for return, a need for exit, and a lot of things that change the dynamics of it, which we don’t think is necessarily good for the ecosystem.”
Waugh was the first industry leader outside of the PGA Tour to publicly stiff-arm the Saudis, which he did at last year’s PGA Championship by pointing out that all money is not the same. It’s to his credit that while others have waffled on this attempt to hijack golf to sportswash Saudi human rights abuses, Waugh has not wavered. Any players hoping for a sign that their imminent embrace of the Crown Prince’s minions will not impact their ability to compete in majors—or in the Ryder Cup, which also falls under Waugh’s remit—found no comfort in his comments today.
Waugh speaks with the insouciant calm of a man who managed real crises, not the type manufactured by Norman and his exiled acolyte, Phil Mickelson, who was in contact with Waugh prior to deciding against defending his title. The PGA of America chief was asked if those discussions added stress to the staging of a major. “It was a lot more stressful for him than us,” he replied. “He was trying to decide, I think, what he wanted to do, and we were waiting for him to figure that out. Did it add some uncertainty? Yeah, sure. But it didn’t add a huge amount of stress.”
Had Mickelson opted to play at Southern Hills, he would likely have received a rapturous reception from fans, who are typically forgiving of foibles in their icons. But Tuesday showed that, in the locker room at least, he would have been about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit.
Asked about the absence of the man to whom he finished second a year ago, Brooks Koepka was curt: “Not here. There’s not really much else I can say.”
Justin Thomas was no more inclined to pay tribute to the lost. “I don’t really have an opinion. I never wish bad on anybody. It’s just I’m here to try to win a golf tournament and try to win the PGA Championship,” he said. “It’s going to be an unbelievable venue and a great week regardless.”
The most expansive remarks on Mickelson came from a usually circumspect source: Tiger Woods.
“Phil has said some things that I think a lot of us who are committed to the Tour and committed to the legacy of the Tour have pushed back against, and he’s taken some personal time, and we all understand that,” Woods said, before going on to characterize Mickelson’s comments as “polarizing.”
“There’s a legacy to that. I’ve been playing out here for a couple of decades, and I think there’s a legacy to it,” he continued.
For inattentive listeners who may have missed his point, Woods drove it home again. “I understand different viewpoints, but I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past,” he said. “There’s plenty of money out here. The Tour is growing. But it’s just like any other sport. You have to go out there and earn it. You’ve got to go out there and play for it. It’s not guaranteed upfront.”
With those words, Woods not only dismissed Norman’s Saudi venture as a cash-out for the washed-up, he reminded his fellow players who set the bar against which they are judged, and who did so much to burnish that legacy of the PGA Tour and the majors.
Later, Woods was invited to offer some soft sympathy for the predicament in which Mickelson has put himself, and asked whether he had felt compelled to contact his old colleague, Woods demurred. “I don’t know what he’s going through. But I know the comments he made about the Tour and the way that it should be run. I just have a very different opinion on that,” he said. “And so no, I have not reached out to him.”
For a quarter-century, conventional wisdom has held that golf fans are either Tiger people or Phil people, and that never the twain shall meet. That feels truer than ever in most corners of the golf world these days, and outside of Norman and his Saudi benefactors, the Phil people are getting harder and harder to find.