Is a day of reckoning coming for tours?

Rory McIlroy says 'there’s a lot of gray area' in regards to where players can and cannot play, and that clarity from the PGA and European tours would be appreciated

DP World Tour Championship 2021 — Rory McIlroy — R4 / H3
Rory McIlroy in the final round of the DP World Tour Championship held at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in November.

Rory McIlroy doesn’t pull punches, an occasional driver maybe, but not punches.

So when spring headlines and hype surrounded the possible emergence of a Super League, one backed by the Saudi government, one that would throw gobs of money at top players to gain their allegiance, McIlroy was clear about where he stood.

He called the scheme a “money grab,” and suggested it was bad for golf. “I’m very much against it,” McIlroy said back in May. “I don’t see why anyone would be for it.”

Fast forward to the present. The Saudi International looms on the 2022 horizon, scheduled the same Feb. 3-6 week as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a PGA Tour staple. The Saudi event formerly was associated with the European Tour. But the PGA and European tours struck a strategic alliance last summer — which many interpreted as a move to frustrate the Saudi’s rival tour — and the Saudi International got the boot

Thus, the 2022 Saudi is being conducted under the Asian Tour umbrella. Reportedly, the event already has received commitments from Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. But not so fast. 

PGA and European Tour members must obtain waivers to compete on other circuits. And the powers that be at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., have indicated they have no intention of granting such permission. Ditto the European Tour,

You might even say, with all apologies, they have drawn a line in the sand.

The head butt appears to be the opening blow in a street fight for the future of professional golf. The skirmish features the established Big Two — the PGA and European tours — against a rogue, cash saturated alternative, i.e. the Super League, which might lure elite names with guaranteed paydays of up to $30 million. 

Since the inception of the Saudi International in 2019, critics have insisted the country hosts such events to help “sportswash” its image as a human-rights abuser. 

But McIlroy, who is dead-set against the formation of a new, Saudi-backed tour, has a much different stance on this individual Saudi-backed event.

“In my opinion, I think the Tour should grant releases,” McIlroy said. “It’s an Asian Tour event, it’s an event that has official golf world rankings. 

“I do see reasons why they wouldn’t grant releases. But I think if they’re trying to do what’s best for their members, and their members are going to a place other than the PGA Tour and being able to earn that money. I mean, we’re independent contractors, and I feel like we should be able to do that.” 

Keep in mind the 32-year-old McIlroy, a four-time major championship winner, is not planning on playing in the Saudi International. And the way things stand, players who do compete in Saudi Arabia will face the possibility of fines or even suspensions. 

That said, the PGA Tour has left the door slightly open, explaining that decisions on conflicting-event releases can be made "up until 30 days" before the first round. Defending the rights of those who wish to compete, McIlroy thinks the establishment should back off.

"I should be able to go play where I want if I have the credentials and I have the eligibility to do so,” McIlroy said. “I'd say most of the players on tour would be in a similar opinion to me.” 

One of those players, Xander Schauffele, is pragmatic about it all. Schauffele emphasized he concentrates on playing golf, and lets his support team sweat the details. But the 28-year-old did suggest a my-way-or-the-highway-approach over the Saudi International might not be the best from the PGA and European tours. 

“I feel like it’s very absolute,” Schauffele said. “I feel like there just needs to  be come kind of counter, in the way certain things work. I’ll try to do what I need to do, and they’ll tell me what I can and can’t do at a certain point. 

“But they can’t just tell me, ‘No, you can’t do this and … just kick rocks, kid.’ That’s not really how I’d want to do things. “ 

As for the bigger picture, alternative tours and what have you, British Open champ Collin Morikawa put things in perspective.

“Look, I'm 24 and I'm keeping all eyes and ears open to everything,” Morikawa said. “But the PGA Tour has been the focal point of my entire career, right? You grew up watching the PGA Tour, you grew up watching guys like Tiger (Woods), guys like Rory just dominate the game and that's what you want to do, you come out here and win.

“So, you know, hopefully everything is out there and you start listening what's best, what's better. But look, I think at the end of the day all we're trying to do is grow the game, so what's going to be the best for us professional golfers to grow the game? How do we create this outlet that is not just for a U.S. market, but is global, right?”

McIlroy added a day of reckoning is probably coming, one that will spell out the structures, responsibilities and rights more clearly. 

“I think the professional game needs to get to a point where we as professionals need to know where we stand, ” McIlroy explained. “Are we actually independent contractors? Are we employed by a certain entity? So that’s the stuff that … there’s a lot of gray area. And that’s what needs to be sorted out, I think.”