NASSAU, Bahamas — There’s a golf war brewing that’s about to become very real and potentially messy.
In stark contrast to the tranquil vibe around this week’s Hero World Challenge at Albany Golf Club — where the sun is warm, the breeze is gentle, pressure is non-existent and last place pays $100,000 — a storm is percolating just below the surface at pro golf’s top levels.
No official announcements or details about a world league featuring some of the sport’s biggest names have come forth yet, but everyone in golf — from PGA Tour headquarters to the players at the locker rooms, practice ranges and putting greens at tournaments — knows it’s coming.
There has been chatter around the game for a couple of years about a power play by Saudi-backed groups with deep pockets wanting to start a “premier’’ league that attracts the game’s top players and pays them wads of guaranteed money.
From the rumblings around the game, that time may be coming soon, and it’s going to make for a fascinating power struggle between the PGA Tour and whoever tries to infringe upon its fiefdom.
Last year, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told players they would no longer be members if they played even one of those proposed events.
One high-profile player, who has been approached by representatives for a potential “league,’’ told The Post this week that he’s “concerned for the game’’ if an all-out legal brawl ensues between the PGA Tour and what it would consider another organization infringing on its empire.
“This should all be about growing the game,’’ the player said.
At the moment, there’s an immediate issue at hand for Monahan and the Tour. A significant number of top players have committed to play in the Saudi International in February on the same week as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which for years was one of the PGA Tour’s signature events.
Among the stars signed on to play in Saudi Arabia include Phil Mickelson (who has won Pebble Beach five times), Dustin Johnson (twice) and 2020 champion Graeme McDowell (who also won a U.S. Open, his only career major title, at Pebble). The list also includes names such as Bryson DeChambeau, Olympic gold medal winner Xander Schauffele, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Lee Westwood, Abraham Ancer, Tommy Fleetwood, Bubba Watson and Henrik Stenson.
Monahan has not yet made it public whether he’ll grant waiver releases for these players to compete in the Saudi event. —Most (if not all) of those players are to receive significant appearance fees to play in Saudi Arabia. One highly placed PGA Tour source, however, told The Post this week it was almost certain that the Tour would not grant waiver releases.
This feels like a sort of trial-balloon scenario for whatever Saudi group may be planning a new league — to see who will opt to play and whether they’ll defy the PGA Tour’s stance.
Asked by The Post what recourse the Tour would have if these players play in Saudi Arabia anyway, the source said that the players likely would be fined.
The question then becomes: How much money could the PGA Tour fine a top player, who’s being paid some $2 million to play, to make it a deterrent?
The other question is whether the PGA Tour has the legal right to tell its players, who are independent contractors, where they can and cannot play.
This is the most hot-button topic in the sport right now. It has become a sore subject, particularly for the game’s biggest stars, who draw the most attention to the PGA Tour. The top players believe they should be compensated more than the middle-tier and lower-tier because they are the ones who draw attention to the Tour.
“I think we’re independent contractors and we should be able to play where we want to play,’’ Rory McIlroy said this week at the Hero. “So, in my opinion, I think the Tour should grant releases [to play in the Saudi event]. It’s an Asian Tour [sanctioned] event, it’s an event that has world ranking points. I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.
“My personal choice is not to do that [play in Saudi Arabia], but obviously a lot of players are doing that, and I think it’s fair to let them do that.’’
Of all the top players, McIlroy has been most publicly opposed to being a part of a world league and taking the Saudis’ guaranteed money. But he’s a prominent member of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council [PAC] and is protecting players’ rights.
Clearly, a new league, if and when it’s ever announced, believes in the independent contractor argument and that players can play on both the PGA Tour and its tour.
“I think the players feel like they’re pawns at the minute in this big sort of global game of golf, and we just want to know where we sort of stand,’’ McIlroy said. “The professional game needs to get to a point where we as professionals need to know where we stand. Are we actually independent contractors? Are we employed by a certain entity? There’s a lot of gray area in that, and that’s what sort of needs to be sorted out.’’
Asked if, as a member of the PAC, he has discussed this with the PGA Tour, McIlroy said: “I think they understand where the players are coming from. I think some of the things that you’re seeing the Tour put in place are maybe a reaction to some of that sentiment.’’
Those things to which McIlroy referred are several ways the PGA Tour recently has directed more money to its players with increased tournament purses and the recently implemented $40 million Player Impact Program — which pays the 10 players who have a top “impact’’ score, with the winner getting $8 million.
These are obvious maneuvers to counter the huge money a new league would offer to lure PGA Tour players. But make no mistake, the outside forces rumored to be putting this league concept together have the PGA Tour’s attention.
“We’re taking this very seriously,’’ the PGA Tour source told The Post.
Some players question why the Tour doesn’t listen to the outside proposals and work together with them. McIlroy actually suggested that the Tour should be even more proactive and implement the creative ideas like the team concept on its own.
“For me, the PGA Tour is the best place in the world to play,’’ McIlroy said. “I’m not saying that the whole thing needs to be blown up and we do a different thing here. I think if people want golf to be more innovative and they want it to be more engaging and they want to see different concepts, there’s no reason why the PGA Tour can’t do that themselves.
“They have the know-how to put golf tournaments on, they have all the staff, they have everything, they have the best structure in place to do it. I’m certainly not saying that I want anything else to come of this, but there are certain elements to different concepts of professional golf that I do see merits in, but I don’t see any reason why the Tour couldn’t do it themselves.’’
Tiger Woods, the highest-profile player on the planet, this week essentially denounced the world tour concept, saying: “I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is. So, I have an allegiance to the PGA Tour.
“I understand that some of the comparisons [are] very similar to when Arnold [Palmer] and Jack [Nicklaus] broke off from the PGA of America to start the [PGA] Tour [in 1968]. I don’t see it that way [with a new league]. I think the Tour has done a fantastic job. Jay’s done an unbelievable job during a very difficult time during the pandemic when there were ample opportunities for players to leave, but we were the first sporting tour to start.
“I think the Tour is in great hands, they’re doing fantastic, and prize money’s going up. It’s just not guaranteed money like most sports are. It’s just like tennis, you have to go out there and earn it.’’
This is where it gets sticky, because while golfers are used to earning their keep in the most meritocratic sport there is, the prospect of guaranteed money for the biggest stars who draw the most eyeballs to the game is tantalizing.
“It’s very interesting when you’re playing for three-X the amount,’’ Bryson DeChambeau said. “Yeah, the reputation [of Saudi money] is not awesome, right? [But] if it’s three-X the money, so who’s not going to do it if we all do it, right?’’
If and when a world league emerges, the most compelling element would be what players would sign on. For a league to succeed, it would need several of the game’s biggest stars on board. And at the moment it feels as if each player is waiting to see what the other one does. No one wants to be the first.
The world’s No. 2-ranked player, Collin Morikawa, who recently became the first American player to win the Race to Dubai, revealed that he has been approached about a potential league.
“There’s been talks,’’ Morikawa said. “A lot of it goes through my agent, and I want to know as much information as possible. You don’t want to be left out, obviously, if things go one way versus the other. But I’m here to play out on [PGA] Tour, and that’s my focus right now. Look, I’m 24 and I’m keeping all eyes and ears open to everything.’’
Schauffele said he believes it’s the PGA Tour’s “job’’ to keep its players happy.
“They say it’s our Tour, us players, we make the Tour, so I imagine they would be very creative in coming up with ways to make sure we don’t go and do anything they don’t want us to do,’’ Schauffele said. “I need to play my best golf against the best players in the world in order to be the best, and wherever that is is where I will go.
“Right now, the PGA Tour has the best players in the world, so I’m playing on the PGA Tour. It’s pretty simple.’’
Simple is about to get complicated.