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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In 2023, golf mergers were the big story

Rose Zhang celebrates after winning the Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament in a playoff at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., April 1, 2023. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Paul Sullivan

Golf is a sport where certain years stand out above others, and 2023 may prove to be one of those years.

It’s a heady list.

In 1860, Willie Park Sr. won the first British Open, which was held at Prestwick Golf Club, marking the debut of the oldest major tournament.

In 1913, amateur Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open, beating the two best English golfers of the time, and popularizing the sport in the United States.

In 1930, Bobby Jones completed the first and only Grand Slam, winning the four majors of his day in one year.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias became the first woman to make a cut on the PGA Tour in 1945, competing in the Phoenix Open and Tucson Open. She went on to dominate that decade of golf.

In 1950 the LPGA was formed.

In 1968, a group of professional golfers, led by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, broke away from the Professional Golf Association of America to create the PGA Tour.

Tiger Woods completed the Tiger Slam — winning all four men’s major championships consecutively over two seasons, from 2000-01.

This year could prove pivotal for the men’s and women’s game, with both of the top tours looking at mergers.

For the PGA Tour, June 6 signifies a before and after in professional golf. That morning Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, announced a “framework agreement” for the PGA Tour to work with LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed golf league that he had spent much of the previous year disparaging.

“I would ask any player that has left or any player that would ever consider leaving: Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” Monahan had said a year earlier.

It was one in a series of comments he and officials made connecting LIV — which is funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, or PIF — with the country’s history of human rights abuses.

But that day in June, in an about-face, there was Monahan sitting next to the fund’s governor, Yasir al-Rumayyan, calling for cooperation.

“There are only a handful of people who weren’t surprised given the past two years,” said Kevin Hopkins, vice president at Excel Sports Management. “Not knowing what this is going to lead to is going to be the next headline.”

As shocking as this announcement was for golf fans, it was also a surprise to the PGA Tour’s membership, which was largely caught off guard.

The year in the women’s game was more positive — exciting major championships, the debut of a promising young star, a hotly contested Solheim Cup that ended in a draw between the two teams — but the women’s tour also has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it.

After the LPGA and its equivalent across the Atlantic, the Ladies European Tour, or LET, reached an agreement to merge, the LET vote to approve the merger was abruptly postponed.

Here’s a look back at a roller-coaster year.

Behind the scenes

The PGA Tour-LIV announcement looms large for the sheer suddenness of the tour’s reversal and the way that it angered and alienated some of its top players, including Rory McIlroy, who had been one of Monahan’s staunchest allies. McIlroy has since resigned from the PGA Tour board.

For his part, Monahan has expressed regret with how the announcement was made. “The rollout was a failure on my part,” he said at The New York Times DealBook Summit last month. “I’ve owned it, and I’ve continued to own it.”

On the other side, LIV Golf was given a boost, if not a lifeline. The league had been rolled out haphazardly. Its first tournaments in 2022 had been marred by problems, such as the lack of a television deal and team uniforms.

The PIF put hundreds of millions of dollars behind the new league, but after the initial wave of star defections to LIV — Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and then-reigning British Open champion Cameron Smith — attention shifted to poor attendance at events and a lack of a major media partner to broadcast the events.

The June 6 announcement gave the fledging league relevance.

“We went from being cast unfairly as outsiders in golf to our chairman sitting shoulder to shoulder with the commissioner of the PGA Tour,” said Gary Davidson, LIV Golf’s interim chief operating officer in 2023. “We always knew that LIV could coexist.”

With the LPGA and LET, their merger talks had been going smoothly. The two tours have been operating in a joint venture since 2020, a period when prize money rose on both tours.

This year the two boards negotiated terms for a merger, with the LPGA effectively taking over the LET. Whether it happens depends on a vote by the LET players.

“The vote has been postponed by the LET board from its original Nov. 21 date as more time was needed to evaluate all relevant information received,” said Mollie Marcoux Samaan, the LPGA commissioner. “A new date for the vote has not yet been set. The LPGA board remains enthusiastic about the opportunity to bring our two organizations together.”

In the spotlight

Both the women’s game and men’s game also provided compelling story lines on the course.

The first men’s major, the Masters Tournament, came down to a duel between Jon Rahm, a stalwart of the PGA Tour, and Koepka, a multiple major champion who had left for LIV. Rahm prevailed, but in the next major, the PGA Championship, Koepka pulled away from the field to win his fifth major.

LIV saw this as validation. “Competing in the Masters and then winning the PGA Championship was massive for us,” Davidson said. “It proved the competitiveness of LIV, that it could prepare the guys well for majors.” (On Thursday, LIV announced that Rahm would join its tour next year.)

The five women’s major championships also provided excitement. Lilia Vu won the first and last of the majors, to rise to the No. 1 ranking and claim the player of the year title. Céline Boutier became the first French player to win her home country’s Amundi Evian Championship. And Allisen Corpuz, a young American in her second year on the tour, won the U.S. Women’s Open.

The LPGA also got a feel-good story with Rose Zhang, who had long been the No. 1-ranked amateur woman in the world. Zhang turned pro in June and won the first event she entered.

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