Tiger, Phil and what's next in the fight between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf as the year's second major approaches

Tiger, Phil and what's next in the fight between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf as the year's second major approaches

Most of golf’s young superstars will be heading to Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, next week for the PGA Championship, the second major of the season.

But all eyes will be on two aging former champions — Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods — and also on London.

On Tuesday, the PGA Tour denied releases for players who were seeking to play in the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event, scheduled June 9-11 at the Centurion Club, outside of London. Because the event is the same week as the RBC Canadian Open in Ontario, Tour players needed a conflicting-event release to remain in good standing.

Because of the staggering purses — $25 million for each LIV regular-season event, including $4 million to the winner — some players might choose to simply walk away and play in the new circuit being fronted by LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman. Others might try to play both and challenge the PGA Tour’s position in court.

It seems to only be the beginning in the dispute — and who’s staying and who’s going will be much of the discussion in Tulsa.

Woods is expected to compete in Tulsa after playing in the Masters in April, less than 14 months after he nearly lost his right leg in a car wreck. Mickelson, the defending PGA Championship winner, hasn’t played in more than three months while taking time away from golf to focus on himself, following his controversial comments about the PGA Tour. Will he end his hiatus at Southern Hills?

Mickelson, a six-time major champion, was one of the players who sought a release from the PGA Tour. Will we see him again on the tour?

Here are updates on Phil and Tiger and what to watch at the PGA Championship:

PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has taken a hard line on tour players who are seeking to play in Norman’s new circuit, which is being financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

There was a belief that the PGA Tour might approve releases for the London event, but not for LIV Golf events in the United States. The tour had approved releases for the Saudi Invitational and other international tournaments in the past, but it might view Norman’s venture as a budding league that is seeking to challenge the PGA Tour’s position as the preeminent golf circuit in the world.

On Tuesday, Norman announced in London an additional $2 billion investment by the Saudi Arabians. The LIV Golf Invitational Series will expand to 10 events in 2023, with plans for a full-blown super league the next year.

Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia confirmed that they had sought releases to play in London, along with former World No. 1 Martin Kaymer, Robert Garrigus and DP World Tour player Richard Bland.

Monahan has told tour players that anyone who plays in a conflicting event without a release faces discipline, including suspension and/or lifetime bans. There might not be much movement in terms of legal action before the start of the PGA Championship, but it’s going to be one of the biggest discussions at Southern Hills.

“Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it’s exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament,” Norman said in a statement Tuesday. “But no matter what obstacles the PGA Tour puts in our way, we will not be stopped. We will continue to give players options that promote the great game of golf globally.”

What about Phil?

Mickelson figures to be one of the major topics at the PGA Championship, whether he plays at Southern Hills or not. Last year, he became golf’s oldest major champion by unexpectedly winning at Kiawah Island Golf Resort at age 50.

Now, a year later, he has become a dividing force in the sport because of his admission that he and other players helped develop the operating agreement for Norman’s proposed breakaway league.

Mickelson hasn’t competed on tour since missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in late January. He took time away from golf after making controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the financiers of the LIV Golf Invitational Series to author Alan Shipnuck, whose unauthorized biography of Mickelson will be released next week.

Mickelson is included in the PGA Championship field, but he hasn’t announced whether he’ll actually play.

Last week, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh told Gary Williams on the “5 Clubs Conversation” podcast that he has had a number of discussions with Mickelson over the past several weeks. He planned to talk to Mickelson again about whether Lefty will compete at Southern Hills.

“I think he’s trying to figure out when the right time for him is,” Waugh said on the podcast. “I think the game is trying to figure out the right time for him, too. How long is long enough? And is he ready mentally and physically to do it?”

One of Mickelson’s concerns, according to Waugh, is that he’ll have to address the media and will probably face difficult questions when he returns. Mickelson issued an apology for his controversial remarks after several longtime sponsors, including Amstel Light, KPMG and Workday, ended their relationships with him. Callaway, with whom Mickelson signed a contract that covered the rest of his playing career, paused its relationship with him.

“I hope what we can do is have that before the flag goes up,” Waugh said. “The idea is, if he does play, and if he’s able to and allowed to … he would certainly have to face the media. But I hope it’s Monday or Tuesday, and then once the flag goes up, it’s about the golf.

“What we’re trying to do is deliver a major championship, not a circus. And so I would hope that he can avoid that, and everybody can avoid that. And we’re talking about golf shots instead of verbal gaffes once we get going.”

Mickelson skipped the Masters, an event he has won three times, for the first time since 1994.

“I think part of his thinking is, ‘Am I ready to face that glare and have that conversation and have all the answers that everybody is going to be looking for? And if I do it that week, am I then able to compete on a major championship venue under that kind of pressure with everything going on?'” Waugh said. “But we would do everything we could to make it happen either before our week or very early in the week.”

Tiger watch

All signs point to Tiger Woods competing in the PGA Championship after he played a practice round at Southern Hills on April 28.

Woods, a 15-time major champion, won the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, the last time he won the event. He was 6 shots off the lead after the first round that year but fired a 7-under 63 in the second round to tie what was then the lowest single-round score at a men’s major and the course record.

Last month, Woods finished 47th at the Masters, his first official tour event in 14 months, after he was seriously injured in a car wreck outside Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2021. He shot 6-over 78 in each of the last two rounds, his worst scores at Augusta National.

After his final round at the Masters, Woods committed to playing in The Open at St. Andrews, which takes place in July, but stopped short of saying he would compete in the PGA Championship or U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, in June.

“It’ll be just the big events,” Woods said at the Masters. “I don’t know if it’ll be Southern Hills or not. But I am looking forward to St. Andrews. That is something that is near and dear to my heart. I’ve won two Opens there, it’s the home of golf. It’s my favorite golf course in the world, so I will be there for that one. But anything in between that, I don’t know. I will try, no doubt.”

Big changes to Southern Hills

In 2007, Woods rarely hit his driver while trying to avoid ankle-deep rough that lined the fairways of Southern Hills. His strategy worked. He won his fourth PGA Championship and 13th of 15 major titles, beating runner-up Woody Austin by 2 strokes.

Following an $11 million renovation by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner in 2018, Southern Hills will look dramatically different next week. There are wider fairways, fewer trees, less rough and more exposed edges on greens, which will penalize players with dramatic run-offs if they miss their approach shots.

The course has been lengthened by about 300 yards to nearly 7,500.

“The major changes would be the addition of a number of tees, which has certainly added to the length and will give players more options to hit drivers or longer clubs than they did in ’07,” said Kerry Haigh, chief championships officer of the PGA. “The amount of short grass is probably the other big change — everywhere. There’s wider fairways and more low-cut grass around most or all of the greens. It gives a lot more options around the greens and more options into the greens, depending on whether you’re on the right side of the fairway.”

The par-4 seventh hole has a new green, which has been pushed back about 40 yards and closer to a creek on the right side.

“It’s a stout par-4, where in ’07 it was a 4-iron and a sand wedge or a wedge,” Haigh said. “You would just kind of position to the top of the hill and hit a little wedge down onto a fairly generous green.”

Another improvement should be the weather. In 2007, the PGA Championship was played in early August and temperatures hovered close to 100 degrees. Next week, forecasts call for high temperatures from 91 degrees on Thursday to 82 on Sunday.

The favorites

Scottie Scheffler
Bad news for the rest of the field: Scheffler, the world No. 1 after winning four times in six starts, loves playing at Southern Hills. He won a Big 12 individual title there as a Texas freshman in 2015 and shot 6-under 64 in a practice round last week.

Jon Rahm
Rahm’s victory at the Mexico Open on May 1 marked his first win since last year’s U.S. Open. He loves playing in difficult conditions and on long courses. He tied for eighth at Kiawah Island at last year’s PGA Championship and tied for 13th at Harding Park in 2020.

Viktor Hovland
The former Oklahoma State star returns to the Sooner State looking for his first major championship. He’s an elite irons player and is being held back only by his work around the greens, which might not be so easy at Southern Hills.

Rory McIlroy
A two-time winner of the PGA Championship, McIlroy is coming off back-to-back top-five finishes at the Masters and Wells Fargo Championship. He is striking the ball exceptionally well and ranks in the top five on tour in shots gained off the tee (.827), tee to green (1.461) and total (1.807).

Collin Morikawa
He won at Harding Park in his first PGA Championship start and has six top-10s in 10 tour starts this season. Another exceptional ball striker, Morikawa’s short game also remains a work in progress.

Justin Thomas
No one on tour has been better than JT from 200 yards and in this season. His only major championship victory came at the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. He has to win another major at some point, right?

Cameron Smith
Smith, from Australia, has already won twice on tour this season, including the Players, where he received the biggest prize in PGA Tour history. His best finish at the PGA Championship was a tie for 25th in his first one, at Whistling Straits in 2015.

Patrick Cantlay
One of the best players in the world without a major championship victory, Cantaly finished tied for third at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. He seemed to be heating up again at the RBC Heritage and the Zurich Classic, which he won with teammate Xander Schauffele.

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