Follow the Money
The selection of Brooks Koepka to the U.S. Ryder Cup team has everything to do with dollars and cents
By Michael Bamberger
The Ryder Cup press conference, at which Zach Johnson would reveal his six captain’s picks for this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. It started about 10 minutes late. And 10 minutes after that, the media people at LIV Golf sent out a press release by email, under this headline:
The lone quote in the release is from Greg Norman, the LIV Golf commissioner.
Phil Mickelson is not part of the management of this 2023 team because of his decision to join LIV Golf. He would have been a vice captain or the captain, had it not been for that decision.
Henrik Stenson lost his job as the European Ryder Cup captain because of his decision to join LIV Golf as a player.
By European Ryder Cup rules, LIV players are not eligible to make the European team.
Brooks Koepka almost made the team on points alone, on the basis of his second-place* finish at the Masters and his win at the PGA Championship. The top six players on a point system qualified for the team. Koepka was seventh. The only thing that could have kept him off the team was the thing that kept Mickelson from having any kind of role with it: his contract with LIV Golf, which was once seen as an existential threat to the PGA Tour.
Now, at least by public statement, LIV Golf and the PGA Tour are in the process of becoming business partners. On that basis, the threat is over. Saudi millions and likely billions, if this partnership happens, will find its way to various accounts in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
So on that basis, money has won again. Koepka’s contract with LIV Golf was no longer a disqualifying mark. On that basis, if you let that logic play out, Mickelson should now be on the very, very short list to become a U.S. Ryder Cup captain.
The beauty and the excitement and the thrill of the Ryder Cup was that it transcended money. From the U.S. side, you had PGA Tour players representing their country, their tour, the association (the PGA of America) in which they came up. They were playing for pride and status. Yes, the PGA of America and its European counterparts made money from the Ryder Cup. So did the networks and the host courses. But the competition was as pure as pure could be.
The emotional tit-for-tat between Patrick Reed (Texas/USA) and Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland/Europe) in their 2016 Ryder Cup singles match, with all that gesturing and gesticulating, looked ridiculous then, but anybody could see what fueled it: pride, status, some level of personal dislike, each for the other, and, more than anything, the very thing that motivates every high school football team: Go Team Go!
Had Johnson had not selected Koepka, he would have been drawing a mile-wide line (name your desert) with the world’s largest Sharpie about the otherness of the PGA Tour. By selecting him, that otherness took a hit. The Ryder Cup took a hit, too, because once again money carried the day.
I believe that LIV Golf is an existential threat to the PGA Tour. Its purses have caused the PGA Tour to raise its purses to numbers that I don’t think are sustainable, unless the Saudis’ Public Investment Fund starts supplementing PGA Tour purses. In the future, corporate boards of large U.S. public companies are going to be less interested in sponsoring golf tournaments, as the composition of boards changes (fewer old white men!) and as the nature of professional golf changes. The starting point for professional golf, scorecard in hand, used to be to do the right thing. I fear that standard is slipping.
(*Brooks Koepka, first round, 2023 Masters, 15th hole. His caddie clearly shared information with another caddie. Anybody could see it. Koepka didn’t gain any advantage. It doesn’t matter. I believe Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and a thousand others would have added two shots to their score the moment they saw the tape. It’s basic, really.)
In my casual golf over the past two years, I have never heard anybody say they are more interested in professional golf because of the creation of LIV Golf, because of all the new money on the PGA Tour, than they were before.
For whatever it’s worth, I don’t see how this PGA Tour-PIF partnership can work if LIV Golf continues. There are not enough weeks in the year to accommodate both tours, with players coming and going from one to the other. There is not enough global interest in golf. What Padraig Harrington told me at the U.S. Open in Los Angeles must be correct: Touring pros should not be worried about playing for more money, they should be worried about playing for less.
The power, the historic excitement, of Ryder Cup golf—and Walker Cup golf and Solheim Cup golf and Curtis Cup golf—comes from the underlying fact that golf is not a global game. If all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill was fond of saying, all team-sports rooting is local, too. Consider World Cup soccer, Olympic basketball, World Series baseball and a hundred other things.
I used to think there was no chance that Mickelson could become a Ryder Cup captain, once he went LIV, given the way he went LIV. But the selection of Koepka makes me reconsider all that.
I asked Johnson at his Tuesday morning press conference if Koepka’s connection to LIV Golf was a factor as he considered him for the team.
“He basically earned his way on to this team, if you’re going to get down to the pennies and dollars of it,” Johnson said.
Johnson was referring to Koepka’s seventh-place finish on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list. That is, his win at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill in May. His second-place* finish at Augusta National in April.
The tens of millions he earned from LIV Golf had nothing to do with it.
The hundreds of millions the LIV Golf backers are talking about for the PGA Tour had everything to do with it.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]