LOS ANGELES — Tiger Woods‘ agent stood at the back of the U.S. Open news conference Monday afternoon and began shaking his head from side to side, his expression part grimace, part smile. One of agent Mark Steinberg’s other clients was at the podium, and a pointed question hung in the air as reigning U.S. Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick paused before speaking.
Do you feel like you should be compensated for not going to LIV?
Seconds passed as Fitzpatrick extended an “uhhh” and eventually landed on pleading the Fifth.
“Yeah, pass,” he said. In the back, Steinberg smiled and nodded.
While it was unclear whether Steinberg’s head shake was a sign to get Fitzpatrick to say he shouldn’t be compensated or he shouldn’t answer the question at all, the moment shed light on a situation that Fitzpatrick himself identified.
“The whole thing is confusing, it was confusing last year,” Fitzpatrick said of the latest chapter in the LIV-PGA Tour saga. “I seem to remember just last year just thinking about the [2022 U.S. Open]. It was obviously different because I had the tie to the golf course and the history there, so it was probably easier for me to mentally focus on that and be in a better place than obviously all this confusion that’s going on this week.”
A year after the golf world descended on Brookline, Massachusetts, for the U.S. Open with the LIV Golf series taking off and Phil Mickelson, among other LIV players, back in the spotlight after bolting from the PGA Tour, the tournament has once again been thrust in the center of the madness.
“We do feel a sense of déjà vu,” USGA president Mike Whan said in a statement to ESPN. “A year ago we were sitting just outside Boston the week after the first LIV event, and the early part of the U.S. Open was dominated by conversations and questions around LIV. But last year, the conversation quickly turned to an incredible U.S. Open at a historic venue … So while we understand why this is something everyone is talking about, we’re excited to start the championship at Los Angeles Country Club on Thursday and focus on what promises to be another memorable U.S. Open.”
Just over a week after the PGA Tour shockingly announced a framework deal to partner with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and change the sport as we know it, players are once again fielding questions about the future of the sport. The general consensus? Shock, confusion and above all, a lack of concrete knowledge.
“To be completely honest, I literally know as much as you,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m sure everyone has gotten questions about it. I found out when everyone else found out. Honestly, I know literally nothing.”
Fitzpatrick has been far from the only player to express the sentiment: Just as players were in the dark about the timing of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan joining forces, they seem to be in the dark about where this goes from here. And in the absence of clarity from leadership, most seem to be trying to fill the void with their frustrations.
“Now you’re getting people on both sides who don’t know what to expect,” Joel Dahmen told ESPN, adding that he has not received any official communication from the tour about the deal since it broke. “I think people are just tired of it.”
Billy Horschel knows he is prone to let his emotions carry his opinions. In the past, the longtime tour player has expressed his thoughts on LIV, the PGA Tour and a slew of other topics without hesitation and often without holding back.
There’s only one problem. In the middle of what appears to be an information gap between what the framework deal between the tour and the PIF looks like and how it will play out, Horschel feels he’s had enough, too.
“I’m exhausted by all of this,” Horschel said on the range at LACC Tuesday. “Even though you’re not trying to focus on it or think about it, at the end of the day it’s still there. It’s still in the back of your mind. It’s still comes up, it’s still everywhere.”
Across the course and the press conference room this week, resigned fatigue as well as a lack of information were the themes from players who spoke.
“It’s not easy as a player to wake up and see this bombshell,” Jon Rahm said. “They’ve certainly heard us throughout the whole process on some of the issues. But we’re certainly in a spot in time where there’s a big question mark. Where we don’t have the answers we would like. It’s hard to say.”
“We want to know the why,” Collin Morikawa said. “I think there’s so many different parties involved that there’s too many answers to really put it into one underlying umbrella of the why, because I think what you’ve seen from the players versus what you’ve seen from maybe our commissioner versus the board versus Yasir versus LIV versus — there’s a lot of parties involved. Everyone has had a kind of different answer and different reaction to all this.”
Horschel said he thinks many of the top players are “over it” and some do feel a sense of betrayal, in large part because of the players’ meeting that occurred in Delaware last year where players convened to agree on a reshaping of the tour in the wake of LIV’s rise.
“We instituted some changes to the PGA Tour that we thought were better,” Horschel said. “And we thought there was going to be a working relationship between [tour leadership] and our group going forward. And obviously the [PIF deal] was sort of thrown upon us that we didn’t know anything about.”
Horschel, like many of the players who have spoken since the announcement of the deal, reiterated the shock value that the deal caused given no one had really heard about it. The timing of it, how it happened in the course of weeks that Monahan and Rumayyan came to an agreement and just ahead of the year’s third major, was also equally perplexing to players more so than the fact that a deal was struck.
“I thought maybe down the road there might be something,” Horschel said. “And Rory told me a year ago, he said, ‘Yasir, he loves golf, he just wants to be in the game of golf. He wants a seat at the table. There’s a lot of money there.’ So he’s like, ‘Who knows what happens?’ But I was just shocked that it happened and there wasn’t any whispers.”
In the midst of it all, some LIV players have been steadfast this week that they’ve been told nothing will change with their tour for the foreseeable future. Others, such as Carlos Ortiz, said they expect things to change a bit in the wake of the news.
“Hopefully it doesn’t change because I’m happy there,” Ortiz told ESPN in Spanish, noting that the fraternity of Latin-American players that have all jumped over to LIV has further solidified their tight-knit group. “I think when you’re with the right people it doesn’t matter where you are. Nobody knows how it will all play out, though.”
Horschel, for his part, said he’s done trying to hypothesize or guess how it will all end up. Over the last year, he said he’s allowed his opinions to turn emotional and wear him out in the process, taking his focus away from golf.
“We all gotta hope that [the changes] are for the better, but everyone has a different opinion of [how] things are going to work out,” Horschel said. “I’m just going to sort of wait and see what happens and once I find out more information and more details, then I can create an educated opinion and then I can put a little more emotion behind it.”
In a sea of opinions, Brooks Koepka’s indifference stands out like a 20-foot wave. After a year of players voicing allegiances to one side or the other, Koepka — who departed for LIV after the last year’s U.S. Open — is more willing to make a joke at the expense of the madness than to prop up his current or former employer.
“See you guys at Travelers next week,” Koepka said with a smirk as he left his Tuesday news conference.
If it’s not a major we’re talking about, then Koepka doesn’t seem to care. So when the topic of LIV, the PIF or the PGA Tour come up, Koepka retreats into a shell of apathy that is starting to play like a strength among a crowd of perplexed players.
“I wasn’t going to waste any time on news that happened last week,” Koepka said. When asked if he felt vindicated, Koepka shrugged. “It didn’t matter to me. Like I said, I’m trying to focus on this week. I think that’s why I’ve been really good at majors, honestly.”
To his credit, Koepka is at least answering questions, even if he’s doing them in his own prickly way. Several players approached around the golf course throughout the week from both tours didn’t want to engage in questions about the deal, while a few said they were tired of talking about it and reiterated that they didn’t know much or enough to comment on it.
There are a few, like Patrick Cantlay, who are closer to the decision-making than others. Cantlay is a part of the tour’s policy board, but like the rest of the players, he also found out about the deal the day of it. Even now, Cantlay said Tuesday during his news conference, he’s not comfortable with the amount of knowledge he has of the deal to have a strong opinion.
“I was shocked at all of this,” Cantlay said, “I think it’s really important not to lose sight of both of the big things going on in golf right now, and I think as players, we need to make sure that we have a seat at the table and understand what the potential changes are and do our best.”
Cantlay said there’s a scheduled meeting in Detroit for the players in a couple of weeks, and he hopes to have more information by then. In fact, he said he expects to, and if there’s one thing this week has made clear — he’s not the only one.
“I think around today I didn’t talk to another player about it because there’s nothing like, it’s all speculation,” Dahmen said. “There’s nothing to talk about. So when stuff becomes concrete and details start coming out and actually they tell us what’s going on, then that’s when the fun stuff starts.”
Dahmen hopes the focus turns back to golf come Thursday. But as he and others know well, this situation is far from over.
“It’s going to be a special week out here,” Dahmen said. “But eventually when details come out, s— will hit the fan again for a week.”
For now, most will have to continue to deal in hypotheticals. About 24 hours after Fitzpatrick was asked the question about loyalty compensation, Cantlay was posed the same inquiry.
“In a perfect world, yeah,” Cantlay said. “I think the real answer is, we’ll see.”