LIV players coming back to PGA Tour? That depends on whether they want to return

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LAS VEGAS — The video board at Las Vegas Country Club showed 4:29 as it counted down the time to when the range would close and LIV Golf Las Vegas could start. In the sky, a group of parachuters floated their way to the first fairway, adding to the spectacle.

A man approached and asked, “Where do I find Jon Rahm?” He was on the second hole, not unusual, except the tournament still had not started.

LIV Golf is different — and yes, louder, but only because of speakers set up near tees and grandstands for a constant beat of music throughout the day.

This is the life 54 players chose when they signed up for the Saudi-funded league, some of them for enormous signing bonuses. Rahm was the most recent when the Masters champion donned a black letterman’s jacket to pose with LIV CEO Greg Norman in December.

And they appear to like it — 54-hole tournaments, shotgun starts, no cuts, $20 million purses, $50,000 guaranteed for last place (down from $120,000 when the field was 48 players).

Golf has never been more fractured than now. But even as the conversation turns to punishment — if any — for players who took the Saudi cash should they want to return starts with whether they even want to come back to the PGA Tour.

It’s hard to find many who are in a big rush.

The notion LIV was going away when the PGA Tour agreed to a commercial deal with the Saudi backers of the rival league has given way to the realization LIV isn’t going anywhere soon.

There’s also the question whether the tour, which last week signed Strategic Sports Group as a minority investor for as much as $3 billion, will ever strike a deal with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, the original partner in the June 6 framework agreement.

“We could throw around ideas here forever and not get to a really good outcome,” Adam Scott, one of six players on the PGA Tour board, said last week at Pebble Beach. “The first thing I think of when I hear, ‘Just bring them all back,’ is well, they want to play on LIV. They don’t want to play here. So what if they don’t want to come back and play? So what happens then?”

Scott was asked if unification was necessary to meet PGA Tour business goals.

“I personally don’t think so,” he said. “And obviously, SSG don’t either, because they’ve been willing to do this deal not contingent on anything to do with PIF.”

And on it goes, LIV in Las Vegas during the Super Bowl, the PGA Tour in Phoenix, great players on both tours going about business in their own way, emotions driving each side.

Among the curious spectators Thursday in Las Vegas was Tommy Fleetwood, his long hair hidden by a hoodie in the frigid weather. That should be worth at least two days of rumors that Fleetwood would be next to leave for LIV, and this brought laughter from the Englishman.

He was in Las Vegas for two days to work with Butch Harmon and figured he would go to LIV event to see what it was like for himself, nothing more. There was no indication LIV Golf appealed to him. He was delighted to see old friends.

Rory McIlroy wants the game whole again, no punishment for anyone if they are eligible. Few others share that view. Scott, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Scottie Scheffler are among those who are adamant that players who defected — some of whom sued the tour — should not just walk right back in.

Key to this entire divide are the majors.

The only pathway for LIV is to have won a major or the world ranking, and the league doesn’t get world ranking points. Abraham Ancer was No. 20 in the world when he joined LIV in June 2022. Now he’s at No. 155 and is not eligible for any majors. Regrets? Not many.

“Personally, I’m happy where I’m at,” Ancer said Thursday. “I knew the possibility of not getting world ranking points. I was OK with it, and I’m not going to be crying about it. The competition, we have a great field every week. It’s not easy to win out here. I’m just focused on getting better. That’s all I can do. And I want to play the majors. I’ll do anything I can to qualify.”

Rahm said it was emotional for him to drive past the TPC Scottsdale and realize he would not be at the Phoenix Open. He also misses Torrey Pines, his favorite spot and site of his first major win in the 2021 U.S. Open. He was confident in his decision to leave for LIV. He wouldn’t mind returning for a few PGA Tour events of his choosing.

“I’m hoping that in the near future I can be back playing some of those events,” Rahm said. “I would certainly love to go back and play some of them.”

But all of them? Bryson DeChambeau has played only one other tournament outside LIV, the Saudi International. Dustin Johnson hasn’t played anywhere but LIV and the majors.

“It’s professional golf that’s some of the best players in the world,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a little bit different than obviously the PGA Tour. We have teams. But I think the fan experience here is a lot more fun. I think the player experience is more fun. We’ve got the music out on the range, some music out on the course. It’s kind of just trending to where golf is going right now.”

Charles Howell III played 609 tournaments in his PGA Tour career. He misses some of his favorites, like the Sony Open and Bay Hill and the John Deere Classic. Otherwise, he’s perfectly content with LIV except for seeing the big picture.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I want golf in some way, shape or form to be together at the top,” Howell said. “I don’t think that means going back. I think that means golf is together at the top. And people smarter than me can figure it out.”

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf

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