Rory McIlroy Recognizes the Need for Pro Golf Unity, Though It Remains Far Away

The now-35-year-old is trying to envision a compromise between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, but Bob Harig explains the hard decisions standing in the way.
Rory McIlroy wants a compromise atop pro golf, but does everyone else?
Rory McIlroy wants a compromise atop pro golf, but does everyone else? / Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Rory McIlroy wore a cap Wednesday during his pro-am round at the Wells Fargo Championship that has long been associated with the Nike brand he endorses.

But it could have just as useful to point to the words when speaking with reporters afterward when he was asked about the glacial negotiations between the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

“Just Do It.”

McIlroy has made no secret of his frustration over a lack of a deal. For all his anti-LIV Golf rhetoric at times over the past two years, he quickly understood the bigger picture in the aftermath of last year’s controversial “framework agreement” that saw PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan appear together for interviews.

The four-time major champion who last week turned 35 might still be no fan of LIV, but he has recognized the need to bring the game back together and what a deal could mean, even if both sides might have to give up some things that they are stubbornly clinging to at the moment.

McIlroy even went so far as to invoke “The Troubles,” or what’s also known as the “Northern Ireland Conflict” to make his point. While the long-ago issues in his homeland were of a far more serious nature, he used the eventual “Good Friday Agreement” as a point of reference to golf’s continuing struggle.

The 1998 agreement saw both sides have to compromise. But it brought peace to a region that had seen war for three decades.

“That's sort my little way of trying to think about it and trying to make both sides see that there could be a compromise here,” McIlroy said at Quail Hollow Golf Club in advance of the Wells Fargo Championship. “Yeah, it's probably not going to feel great for either side, but if it's a place where the game of golf starts to thrive again and we can all get back together, then I think that's ultimately a really good thing.’’

So what’s holding it up?

Well, to McIlroy’s point, it is clear that both sides have ideas they are unwilling to give up.

It would not be surprising to learn that the hardliners on the PGA Tour side want LIV Golf to go away and to exact some penalty on players trying to return.

If you’re the PIF and spent in excess of $2 billion to launch a fledgling league that has disrupted the golf world with pledges of more into the future, why would you want to shutter it?

On the other side, if you’re the Tour and willing to bring LIV along, say, as a separate entity, wouldn’t there need to be some cooperation on player movement? Wouldn’t LIV need to condense its schedule so there could be some other competitive vehicle—such as McIlroy’s proposed Champions League—in which all the top players compete?

And in that instance, if you’re LIV, don’t you need to accept that those players are not going to have unfettered access to existing PGA Tour events?

Yeah, it’s not easy. But to get any kind of an agreement—and more cash flowing into PGA Tour Enterprises—some hard decisions are in play. McIlroy has repeatedly floated the idea of events outside of the PGA Tour, worldwide events that bring together the top players. It would be a huge change from what exists now.

“Maybe our outlook on the future of golf might be a little different than theirs, but look, that's why we have a great team of people, from SSG (Strategic Sports Group), from our tour, from the PGA Tour just all work together,” said Webb Simpson, a player director on the policy board who had recently proposed that McIlroy replace him. “There's some smart people a lot smarter than me who are going to figure out those roadblocks and hopefully we get back to producing great golf tournaments at great venues and that's what I'm hopeful for.”

Simpson is a supporter of McIlroy, viewing him as a “global superstar” whose ideas are important.

Perhaps not all see it that way. It’s been known for some time that McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay, another board member, are not in agreement on numerous issues (Golf Digest reported sources claiming Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods were not keen on McIlroy’s possible board return.) Woods appears to be pro-Tour all the way but did acknowledge his meeting in March with Al-Rumayyan was productive. He has not shared his ultimate feelings publicly.

Tiger Woods hits out of a bunker during the 2024 Masters.
Tiger Woods's loyalty to the PGA Tour is understandable, given his legacy. / Adam Cairns, Adam Cairns / USA TODAY

Woods is protective of the PGA Tour, and for good reason. It’s understandable that the guy whose 82-victory total has been surpassed by no one might want to see that part of his career remain intact, with a reasonable ode to the Tour’s history secure.

But the risks of not making a deal remain: LIV Golf continues to hire and aspire. It has plans going out several years. Sure, it can shut it down in a heartbeat, but that does not appear to be the plan. Greg Norman, the commissioner, has repeatedly said that his mandate from Al-Rumayyan is to keep building. And do you want to lose another player the caliber of Jon Rahm to LIV? What happens when existing LIV player contracts expire? Certainly, the league is going to want to sign new players.

Meanwhile, SSG has committed upwards of $3 billion to PGA Tour Enterprises. The Tour recently announced “grants” in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion with vesting to occur over the next eight years that will see nearly 200 players and future members compensated.

That means a return on investment is necessary. Tyler Dennis, an executive vice president with the PGA Tour, met with reporters on Wednesday in Charlotte at the Wells Fargo Championship and stressed how much the talking points going forward will be about the fans and enhancing the game for them.

Great. How?

One way is to get everyone back together, somehow.

“I'm still optimistic,” McIlroy said. “I think Webb staying on (the board) is a really good thing. I think he's got a really balanced voice in all of this and I think he sees the bigger picture, which is great. My fear was if Webb stepped off and it wasn't me that was going in his place, what could potentially happen. I'm really happy that Webb has made that decision to stay on and serve out the rest of his term.”

And he might have added: “Just Do It.”


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Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior golf writer for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience covering golf, including 15 at ESPN. Bob is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods and Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry. He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Bob, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Florida.