Column: Players who take Saudi money shouldn’t need PGA Tour

BROOKLINE, Mass., Jun 14 (AP) — Two players huddled on the practice range late in the afternoon at The Country Club. Only a few words were audible from each sentence, still enough to have a good idea of the topic.

And it wasn’t anything about the U.S. Open.

Even at the second-oldest championship in golf, there is no escaping the chatter and speculation about a potential future that is built around riches — obnoxious greed, one might say — instead of credibility.

“You can’t go anywhere without somebody bringing it up,” Justin Thomas said. “That’s not right for the USGA. That’s not right for the U.S. Open. That’s not right for us players. But that’s, unfortunately, where we’re at right now.”

And to think it was only late February when Commissioner Jay Monahan was so confident about his position against the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series that he said, “The PGA Tour is moving on.”

It should be as simple as that.

And that should be true for Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, and anyone else enticed by riches from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and promises from Greg Norman that LIV Golf is the future.

Move on.

Johnson, who resigned his PGA Tour membership, said his plan was to play in the eight LIV events this year and a couple of majors and nothing more. “The whole reason I started playing on LIV was to play less golf, not more,” he said.

Well, that wasn’t the whole reason.

There is that $150 million signing fee The Daily Telegraph reported Johnson received. That’s twice as much as his PGA Tour earnings he accumulated over the last 15 years. Whether Johnson or any other player this side of Tiger Woods is even worth that much is up for debate.

Ditto for Mickelson, who looked every bit of his soon-to-be 52 years when he spoke to the media Monday and repeated the same rehearsed lines from his LIV Golf debut last week. He respects others’ opinions, empathizes with whoever is offended and feels his relationship with the PGA Tour is a two-way street. They provided a stage, he hit flop shots.

Mickelson doesn’t want to let go of his lifetime membership, afforded players with 20 career wins and 15 years of service. Never mind that he said he would play only LIV events and the British Open this year. He wants to decide where to play without anyone telling him.

With Mickelson, it’s always about control.

Monahan doubled down on his attack on the source of these riches. “It’s not an issue for me because I don’t work for the Saudi Arabian government,” he said. His money line — no pun intended — during his first public comments since LIV Golf began was when he said Sunday that no one ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour.

More intriguing was the question he offered when asked why players can’t be on both tours.

“Why do they need us so badly?” he said.

It’s a fair question.

Why not just leave? What is there to gain by playing on the PGA Tour if even a spike in purses this year is still barely more than a third of what LIV Golf offers ($25 million) at every stop?

What the tour is banking on is relevance and visibility, and that’s what Saudi money can’t buy.

That could change, of course, which should be golf’s biggest fear. Everyone has a price, which explains why Johnson changed his mind, thus paving the way for DeChambeau to make a similar U-turn. Others are sure to follow, none who move the needle on his own.

The majors are the key to this and still to be determined is how the Masters and PGA Championship, which have a long relationship with the PGA Tour, will respond by way of invitations or a change of criteria, if they do anything at all.

The majors are the four most important championships of the year, but it’s on the PGA Tour where young players — Jordan Spieth and Thomas a decade ago, Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns from the most recent crop — play their way into majors and become known to fans.

The Canadian Open was good tonic in a troubling week for the PGA Tour. Rory McIlroy, Tony Finau and Thomas fought to the end as thousands of fans — the majority of whom actually bought tickets — surrounded the 18th green for a finish broadcast on network TV.

That doesn’t happen every week. But it can.

It was like that for Joaquin Niemann at Riviera this year when he went wire-to-wire at the Genesis Invitational, held off a hard-charging Collin Morikawa and had Woods present him with the trophy.

“There’s nothing that can compete with this,” Niemann said.

Except for money, of course.

This battle is far from over. McIlroy called the Saudi league “dead in the water” in February when Johnson and a parade of top players pledged support to the PGA Tour. McIlroy was asked Tuesday to explain what he got wrong.

“I guess I took a lot of players’ statements at face value,” he said. “You had people committed to the PGA Tour, and that’s the statements that were put out. People went back on that, so I guess I took them for face value. I took them at their word. And I was wrong.”