Did Rory McIlroy just Pivot…or Divot?

Now that Tiger Woods has nearly disappeared from the PGA Tour, Rory McIlroy has become the most popular top golf star regularly seen on the worldwide stage.

The four-time major champion is only 34 years old.  It feels like we have seen him on television for nearly half of his life.  Actually, we have!

The fiery golfer from Northern Ireland is known for his aggressive golf swing (my back aches just watching him swing that driver) and very focused playing style.  Last year, the 5’9” and 165 pound golfer led the entire PGA Tour in driving distance with incredible 326 yards off the tee.

Financially speaking, the PGA Tour has been extremely good to Rory McIlroy.  He won more than $14 million in prize money last season.  McIlroy’s career PGA Tour earnings of $80 million trail only Tiger Woods ($120 million) and Phil Mickelson ($90 million).

Unless Rory’s back or knees should cause significant physical issues, he should pass Mickelson within the next two years.  He could overtake Tiger Woods as the PGA Tour’s all-time earnings leader before he turns 40 years of age.

When the new LIV Golf league hit the ground less than two years ago, Rory McIlroy told them “No, Thanks!”  In the past two years, there has been no bigger pom-pom waver on behalf of the PGA Tour or a bigger naysayer about LIV Golf than the fan friendly Rory McIlroy.

Money (BIG money, that is) talks

For most of the first two years of LIV Golf’s existence, it has been Rory McIlroy speaking the loudest and harshest about the PGA Tour’s new competitor and its oversized wallet (courtesy of the Saudi Investment Fund).  Regardless, LIV Golf was able to sign some of golf’s biggest names from the PGA Tour and the DP (European) Tour in 2022.

There is nothing quite like being offered tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars in guaranteed money to help you make a decision about a possible job change.

Golfers regularly experience serious injuries – primarily in their lower back.  If you don’t think injuries can end a golf career, has anyone seen much of Tiger Woods recently?

The 48-year old Woods, who remains tied with Sam Snead for the most career PGA victories at 82, has endured a number of golf-related injuries in his lengthy pro career.  Additionally, his nasty one-vehicle crash a few years ago has caused him to miss a significant number of PGA tournaments.

Professional golfers are quite aware that their earnings are directly related to their ability to tee it up on tour week to week and then year to year.  They must compete at a high level to earn enough money to stay on tour each season.  Once a golfer falls from the public eye, incremental revenue earned from advertising or endorsement deals will start to diminish, too.

The lure of guaranteed signing bonus money (anywhere from an estimated $10 million up to the $200 million enticement paid to Phil Mickelson) offered by LIV Golf in 2022 and 2023 helped make the decision to walk away from the PGA Tour relatively easy for most of the new league’s 48 professional golfers.

PGA Tour increases payouts and adds new concepts starting in 2024

For pro golfers choosing to remain loyal to the PGA Tour (such as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and many others), Commissioner Jay Monahan began to unveil several expensive promises in hopes to retain golfers through the 2023 season and beyond.

This year, the PGA Tour will roll-out significantly higher paydays in some golf tournaments.  The PGA Tour will add a few events with a no-cut field limited to 70-80 of its top ranked golfers.

With these and other changes, current PGA Tour members are hopeful to finally stem the tide of player defections over to LIV Golf.

A surprise merger proposal surfaces

The first half of 2023 saw continued verbal jousting between the PGA and DP World Tour players and those who had defected to LIV Golf.  In June, 2023, both sides were stunned after a rather surprising announcement was released.

A merger between the professional golf leagues was to be negotiated with a completion deadline of December 31, 2023.

As predicted here several weeks ago, that deadline has now passed.  There is no deal – yet.  The parties are (supposedly) still negotiating, but they have shared very little information with the pro golfers or a very interested public.

Since last June’s unexpected merger announcement, the PGA Tour has been courting additional private equity (i.e. – big money) from a number of US sources as a possible alternative to merging with the Saudi-funded LIV Golf group.

Yet, seven months has passed and no one seems to know if or when this transaction will occur or fall apart.

While the clock has been ticking, a few significant changes have occurred within the player ranks.

In November, Rory McIlroy advised the PGA Tour that he was stepping down from his role with the PGA Tour’s policy board.  His term was scheduled to continue through the end of 2024.

Rory told the media that he didn’t want to spend so much of his time embroiled in politics right now.  Last week, McIlroy told the assembled media at a golf tournament in Dubai that he wants to focus more on golf.

Rory McIlroy desperately wants to add a green jacket at The Masters this April in order to complete golf’s Grand Slam of winning all four majors.  He would join Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods as the only professional golfers to have achieved that feat.

Rory McIlroy does not regret stepping down from the PGA Tour policy board.

“Not what I signed for when I went on the board,” Rory said. “But the game of professional golf has been in flux for the last two years.”

 He added, “I stepped up and spoke out about something I believed in. Obviously, the landscape changed in June with that (merger) announcement and I felt like from then on I was playing a lesser part because of the decisions that were made.”

Though Rory McIlroy has left the PGA Tour policy board, none other than Tiger Woods was added to that same board during the summer of 2023 as this proposed merger progresses (or doesn’t).  Fan favorite Jordan Spieth agreed to fill the remaining term of Rory McIlroy on the PGA’s policy board.  Spieth had previously served in that same position just prior to McIlroy’s term.

A few weeks later, a bigger bomb was dropped

In early December, the top ranked player in the world signed with LIV Golf.  Jon Rahm (winner of two major championships including the 2023 Masters) reportedly accepted an offer from LIV Golf with a signing bonus of more than $300 million.

The 29-year old Rahm has been relatively quiet about making the move to LIV Golf.  The media will quickly remind him about some prior comments expressing doubts and concerns about LIV Golf during the past two years.

In the end, money talks.

The merger deadline has passed, so “Where’s the beef?”

The deadline of December 31, 2023 has come and gone.  The proposed merger between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and LIV Golf has yet to materialize, and none of the parties have been saying much at all.

Except for Rory McIlroy, that is!

In early January, a more relaxed McIlroy has emerged and shown signs of making a 180-degree turn in his views toward LIV Golf.  He wants the merger deal to get done and has started sharing his own vision for professional golf.

“If this global tour somehow comes to fruition in the next few years, could you imagine bringing the best 70 or 80 golfers in the world to India for a tournament?” said McIlroy.

He added, “I’ve said this for the last few months, but golf is at an inflection point.  If golf doesn’t do it now, I fear that it will never do it and we’ll sort of have this fractured landscape forever.”

McIlroy’s vision is to add a few more meaningful golf tournaments worldwide.  He believes (correctly, in my opinion) that golf tournaments featuring the world’s top players in locations such as Australia, South Africa and Japan would be quite popular.  Those golf fans have indicated a willingness to pay the market price to see top golfers perform on a recurring basis.

“I think the opportunity is global,” McIlroy said this week.

He concluded, “There’s a lot of different interests in the game, and I think what we need to do first is align interests of the players and the business and the fans and the media. And then once you do that, then you can move forward.”

Isn’t that what LIV Golf has been doing?

In 2023, LIV Golf played about half of their 14 events in the US and the other half worldwide.

As the clock ticks into the second half of January, the lack of a deal between the PGA Tour, DP Tour and LIV Golf is troubling.

Meanwhile, the biggest remaining drawing card for the PGA Tour is now pushing for a world golf tour.  Is Rory McIlroy telegraphing a possible move to LIV Golf if the proposed merger falls apart soon?

If Rory McIlroy should move to LIV Golf in 2024, the PGA Tour’s long-time dominance as the home for professional golf’s best male players would be dealt a crushing blow.

Though golf can be relatively boring at times, there is much tension and suspense in the air at the start of 2024.  Men’s professional golf may be altered significantly soon – one way or another.

Keep your eye on Rory in 2024!