Week in golf: LIV heads to Spain, Finau looks to repeat and more

Week in golf: LIV heads to Spain, Finau looks to repeat and more

The LIV Golf League hits the halfway point of its 2023 schedule at Real Club Valderrama in Spain this weekend.

Talor Gooch leads the individual points race with 96 points, followed by Branden Grace (86), Brooks Koepka (85) and Cameron Smith (83).

Dustin Johnson‘s 4Aces GC leads the team standings with 124 points. Louis Oosthuizen‘s Stinger GC (108 points), Joaquin Niemann‘s Torque GC (97) and Bubba Watson‘s RangeGoats GC (91) are close behind.

There are six regular-season tournaments remaining, including one in London and four more in the U.S. The individual and team championships will take place Nov. 3-5 in Saudi Arabia.

After that, no one really knows what’s going to happen with the LIV Golf League after the PGA Tour announced it is forming an alliance with the DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is financing the LIV Golf League.

LIV Golf League CEO and chairman Greg Norman seems confident that the circuit will play a full schedule in 2024. So do team captains such as Phil Mickelson, Johnson and Sergio Garcia.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” Garcia told reporters in Spain on Wednesday. “I think there’s a lot of details that are not finalized yet, and there’s a lot of speculation. But I think it’s going to be a great deal for everyone, and I don’t expect [LIV] to not be here next year.”

If the PGA Tour’s alliance with PIF and the DP World Tour is finalized, the new entity that will combine the parties’ commercial assets will make a thorough assessment of LIV Golf’s future in the sport’s global ecosystem. The “NewCo” will be a for-profit entity, so LIV Golf League’s finances in its first two seasons will be heavily scrutinized.

The proposed alliance is already being scrutinized by U.S. lawmakers and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. Regulators in Europe might also take a close look at the arrangement. The PGA Tour’s policy board must also approve the final agreement. It could be months before it’s finalized.

Maybe that will give the LIV Golf League a lifeline in 2024. Maybe not. Again, nobody really knows.

“Everything over the last couple of years that we’ve been told by Greg and everybody on LIV has come to fruition, so we have a lot of confidence in what they have been saying to us because everything has been happening,” Mickelson said. “We don’t really feel the need to publicly posture our position. There’s really no need for us to talk about things publicly but to just let it play out.”

Here’s what to watch in men’s professional golf this week:

What’s next on the PGA Tour

Rocket Mortgage Classic

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Detroit Golf Club, Detroit

Defending champion: Tony Finau

Purse: $8.8 million

Storylines to watch:

JT’s rebound

After Justin Thomas posted an 11-over 81 in the second round and finished 14 over while missing the cut at the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club, he called his performance “embarrassing” and “humiliating.” He said it was the lowest point in his PGA Tour career, in which he has won 15 times and captured two PGA Championship victories.

Give Thomas credit for bouncing back last week at the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut. After posting par in the first round, Thomas was a combined 17 under over his last 54 holes. He tied for ninth at 17 under, 6 shots behind winner Keegan Bradley. It was a massive step in the right direction in what has been a disappointing season for Thomas.

After his top-10 finish at the Travelers Championship, Thomas moved up 12 spots to No. 66 in the FedEx Cup points standings. Only the top 70 in the standings through the Wyndham Championship on Aug. 6 will qualify for the playoffs. JT has finished in the top 10 of the FedEx Cup standings in each of the past six seasons. He has won at least one time in seven consecutive seasons but doesn’t have a victory yet this season. It’s no wonder he’s playing in the Rocket Mortgage Classic for the first time.

Finau’s prediction

Tony Finau correctly predicted the U.S. Open winner at Los Angeles Country Club would need to card a 72-hole total of 10 under to win, and that is where Wyndham Clark finished while claiming his first major championship.

Finau, the defending Rocket Mortgage Classic champion, believes it’s also going to take a record score to win this week.

“I think I’ve been around the game enough to kind of have an idea,” Finau told reporters in Detroit. “Again, I think I’m pretty much calling 30 under this week just because of the conditions. I think last year I was able to get to 26 [under]. When Nate Lashley won [in the inaugural event in 2019], he was able to get to 25. Both years were pretty soft, but they started to get firm on the weekend because we didn’t experience any rain. It’s a golf course clearly you can score on, so with the conditions, barring any wind, I do think you’re going to have to shoot 28 to 30 under.”

Last year, five players posted 72-hole totals of 20 under or better. Finau beat Cameron Young, Patrick Cantlay and Taylor Pendrith by 5 shots. Finau didn’t card a round worse than 5-under 67.

Fans at Detroit Golf Club on Tuesday and Wednesday were given a Finau bobblehead doll. There’s even a sandwich named after him being sold at concession stands.

Looking to move up

Vanderbilt’s Gordon Sargent is playing in the Rocket Mortgage Classic and next week’s John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois, as an amateur competing on sponsor exemptions. Even though Sargent just finished his sophomore season with the Commodores, he could secure PGA Tour status by the end of the summer through the PGA Tour University’s accelerated program.

To do that, Sargent would have to earn 20 points by the end of the season. He has already picked up 16 points for winning an NCAA Division I individual title; being named NCAA Division I Freshman of the Year; starting in the Masters (missed cut) and the U.S. Open (low amateur with a tie for 39th); and being picked for this year’s U.S. Walker Cup team. He’ll earn another two points when he plays in next month’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.

Sargent would earn one point for making the cut in a PGA Tour event and another point for finishing in the top 10. The No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, Sargent would also get a point for being selected to play in the World Amateur Team Championship, which is scheduled to be played Oct. 18-21 in Abu Dhabi.

“I feel like if you play just good golf and the golf that you know you’re capable of, then you’re going to reach those 20 points without having to think about it too much,” Sargent said. “Yeah, it was nice to kind of get some confidence playing in the U.S. Open a few weeks ago. Obviously, as the week goes on, you may readjust your goals a little bit, but I know if I play good golf and do what I’m capable of, then hopefully hit those 20 points as soon as possible.”

If the 20-year-old gets it done, he could turn pro next summer or wait until after his senior season at Vanderbilt in 2025.

According to PGATour.com, only three players would have earned 20 points through the accelerated program since 2010: Cantlay (2012), Thomas (2013) and Patrick Rodgers (2014).

What’s next in the LIV Golf League

LIV Golf Valderrama

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Real Club Valderrama, Sotogrande, Spain

Purse: $25 million

Storylines to watch:

Garcia goes home

Garcia is looking forward to returning to Real Club Valderrama, where he has 14 top-10 finishes, including three straight victories at the Andalucia Masters in 2011, 2017 and 2018 (the event wasn’t held 2012-16. He also finished second at the club three times, including a playoff loss to Ian Poulter in the 2004 Volvo Masters.

“It’s my favorite golf course in the world, but some guys don’t like it,” Garcia told LIVGolf.com. “For me, I just love that even though it’s not a long course — it’s a 7,000-yard, par-71 — it makes you think, and it makes you hit every club in the bag. That’s something I think good courses do. … And I kind of love the design — tight, trees, doglegs, small greens. It’s the kind of design that I’ve always envisioned in my mind when I was going to do golf course design.”

Garcia’s Fireballs GC team is sixth in the season-long points race after finishing ninth in the most recent event outside Washington, D.C. His squad also includes Spain’s Eugenio Chacarra, a two-time All-American at Oklahoma State, who won the LIV Golf event in Bangkok in his fifth start as a pro in 2022.

The gang’s together again

Last month, there was speculation that Matthew Wolff and Koepka’s Smash GC team had parted ways, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Wolff is included in Smash GC’s lineup for Valderrama that was posted on Twitter.

In 2019, Wolff won the 3M Open while playing on a sponsor exemption. The former Oklahoma State star became only the third player to win an NCAA Division I individual title and a PGA Tour event in the same calendar year — Ben Crenshaw and Tiger Woods were the only other players to do it.

In 2021, Wolff struggled with his form and took a two-month break to focus on his mental health. He joined LIV Golf in June 2022. After competing for Mickelson’s HyFlyers GC in LIV Golf’s inaugural season, Wolff jumped to Smash GC before this season.

Wolff is 25th on the LIV Golf League money list, earning about $2.2 million. He tied for seventh in the opener at Mayakoba, Mexico, and for fifth in Orlando, Florida. He withdrew after two rounds in the most recent LIV Golf event for undisclosed reasons and then withdrew from U.S. Open final qualifying at Pine Tree Golf Club in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Who’s in trouble?

The LIV Golf League introduced relegation in its second season, similar to how the English Premier League moves teams up and down divisions. Only the top 24 players in the final points standings and team captains are guaranteed roster spots on their respective teams for 2024. The LIV Golf League is calling it the “Lock Zone.”

Players who finish 25th to 44th are in the “Open Zone” and are subject to being traded or released by their teams. That list currently includes Paul Casey (29th), Charl Schwartzel (33rd), Marc Leishman (36th), Graeme McDowell (38th) and Abraham Ancer (43rd).

Players who finish below 45th are in the “Drop Zone” and will be automatically relegated. If the season were to end at the halfway point, Bernd Wiesberger (45th), Chase Koepka (47th), James Piot (49th) and Sihwan Kim (50th) would be booted out of the league. They would have to compete in a promotions tournament after the season to earn a roster spot in 2024.

According to LIV Golf, players who were part of the initial 48-man roster and were unable to compete in at least four regular-season tournaments because of injury wouldn’t be subject to regulation.

Final qualifying for The Open

Final qualifying for the last major championship of the season, the Open Championship, takes place next week. There will be a distinct LIV Golf League flavor in the qualifying, as 21 players from that circuit will be among the 287 players competing for 16 open spots.

The LIV Golf League players who will be trying to get into the field include Garcia, Leishman, McDowell, Mito Pereira, Grace and Jason Kokrak.

Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter opted not to try to get into the Open Championship field through open qualifying. Westwood, 50, will miss his first Open Championship in 28 years. The Englishman has competed in every one since his debut in 1995. Poulter has competed in 20 Open Championships and last missed one in 2016.

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