Lack of PGA-LIV resolution ruining golf's popularity

by Scott Stinson
Ben Jared / PGA TOUR / Getty Images

Rory McIlroy won the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday in what became a pleasant afternoon stroll. His 7-stroke lead was so comfortable that when he hit a ball in the water on the final hole, McIlroy still had a big grin on his face. Had he played the last few holes while signing autographs and kissing babies, it would've fit the general mood.

Beating his rivals on the course? Easy. But battling them amid golf's ongoing civil war? That is proving much harder.

McIlroy has become a curious bellwether for golf's attempts to find peace in our time. He was among the most outspoken defenders of the PGA TOUR once LIV Golf started luring players away with giant purses and absurd signing bonuses, then was understandably taken aback when the TOUR and LIV announced a shotgun marriage of sorts last June. The Northern Irishman later resigned from the PGA TOUR's policy board after losing a power struggle with his peers. He recently appeared ready to return to that role - with the TOUR and LIV's Saudi benefactors still yet to formalize their partnership - only to back out again, saying those same peers didn't want him back.

Jimmy Dunne - one of the original architects of the PGA-LIV armistice and a friend of Rory's - also resigned from the TOUR's policy board this week, saying that "no meaningful progress" had been made in the 11 months since the original light-on-details deal.

As players from both tours converge at the PGA Championship in Kentucky this week, that suggests golf's great divide will continue for some time yet, causing more damage to a sport that's been harmed by the split.

The big question, amid a clash of egos and the division of billions of dollars, is whether the harm can be repaired.

McIlroy's win at the Wells Fargo on the weekend must've come as blessed relief to TOUR executives amid a sharp drop in television ratings this season. Early numbers suggest that viewership of the tournament in North Carolina was up slightly over last year, which is significant in context. A week earlier, Canadian Taylor Pendrith's win at the Byron Nelson was accompanied by a 24% drop in the U.S. audience from a year earlier. That continued a season-long trend in which viewership was off by as much as a third at some TOUR stops from a year ago. Ratings at The Masters, which Scottie Scheffler won at a canter, were down about 23% from 2023.

But if PGA TOUR ratings have dropped precipitously, their numbers remain beyond the most fevered imaginations of LIV frontman Greg Norman and his Saudi allies.

LIV's last event, which Brooks Koepka won two weeks ago, had a U.S. audience that was about a tenth of the PGA TOUR's on the same day. LIV, despite a shotgun-start format that's supposed to be engineered for television viewing, was beaten comfortably in the ratings by NASCAR, the UFL, the NWSL, college softball, beach volleyball, bowling, supercross, and a Spanish-language Premier League broadcast.

LIV, for all of its flash and wealth, continues to follow the path of breakaway leagues in other sports, which have struggled time and again to get people to care about a new product for which there was no obvious demand.

The PGA TOUR's struggles are a little harder to explain. The LIV defections have robbed it of some star power, and indeed, the roster of TOUR winners in the early part of 2024 included several who-dats: Matthieu Pavon, Grayson Murray, Jake Knapp, and Nick Dunlap, who wasn't even a pro at the time. But Scheffler is a star, even if a rather vanilla one, and his multiple wins this season haven't attracted big audiences.

There is a theory that some golf fans, put off by two-plus years of squabbling between a wealthy bunch of golfers and an even wealthier bunch of golfers, are no longer interested in watching either.

If so, the present bun fight won't help. A group of American sports owners pledged $1.5 billion to fund the TOUR's new for-profit entity in January, and so far, the players on the policy board can't even decide how to divide the spoils. McIlroy reportedly favors a wide disbursement among TOUR members, while policy-board members led by Tiger Woods and Patrick Cantlay prefer to see a larger share go to high-profile players who turned down lucrative offers to flee to LIV. Some of that same group is said to be resistant to welcoming LIV defectors who took massive Saudi paydays back to share in the TOUR's newfound U.S.-based wealth, while McIlroy was pushing for a solution that would put both camps back in more tournament fields.

But if the isolationists have won the day, that'd suggest compromise on the LIV-PGA impasse has become less likely in the short term. And the sport's divergence, with weakened fields competing against each other for a declining golf viewership, will continue that much longer.

At least McIlroy can go back to trying to beat guys like Cantlay and Woods on the course this week. He seems better at that part lately.

Scott Stinson is a contributing writer for theScore.