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Part 1 — LIV Golf: Is it a Real or Perceived Threat?

Analysis: Is this really the first time that Golf has experienced such disruption or turmoil?

 

This is Part 1 of a 3-Part series that looks at LIV Golf, the challenges it presents to professional golf, and how this situation may eventually be resolved. In this part, we look at disruption and change in golf. The current situation with LIV Golf is being called a disruption to professional golf, but disruption, change, and conflict have certainly been part of the sports long history and is definitely not new. Updated August 17, 2022.


Golf is at ‘war’ with itself — again. This time, its focus is squarely on LIV Golf and those associated with it, whether it be Greg Norman, Saudi Arabia, or the players that have joined the LIV program of events. ‘Again’ because this is not the first time that the game has been in this situation. The situation being one where the “golf establishment” finds its control of the sport and its direction being challenged. Before we delve into the present day situation and what can be or should be done, it’s worth a brief look at some of golf's previous conflicts and how they were resolved.


"GREG NORMAN" by Pablo Lancaster-Jones Photo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Background

The foundation of modern golf is usually traced back to the days of Thomas Mitchell Morris or Old Tom Morris as he came to be known and his son, Tommy Morris, or Thomas Morris Jr. The challenge that they represented to the Golf Establishment was significant and profound, and while Old Tom’s innovations to the sport came in the form of greenkeeping and course architecture, it was young Tommy that posed the more serious challenge. Young Tom became the first full time professional player, relying instead on prize winnings, and being paid to play, eschewing the traditional trade craft of making clubs and balls for income.[1]

Professional golf today is a concept taken for granted, but in the time of Young Tom, it was very much a foreign concept and one that was largely unwelcomed by the gentlemen of the day. The “golf establishment” – the gentlemen of the Victorian era had controlled the sport, but were in varying degree, dismayed at how Tommy and his friend Davie Strath started playing for themselves, commanding appearance fees of £25 each to compete.

Young Tommy Morris posing for a photograph with his Champions Belt from the Open Championship
Young Tommy Morris has been coined Golf's first super star and in many ways represented the first significant change in Golf.

It was a departure from the usual practice of playing or performing for the amusement of the gentlemen bettors, content to merely receive the amounts generated from a passing of the hats.[2] In reaction to the change brought about by this younger generation of players, it was reported that one of the R&A’s members, a “red coated curmudgeon”, referred to these matches between Straith and Morris Jr. as a “deadness that deprived players of their honour.”[3]

The disdain for professionals was a common theme that lingered in golf well into the early 20th century. With professional players overwhelmingly from the working class and playing for earnings or winnings, it was thought that such conduct was beneath the decorum and social standing of gentlemen and the aristocracy.[4]

The Scottish gentry may have been more amenable to these developments than their English counterparts, as the early professionals such as Morris Jr., Straith, and others were some of their own. Roger McStravick, a golf historian believes that professionalism was an evolution of the game rather than a forced disruption in the sport and once one Club had changed the way it compensated the players it would become a template for others to follow.[5]

“The Allan Robertson era, where the professionals would earn approximately 10% of the purse have long gone. There was also a show element to matches, so it is logical to pay for the stars. Tommy would have been paid for his tours with Davie, but not for every match. I can just about see him (Tommy) becoming a Club professional but 100% (involved in) designing courses, if he had not died so young.” [6]

It continued to be a common theme in the time of Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, two of the British professionals involved in the near mythical 1913 US Open won by Francis Ouimet. The Jersey born Vardon was a manservant to an affluent amateur golfer, whom he served as a caddie[7] before developing his own skill at the sport. Vardon became so proficient, that he eventually set off to become a professional at the age of 20.[8] Vardon would win 6 – (British) Open Championships (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, 1914) and the US Open in 1900. His record of 6 – Claret jugs still stands today as the record for most wins in the Open.

American Player, Walter Hagen being presented with the Ryder Cup
Walter Hagen with the Ryder Cup

The unofficial battle for the direction of the sport would eventually shift to the United States, with players such as Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones coming to prominence in the 1920s. With a hint of class conflict, the battle was still largely one of professional or amateur as to which path would become the future of the sport. On one hand there was Walter Hagen, described as a bon vivant, a product of a modest background, whose life in golf started as a caddie, then club pro before he moved into professional golf. On the other was Robert Tyre Jones Jr., or Bobby Jones, the son of a prominent Atlanta lawyer and from an affluent family. Young Bobby often accompanied his father to the country club, learning the game as a youngster from Stewart Maiden, a Scottish professional and the local club pro.

Booby Jones posing for a photo while swinging a golf club
A young Bobby Jones Jr. demonstrating the swing that would eventually win the Grand Slam

The contrast between the two men while not excessive, was still quite discernable. Hagen was often frowned upon for his antics and demeanour as a professional player — playing money games, living the good life, and playing professional golf for a living. By contrast, Jones was the university educated gentleman in the tradition of the South, working in the respectable field of law, while successfully competing as an amateur player.

Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player and now a golf analyst, said of Jones and Hagen that “he (Jones) was the gentleman, he was the Ivy League scholar, he was the intellect, he was the champion. He was all of those things, and Walter Hagen at the time was a professional golfer, which was viewed on sort of obliquely by those that had the power to make or break golfers.” [9] The treatment or view of professional players compared to the “amateurs” was still alive and well in the era of Hagen and Jones.

In more recent years, there have been several more “battles”, primarily over issues such as diversity in the sport and its lack of initiatives aimed at greater inclusion of broader society. Another involved the creation of the PGA Tour as a separate entity from the PGA of America.

Over the last 50 years, Augusta National, the club co-founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, became noticeable for the paucity of black players competing at the Masters, and then later on with the lack of women as members of the club. In 1975, Augusta invited its first black player to compete at the Masters.[10] And it was only 19 years ago that Martha Burk, the National Council of Women's Organizations, and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition demonstrated outside Augusta National during the 2003 Masters Tournament.[11]

As the leadership of Augusta passed down from one generation to the next, the policies would eventually change. Now the venerable club has moved into the forefront on several important initiatives embracing diversity to ‘grow the game’ of golf whether it be through its “Drive, Chip, and Putt” competition, Augusta National Women’s Amateur, or its qualifying tournaments in regions such as Latin America and Asia.

Augusta National was not alone in its hesitation to admit women members. Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, was even tardier, not admitting women as members until 2017. Even then, it was not a simple process as the oldest golf club in the world needed members to vote twice before they succeeded in having their resolution adopted.[12]

The Executive introduced a resolution to the membership that if adopted, would amend their bylaws, permitting women to become members of the club. The first vote ended with a majority of the members voting in favour, but was defeated as it had not reached the required 2/3rds threshold to amend their bylaws. It would take a threat from the R&A that the club would no longer be eligible to host the Open Championship, to kick start another vote.[13] The second vote was successful,[14] but presumably required some additional arm twisting, to secure the mandatory 2/3rd mandate.

Even then, Muirfield was not alone; it was just the most well known of the men-only clubs. Pine Valley in New Jersey, one of America’s oldest and most well known golf clubs, only recently announced that it admitted its first women members in 2021. The famed Portmarnock, a 127 year old golf club in Ireland, just announced an end to its male-only policy in May of 2021.[15] Progress with diversity has been slow in coming, and the progress made has not always come smoothly as there has been hesitation, reluctance, and in some cases a steadfast opposition from the “establishment”.

Despite that, some progress has been achieved and the governing bodies such as the R&A and the United States Golf Association have been forces for positive change in the game. While it eventually came around to understanding its role in promoting the sport, Augusta National Golf Club has since embraced its role in promoting the sport amongst non-traditional audiences.

No matter how brief, any survey considering golf and its internal battles must also include the PGA Tour and its eventual separation from the PGA of America (the “PGA”). It was in 1967 that the players that comprised the majority of the tournament fields, started to grow disillusioned with the PGA over the control that the PGA exercised over the tour operations. Trying to grow the tour so that more players could earn a living, the players were generally pleased that Frank Sinatra had proposed to sponsor a $200,000 event at the Canyon Country Club in Palm Springs.[16]

The idea was to hold the event within a few weeks of the existing Bob Hope Desert Classic offering players the opportunity to compete again without having to incur as much cost. The players would basically be able to remain in the Palm Springs area and compete for a sizable prize fund with the new tournament. Unfortunately, the proposed new event was turned down, or vetoed by the PGA, presumably on the grounds that the Palm Springs market was not able to sustain another event. It was this decision that appears to have been the catalyst that eventually led to the players establishing their own tour independent of the PGA.[17] [18]

The drama was played out over a three year period, marked by sniping in the newspapers and media with Arnold Palmer trying to play peacemaker and find a solution that would resolve the dilemma. The turmoil eventually gave way in 1969 to an Independent Tournament Players Division — a standalone corporation with a 10-member governance board consisting of four players, three PGA executives, and three consulting businessmen.

Joe Dey from the USGA was hired to be the commissioner to run the tour and in 1974 would be succeeded by former player Deane Beman. Under Beman, the tour became the PGA Tour and any ties to the PGA were severed. It took three years for a truce to emerge and then another five years before the tour operations became the PGA TOUR.[19]

Conflict, confrontation, and disruption have long been a part of golf, even if the level of disruption was just a matter of degree. Within this context, the sport finds itself in its latest ‘battle’ between the professional golf tours and the upstart newcomer in LIV Golf. In the next part, we discuss the current situation involving LIV Golf and the professional tours or the "Establishment".

In Part 2 -- things get nasty in the world of professional golf as LIV Golf and the major professional tours try to function and co-exist, while the response from some has taken a turn to the nasty side.

 

[1] Roger McStravick, in “The Open: Young Tom Morris, Old Tom Morris and how it all began” by Peter Scrivener, June 2, 2022 available from BBC Sports, https://www.bbc.com/sport/golf/61641438; accessed on July 17, 2022.

[2] Kevin Cook, Tommy’s Honour: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris – Golf’s Founding Father and Son, Penguin Publishing Group: New York, 2008 pp.219-220

[3] Cook, Tommy’s.

[4] Cook, Tommy’s.

[5] Roger McStavick, “Re: Form Submission – Tom Morris Sr. & Jr”. Email received by Douglas Maida, July 19, 2022

[6] McStavick, Re: Form.

[7] Dave Anderson, “Caddie Who Mastered the Game,” New York Times, July 13, 2014 available from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/14/sports/golf/remembering-harry-vardon-who-inspired-much-of-golfs-culture.html; accessed July 18, 2022.

[8] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Harry Vardon." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 5, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harry-Vardon.

[9] Karen Crouse, “A Golfer Who Lived Large and Played Larger”, New York Times, June 7, 2014 available from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/08/sports/golf/walter-hagen-went-from-amateur-to-pro-to-vip-and-transformed-the-sport.htm , accessed July 18, 2022

[10] Karen Crouse, “At Augusta National, Not Talking About Race Is Tradition”, New York Times, November 10, 2020 updated April 6, 2021 available from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/10/sports/golf/lee-elder-masters-augusta-national.html , accessed August 6, 2022.

[11] Michael Weinreb, “Martha Burk, Hootie Johnson, and Augusta National, 15 Years Later”, The Ringer, April 2, 2018, available from https://www.theringer.com/2018/4/2/17187212/martha-burk-hootie-johnson-the-masters-15-years-later , accessed on August 6, 2022.

[12] Martin Inglis, “Muirfield to Hold Fresh Membership Ballot”, Bunkered, June 27, 2016 available from https://www.bunkered.co.uk/golf-news/muirfield-to-hold-fresh-membership-ballot , accessed on August 6, 2022.

[13] Inglis, Muirfield..

[14] “Muirfield Golf Club Overturns Men-Only Policy”, BBC website, March 14, 2012 available from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-39260578 , accessed on August 6, 2022.

[15] Ewan Murray, “Big Time Muirfield Shakes off Men-only Past with Hosting of Women’s Open”, The Guardian, available from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/aug/03/big-time-muirfield-shakes-off-men-only-past-with-hosting-of-womens-open , accessed on August 6, 2022.

[16] Mark Mulvoy, “The Revolt of the Touring Pros: The battle between golfers who play for big money and the rest of the PGA comes down to this: Which group should rule the tour?” Sports Illustrated, September 2, 1968 available at https://vault.si.com/vault/1968/09/02/the-revolt-of-the-touring-pros , accessed on July 30, 2022.

[17] Mulvoy, The Revolt.

[18] Jim Gorant, “War for the Tour: The Day the PGA Championship nearly died”, Golf Magazine, August 8, 2018 available from https://golf.com/news/tournaments/pga-championship-nearly-died/?amp=1 , accessed on July 30, 2022.

[19] Gorant, War for the Tour.

 


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