Is all the LIV Golf-PGA Tour bickering making casual golf fans turn their TVs off?

“I just don’t watch golf as much as I used to.”

“I watch the majors, but that’s about it.”

“The PGA Tour tells me the best players play here when some of the best players don’t play there.”

Those are just a few of the comments through phone calls, emails and text messages I’ve received in recent months about the PGA Tour. And almost all of the comments have come in relation to the ongoing battle between the PGA Tour and LIV golf during the last six months of negotiations between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund and the defection of Jon Rahm from the PGA Tour to LIV for a massive contract of somewhere between $500 and $600 million.

Because of that contract, Rahm will not be allowed to defend titles in three PGA Tour events on the West Coast swing in January and February, including The American Express tournament in La Quinta.

The PGA Tour and the PIF may feel they are battling for the heart and soul of professional men’s golf in the world. But the message from readers seems clear: The constant fighting and insulting and preening of some figures on both sides might just kill the goose that laid the golden egg. In what is a niche sport to begin with compared to the goliaths of the NFL, the NBA, major league baseball and even soccer, golf might be turning off its fans with the bickering and with the top players in the game getting together only four times a year at the major championships.

2022 Masters

Tony Finau and Talor Gooch talk during a practice round ahead of the 2022 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

Popularity at risk

Consider two specific cases, Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm. Mickelson was one of the most popular golfers with fans throughout his career, eventually winning 45 PGA Tour events and six majors in an era dominated by Tiger Woods. But Mickelson lost much of that goodwill from fans with his ongoing battles with the PGA Tour and the USGA, with his comments about who he would be dealing with if he jumped to the LIV tour and why he might still deal with “scary” people as a way to reshape the tour. By the time he did make the jump in June of 2022, Mickelson’s public image was vastly different than it had been when he won the 2021 PGA Championship.

Rahm had been an admired figure in golf for his strong play but also his thoughtful explanations for not wanting to play on the LIV tour. Those included a dislike for the LIV 54-hole format and the shotgun start for rounds. Less than a year later, Rahm jumped to LIV. Had he lied before? Was he a hypocrite? Did the money change his mind? Those are all questions and allegations readers have made against Rahm in the last two weeks.

Rahm is moving to a tour that has plenty of money but has struggled to find any television viewers in this country. Broadcast on the CW network, LIV tour ratings have been so bad the tour stopped reporting them and some CW stations across the country interrupt LIV to show money-making infomercials. If a golfer hits a 3-wood on the LIV tour and no one sees it, did it really happen?

On the other hand, the PGA Tour could be on the verge of the same thing. The winners of three of the last five majors (Rahm, Brooks Koepka and Cam Smith) play on the LIV Tour now, so they won’t be in PGA Tour events. They will be in the majors, which are not PGA Tour events but run by the USGA, the R and A, the PGA of America and Augusta National Golf Club. There are still more than enough talented players on the PGA Tour, but Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay and Victor Hovland, among others, don’t play every week. Maybe LIV ratings don’t go up, but could PGA Tour ratings go down?

The PGA Tour may also have a sponsorship problem. Wells Fargo has already announced it is leaving its tournament after 2024, unwilling to meet the financial demands of the tour for an elevated (or signature) event. AT&T left the Byron Nelson tournament in Texas, apparently to have the money for a signature event at Pebble Beach. Sponsors come and go from time to time, but the PGA Tour needs stability these days, even in sponsorships.

The PGA Tour seems on the verge of announcing a deal with the Strategic Sports Group, a group of owners in other major sports, that could infuse billions of dollars into a new for-profit business model. The tour is also still talking to PIF, which probably needs to be part of the deal if the PGA Tour doesn’t want other big names poached away by LIV.

Whatever the deal is, it needs to get done fast. There might still be hurt feelings and mistrust and anger, but fans aren’t all that worried about the feelings of players or tour power brokers. They just want the best players playing together more often. Without that, the fans might be the ones with the hurt feelings and mistrust.

Larry Bohannan is the golf writer for The Desert Sun. You can contact him at (760) 778-4633 or at [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter at @larry_bohannan. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Desert Sun.

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