Center of the Storm

Talor Gooch has unwittingly become the face of the LIV vs. PGA Tour strife, so how did he get here?

By Alan Shipnuck
Sept. 18, 2022

CHICAGO—The most polarizing golfer in the world is a god-fearing country boy who is intelligent enough to have been his high school valedictorian. He is a jock who grew up playing the pretty-boy positions of quarterback and shortstop but was tough enough to wrestle competitively and line up as a free safety. His home golf course was a scrappy muni tended by prison inmates, but he earned a spot among golf royalty at Oklahoma State. During his eight-year pro career, Talor Gooch has slowly and tenaciously developed into a world-class player. Soft-spoken, polite, blue-eyed, he should be a poster boy for the sport. Instead, he has become the unwitting face of the most tumultuous period in golf history.

When LIV Golf announced in early June the field for its inaugural tournament in London, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson were the biggest names, but Gooch’s inclusion created the most intrigue: He was youngish (30), ascendant (35th in the World Ranking on the strength of his win last fall at Sea Island) and with a seemingly unlimited future on the PGA Tour. It was the kind of get that LIV desperately needed in what was otherwise an unimpressive haul of players. Gooch had toiled in obscurity on the PGA Tour, so LIV London would be his first impression with the larger golf world. Alas, he came across as a country bumpkin when he said he planned to play only the London event and then return to the Tour, even though commissioner Jay Monahan had made it exceedingly clear it was us-or-them. Gooch was indeed suspended by the Tour, compelling him to go all-in with LIV.

Following the second event, in Portland, Justin Thomas roasted Gooch for his much-ridiculed comment that the atmosphere at LIV tournaments compares with the Ryder Cup. (Gooch, who has never played in the event, admitted his remark was over-the-top and that in the moment he was drunk with exhilaration from spraying champagne on teammates during a podium ceremony celebrating the 4 Aces team victory.) 

In late June the Tour announced a revamped schedule with eight “elevated” tournaments and three no-cut, limited-field international events, a move that sounded suspiciously like the LIV product. Gooch offered some playful trolling by posting on Twitter a GIF of the Rock crooning, “You’re welcome.” This inspired Tron Carter, the No Laying Up provocateur, to label him “a huge twat,” which was representative of a good chunk of the Gooch-related discourse.

Following the British Open, Gooch signed on to a lawsuit against the Tour, seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow him (and Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford) to barge their way into the FedEx Cup playoff event in Memphis, as they had accrued enough points to qualify before bolting to LIV. In the courtroom, Jones and Swafford were barely mentioned, but Gooch had a starring role, largely because his LIV contract had been entered as a key bit of evidence. (A lightly redacted version would later become public, creating another Gooch-centric news cycle.) When the LIV insurgents lost the case, there was much chortling by the establishment, although Jones and Swafford barely registered. “I wonder if Gooch and Co. are going to now sue LIV since they didn’t get to play the Playoffs,” Champions Tour player Steve Flesch tweeted. “I’m sure they were told the suspension wouldn’t hold up in court. That would be a ballsy play.” My Fire Pit colleague Ryan French summed it up nicely by tweeting, “Talor Gooch is going to easily win the LIV PIP. Dude is in every tweet tonight.”

Locked out of the playoffs, Gooch flew to Wentworth in early September for the BMW PGA Championship in pursuit of enough World Ranking points to stay in the top 50, which should qualify him for next year’s major championships. (Stay tuned for political wrangling on that front.) He was one of 17 LIV golfers in the field, but he was also playing in his first European tour event. Gooch’s wildly unexpected heel turn went to another level when he was called out by everyone from Rory McIlroy to Billy Horschel for being, in their view, an unwelcome interloper who was preventing a deserving loyalist from teeing it up in the Euro tour’s flagship event. Gooch responded with one of the ballsiest performances of the year, a tie for fourth that shot him back up 11 spots to 35th in the World Ranking.

I recently asked a PGA Tour contemporary to speak about Gooch, and he agreed to do so only anonymously: “He always seemed like a nice guy, but now I just want to punch him in the face.” When I beseeched the player to put his name on the quote, he replied, “I want to because the guys out here would love it, but I don’t need all the noise that would come with that.”

Gooch is acutely aware of all the mojo that has engulfed him. On Saturday morning, a few hours before the second round of the LIV Invitational Chicago, Gooch slumped in a chair in the lobby of his suburban hotel and, pulling up the sleeve on his oversized 4 Aces hoodie, pantomimed looking at his watch before saying, “My wife and I always say, ‘OK, is 2022 over yet?’ Because we’re ready for things to slow down.”

The irony is that, until a few months ago, Gooch’s life was basically a corny after-school special. He grew up in Midwest City, a small Air Force town outside of Oklahoma City. His friend group consisted of a half-dozen dudes who all became college athletes, including J.T. Realmuto, who is now the catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. “They taught me how to be a gamer,” Gooch says. “We just grinded each other out and we pushed each other and we had to figure out how to beat each other, whether it was bowling or Ping-Pong or pickup basketball or organized sports. That is still in me today, that survival mode you go into on the golf course at times.”

Gooch loved football until, when he was a 13-year-old safety, he encountered in the open field a future Canadian Football League running back named Timothy Flanders, whom he describes as “already a grown man.” After getting “blown up,” Gooch decided to focus on less violent sports. (He does note with some pride that he managed to drag Flanders to the ground.) The next year Gooch played a baseball game one day and a golf tournament the next, but the differing swings didn’t translate. After uncorking a couple of hosel rockets on the golf course, he declared he would focus exclusively on golf. But Gooch comes from a baseball family; his father, Ron, made it to the Texas Rangers Triple-A farm club as a second baseman. After pledging his allegiance to golf, Gooch says his dad, uncles and cousins convened “a low-key intervention” to try to talk him out of it. But the kid was unmoved.

Gooch’s home away from home became John Conrad Regional Golf Course, a tree-lined, no-frills track. The simple surroundings molded a sophisticated game. “You couldn’t hit moon balls and the same shot every single time,” he says. “It’s obviously windy conditions in Oklahoma; you have to be able to maneuver the ball and adjust flights. Also, I grew up on a muni, so I’d have a wedge and be like, Well, I’m on a hard pan now. I gotta figure out how to make solid contact.” Another feature of John Conrad were the convicts who performed community service by tending to the golf course in their orange jumpsuits. Many of Gooch’s rivals attended a high school in Edmond that was a golf powerhouse. Gooch would surreptitiously snap photos of the felons and send them to his adversaries with the message, “I hope you’re enjoying Oak Tree”—the very private club where the rival practiced. “I guess I’ve always had a little chip on my shoulder,” he says redundantly.

Despite growing up a die-hard Oklahoma football fan—Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford is now a golf buddy—Gooch matriculated to Oklahoma State, joining a stacked squad that included future pros Peter Uihlein, Morgan Hoffmann, Kevin Tway, Brad Gehl and Kevin Dougherty. On three occasions during his freshman season, Gooch was not going to make the tournament lineup if he didn’t win the qualifier, and every time he came through, including a 62 at Stillwater Country Club. That earned him two cracks at the lineup at the 2011 national championship, at the Cowboys’ home course, Karsten Creek. Gooch won both of his matches by lopsided scores. “That’s when I knew he had the It Factor,” Dougherty says. “There were 10,000 fans walking down the fairway, and this little freshman was steamrolling juniors and seniors.” 

Gooch never won an individual title in college, but he got incrementally better each year, earning third-team All-America honors as a senior. Asked to name the best part of his former player’s game, Mike McGraw says, “Oh man, if I could bottle that putting stroke, I wouldn’t have to coach anymore.” Upon turning pro in 2014, Gooch repeated the pattern of slow, steady progress. He played in Canada in 2015 and ’16 and then graduated to the Korn Ferry Tour, where he won the 2017 Visit Knoxville Open. That shot Gooch to the PGA Tour. He barely kept his job in 2018, gaining partial status by finishing 139th on the FedEx Cup list, but he improved to 101st in ’19 and 60th the following year.

“At every level it takes me just a second to get my feet under me, and when I do, I can compete at a high level,” he says. “There’s no doubt it’s a comfort level of some sort. I think, from within, I have to prove to myself that I belong in a sense and that just comes through performance, through results. There’s a lot of cockiness that has to come with being great at golf, and some guys are a little bit more blessed with cockiness, and I just don’t think I’m as blessed as others. So I have to build it a little bit more.”

Throughout 2021 there were rumblings that well-funded upstart leagues were trying to steal PGA Tour players with big money offers. Gooch had a code word when trying to determine which of his more heralded colleagues were being courted: “So have you signed any NDAs lately?” Gooch wasn’t on the radar of LIV commissioner Greg Norman until he began piling up high finishes in the fall of ’21: top fives at Napa and Las Vegas and then the breakthrough win at Sea Island. After the victory, Gooch broke ground on a dream house for his college sweetheart, Ally, and their baby daughter, Collins, in Oklahoma City’s old-money enclave of Nichols Hills. “Growing up I thought to myself, ‘Gawd, those rich bastards,’” Gooch says with a laugh. “It’s so crazy, my buddy who’s the baseball player for the Phillies, bought a house about a block and a half from where we’re building and we talk about, ‘I can’t believe we’ve turned into those people.’ We never imagined that we would be thinking about private school for our kids and stuff like that. We’re kind of disappointed in ourselves, but it’s also cool.”

During this year’s West Coast swing, Gooch began having conversations with LIV Golf. He was intrigued from the very beginning. He insists he initially committed to play only in the first event, the week before the national championship in Boston. “I wanted to still stay sharp for the U.S. Open,” Gooch says. “I wanted to get a tournament in that week.” This is slightly disingenuous, as he could have played the PGA Tour stop in Toronto, which is less than a two-hour flight from Boston, rather than crossing the Atlantic. And the contract that became part of the public domain was dated May 28, a full week before LIV London began. The Tour had made it clear it would suspend any members who competed in a LIV event, but Gooch believed that might be brinkmanship. “I knew of the possibility of what could happen [if I played in London],” he says. “And I know this is unprecedented times, but the Tour has never reacted in that way in its history.” It should be noted that shortly after the London event, Gooch parted ways with his longtime agent, a hint at behind-the-scenes discord.

Gooch finished ninth in London, earning $580,000, and he enjoyed the freewheeling energy compared to the Tour’s buttoned-down vibe. He caught the LIV charter straight to the U.S. Open and could feel all the eyes on him on the driving range at The Country Club. “I felt like the hot chick,” he says with a smile. “It was funny. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” Only the most sleepless Golf Channel viewer can tell Aaron Wise from Davis Riley from Denny McCarthy, but suddenly Gooch was somebody. “Talor always wanted to be in the limelight in professional golf,” McGraw says. “I definitely think he believes it’s good for his brand. Any notoriety must be good, right?”

Suspended indefinitely by the PGA Tour, Gooch committed to LIV shortly after the U.S. Open, where he missed the cut in just his second appearance. His contract includes a non-relegation clause through 2025, meaning he cannot be banished to the Asian Tour no matter how badly he might slump. Of course, with top-10 finishes in his first four LIV events, plus four straight team wins, that seems unlikely. In just five LIV starts he has made $5.85 million, on top of millions in upfront money. (During the TRO hearing, LIV’s lawyer let slip that the guaranteed money merely counts against future earnings, but in fact it is more nuanced than that. Each contract is different, and although some do count significant portions of the upfront money as an advance against earnings, a young player with Gooch’s leverage could command the guaranteed money as a de facto signing bonus and pocket the subsequent earnings.)

Gooch has batted away questions about Saudi sportswashing by saying, “I don’t think that’s fair, but also I’m a golfer. I’m not that smart.” It should be noted that Gooch had the highest GPA in a high school graduating class of 270, and his mom, Amber, is a lawyer who has specialized in civil rights defense cases. Speaking more generally of LIV, he says bluntly, “It was a business decision.” And business is booming.

This is exactly why Gooch has become such a lightning rod. Of all the shrapnel he has taken from Tour stars, he says, “I’ve never meant anything to them. And so it is wild when I have buddies send me videos back home and they’re like, God, can you believe they’re saying this about you?” Yet Gooch still has supporters on the PGA Tour, including resident good guy Max Homa, who made a point of playing practice rounds at the last two major championships with Gooch in a show of support. “Talor is one of my closest friends,” Homa told me last week. “He has always been there for me and my wife, and he’s one of the most talented and underrated golfers I’ve ever been around.”

Indeed, Dustin Johnson recruited Gooch to be a member of the 4 Aces. Johnson’s career-long agent, David Winkle, who long ago became accustomed to jaw-dropping golf, has made a careful study of Gooch. “He’s a throwback,” Winkle says. “He’s clearly a great athlete with a lot of speed, but he’s different from most young players, who try to make the same exact swing over and over. Talor plays all these cool shots—sawed-off irons, chippy little drivers, you name it. He’s creative, and it’s fun to watch.”

That Gooch has become an agent of change is all the more unlikely because he says he venerates the traditions of the game. He insisted that Ally (along with their daughter) travel to the Open Championship so together they could savor the timelessness of St. Andrews. “The majors are the Mecca,” Gooch says. “Friday, April 11, 1997 my sister was born and then that Sunday Tiger won his first Masters. So for me, my whole life changed when I saw Tiger in a red sweater, fist-pumping and hugging his dad. From that point on, I wanted to play golf at the highest level. I wanted to play for majors. I wanted to win majors.” Preserving his access to the major championships through the World Ranking is why Gooch sued the Tour to play in the FedEx Cup and why he competed with so much ferocity at Wentworth.

Throwing in with LIV represented a calculated risk. Gooch and Dougherty have had a few heart-to-hearts on the difference between being successful and being great. “He’s burning to be great,” Dougherty says of his friend. In professional golf, the traditional measure of success used to be the money list, and by this metric Gooch’s foray to LIV has already been wildly successful. But on a circuit with 54-hole no-cut events, shotgun starts and guaranteed money, can Gooch become truly great? His walk-off eagle at Wentworth offered a hint. If Gooch has access to the majors, those exacting tests should favor his grit and shotmaking. If he is denied a chance to compete in the game’s most important championships, which remains a possibility, we might have to trust our eyes. “That kid is incredible,” says Pat Perez, a 4 Aces teammate. “He has everything. He has so much talent it’s a joke. The sky is the limit for him.”

As long as Gooch remains at the forefront of the game, it will continue to be a gift from the content gods. To fans, reporters, LIV loyalists and the haters on the PGA Tour, Gooch has a simple message: You’re welcome.

21 thoughts on “Talor Gooch: Center of the Storm”

  1. I assume that when you typed “he came across as a country bumpkin when he said he planned to play only the London event and then return to the Tour,” that you meant to say: “he came across as a bald=faced liar when he said he planned to play only the London event” since the contract he signed required him to play multiple events… I guess he figured that the terms of his contract wouldn’t be made public. Oops.

    He may be a really good golfer, but he’ll never be great playing LIV golf, and the stench of the sportwashing will never be erased.

    1. You seem very smug. Every country “sportswashes” one one issue or another, including the U.S. Players choosing LIV, are being professionals, they play for money. I have watched hundreds of golf tournaments, and the quality of play is every bit as good as what the PGA tour is putting on. Why are you so unimaginative? Jealous of their success?

      1. You don’t address his disingenuousness about his LIV contract. What about his bonus money for signing with LIV? Players joining LIV are turning their backs on the tour that made them.

        “Jealous of their success?” Sure, dream on. That YouTube streaming is mighty impressive. So is 54 hole tournaments with no cut.

  2. Talor is a fraud, and an absolute joke of a Christian male. He supports a murderous regime and has turned a blind eye to his country, state, and city. He made his bed and drank the cult Kool aide…… so deal with it. Alan too who wrote this has without a doubt proven he too only cares about money!

    1. Mario, Mario. Have you not watched any of the LIV events? Let me remind you of the corrupt murderous regime known as the “Democrat party” in the U.S. Are you not aware of the meaning of the term “professional” athelete?.

      1. “Let me remind you of the corrupt murderous regime known as the “Democrat party” in the U.S.”

        No arguing with such an ideologue.

  3. To say majors are the “Mecca” and he wants to be great but also knowingly put that in jeopardy by taking the money and possibly never playing in them again doesn’t add up. Like all the other players who went to LIV, he’s crushed whatever positive legacy or reputation he had. Now doing interviews like this because he wants to fix it. If he ever does win a major it will make most people who have followed all this resent him more.

  4. So much anger and envy in the world. If Gooch tried a new league (Tech League?) for less money The Mob would find a different reason to hate. I hope the LIV format brings more interest to golf, but PGAT war will ultimately force LIV to become a PGAT clone and that is not good for golf.

    1. Maybe you find 3 day exhibitions without cuts and fields of 48 to be of “interest” to you. So be it. But the only thing “good for golf” about LIV will be its demise…

      1. You probably thought Joe Namath was a traitor, and that the AFL would never make it.
        In fact who decided a professional tournament has to be 4 rounds? Oh yeah no one. In fact professional “tournaments have been longer, and shorter than 4 rounds. Are you suggesting ALL of the PGA events need to be 4 rounds only? Too many players now tee it up in contests fewer and fewer people, even golf enthusiasts, are watching. I say again, this is professional golf, not a charity.

  5. Thanks, Alan, for your excellent article. I knew next to nothing about Talor before and am glad to have your take on this complicated story. It would seem that his talent is too good to lose from the making of the future history of professional golf. My hope, as was expressed in the excellent podcast with Geoff Ogilvy, is that all of professional golf can find a way to coexist.

    PS: my hope is that readers and contributors to this conversation after the podcast or article could keep things respectful. If this turns into Twitter style snarkiness, it will detract from Alan, Michael, and Ryan’s excellent reporting. (BTW, Mario, we all have to earn a living.)

  6. Mike Ditka’s Bad Hip

    The measure of a Professional Golfer is collecting Major’s not money.
    Taylor Gooch like most Professional Golfers that went to LIV, never had enough self confidence to think they could win a major or another Major,
    so they took the easy way out; money.
    Excellent article Alan.

  7. This is quintessential Shipnuck. He’s so damned fair, balanced, and objective it drives me nuts. I came away from this article about Gooch with the same reaction as I came away from Shipnuck’s bio about Mickelson. I can’t decide whether Talor is a good guy or a bad guy just like I couldn’t decide whether Phil is a good guy or bad guy. Leave it to Shipnuck to leave the reader stumbling around in all the moral ambiguities of life.

  8. Any golfer that jump to LIV sold out their country and the traditions of golf. All this talk of professional athlete as a defense sickens me. These people simply made a choice for money over the history and tradition of golf. That is fine that is their choice but you can’t have it both ways because you’re destroying the gawe’re in the game as it currently stands should I say anyone who went to LIV Should stay with live and forfeit any chance of ever coming back to traditional golf including including the majors I hope and pray that those in charge of the majors make this very clear in the future They gave up their right to play in majors when they chose the money

  9. These two tours co-exist now. I don’t understand the issue that the LIV players have with the PGA Tour. They were members of the PGA Tour, and knew of the rules that were required for them to remain members of the PGA Tour. They were presented with contracts by LIV Golf, which they signed, in violation of the membership rules of the PGA Tour. They were suspended from the PGA Tour because they violated the PGA Tour rules. Now they want to play in both LIV Golf events and PGA Tour events. I don’t care that they play in LIV; I won’t watch it, but others can. If these historians of the game don’t know what Greg Norman tried to do in the 90s, and what a scumbag he is, that is on them. The OWGR rules are the OWGR rules.
    Here’s the deal. LIV Golf is created, and now they want all of these other entities to bow to their wishes because “life isn’t fair.” LIV Golf is an exhibition, well funded, but just an exhibition. It doesn’t bother me in the least that LIV golfers may not be able to qualify for the majors. And as far as diluting the PGA Tour, trust me, there will be someone as talented as Talor Gooch that will replace him on tour.
    You know, when I go to work for a company, I am usually provided with a notice that I cannot work for another company without approval of my employer. This is the same type of notice that the PGA Tour provided to the LIV golfers. They just chose not to pay attention.

  10. taylor gooch is a lying spineless joke who supports 9/11 invaders of america, it’s interesting to note how many of the oklahoma state golf team alums are with liv, guess they don’t read books & stoopid **** about democracy in stillwater

    don’t be a dumb azz#

  11. We constantly hear that “LIV golf isn’t going away,” and very possibly that might be true. Funded by billions in Saudi oil money, this unimportant series of golf exhibitions needs no traditional business model to survive….only continued generosity offered by the devious potentate that is Saudi head MBS. Which ALSO means that one day the Saudis could simply tire of the relentless criticism and simply pull the plug. (Leaving Saudi puppet Greg Norman nothing to do but go home and polish the statue of himself in his backyard.) The PGA Tour is a BUSINESS, funded by dozens of corporations who appreciate the vital charity element. The Saudi golf league is a distraction, a method by which a murderous regime can continue to divert attention from its many human rights abuses. (See Brandel Chamblee’s latest tweet.) Supporters of this renegade league — the players, it’s fans and employees — conveniently overlook the overriding issue and that is: a FORGEIGN GOVERMENT is trying to hijack professional golf. If you’re good with that, fine — go catch your traitors on YouTube.

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