It’s difficult to comprehend just how different the golf landscape was as recently as 12 short months ago.
As the world’s best made their way to Ponte Vedra Beach for The Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event and the so-called “fifth major”, LIV Golf was – how do I put this politely? – a thing – but nothing concrete had been announced other than its new CEO Greg Norman.
As for potential big-name signings, the then PGA champion Phil Mickelson had been touted as the first to put pen to paper, but then Lefty’s soon-to-be infamous “scary mother******s” interview with Alan Shipnuck was leaked and everything was up in the air.
Rory McIlroy, at the Genesis Invitational a few weeks before The Players, went as far as describing LIV as “dead in the water” – not the kind of thing he would say lightly.
At Sawgrass, none of the players were asked about LIV Golf in the dozens of pre-tournament press conferences – not even Dustin Johnson, another player who had been heavily linked with a big-money move.
Indeed, there were more questions regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than there were about what was at the time (and surely still is) comfortably the biggest news in our sport.
The only question about what we were still referring to as the Saudi Golf League was asked to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan: Can you see lawsuits in the future?
“Listen,” he snapped back. “Our PGA Tour rules and regulations were written by the players, for the players. They’ve been in existence for over 50 years. We’re going to keep moving forward as a PGA Tour and focus on the things that we control.”
Four days later, Cameron Smith lifted what was the biggest title of his career to date – until he topped it with his maiden major at St Andrews four months later – while Anirban Lahiri, Paul Casey, Harold Varner III, and Johnson all finished in the top 10.
Others in the field included Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, then Ryder Cup captain Henrik Stenson, and Lee Westwood, who had gone so close 12 months earlier, before being edged out.
All of the above would all end the year as LIV Golf players with eye-wateringly lucrative and PGA Tour career-ending contracts.
Ever since, it seems, golf’s so-called civil war is all we’ve spoken about. The Saudis’ attempted takeover of our sport has divided golf fans in a way that’s made Tiger vs Jack look like playground chatter.
As a result, it is a very different field at HQ this time around. None of the above will be there, with bans put in place for any PGA Tour player taking the PIF cash the second the opening tee shot was hit at LIV’s first event at Centurion in June.
No one has ever successfully defended the PGA Tour’s most coveted title, and that stat will remain for at least 12 months thanks to champion Smith’s defection – though there is talk the Jacksonville resident may show up as a fan. While we can live in hope that it won’t be the biggest talking point during the event, there’s little chance we can avoid it in the run-up.
However, popular mulleted Australians aside, how many other LIV players will be sorely missed? Johnson and Koepka don’t command the status they have enjoyed in recent years, while other fan favourites in Garcia, Watson, and Poulter are fading stars.
There’s a new crop in town. The likes of Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler, and Matt Fitzpatrick have established themselves on the biggest stage, while Viktor Hovland, Will Zalatoris, and Tom Kim are major champions in waiting.
So kick back and tune in to watch these new stars take on the likes of Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas – winners in 2019 and 2021 respectively and the PGA Tour’s self-appointed protective alliance – as well as Jon Rahm, and Jordan Spieth.
Tiger Woods was a notable absentee from the entry list, but this won’t take away from the exciting week ahead.