Efforts to create a “super league” in golf will not die. Neither has Rory McIlroy’s contempt for it.
McIlroy reiterated on Wednesday at the Quail Hollow Club that he still has no interest in accepting any offer, no matter how lucrative, to join a breakaway “Super Golf League” circuit of elite golfers being fronted by Saudi Arabia.
“I think you all know my feelings on it and I'm very much against it,” McIlroy said on his 32nd birthday ahead of competing in the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I don't see why anyone would be for it.”
Reports have come out that the backers of the proposed golf league – formerly dubbed the Premier Golf League but now going by SGL – plan to start operation in 2022 despite the recent abrupt failure by European football superpowers of creating its own super league. They have reportedly offered $30m contracts to world No 1 Dustin Johnson as well as England’s Justin Rose, who along with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson have presumably expressed interest in it.
Justin Thomas, currently No 2 in the world, said he didn’t know about any offers being made to him.
“I haven't heard anything personally, so again, I don't have much interest,” Thomas said Wednesday.
“For me, I personally am about being No 1 in the world and winning as many majors as I can and winning as many tournaments as I can and doing historical things on the PGA Tour. If I was to go do that, then all those things go down the drain and I can't do that. I feel like I have a great opportunity to make a huge name for myself on the PGA Tour and continue to grow my brand and grow the game over here.”
McIlroy said he was first contacted about the concept in 2014 and his enthusiasm for it has never materialised along with anything concrete.
“So this is seven years down the line and nothing has really changed,” he said. “Maybe the source of the money's changed or the people that are in charge have changed, but nothing has happened. No sponsorship deals, no media deals, no players have signed up, no manufacturers have signed up. There's been so many iterations at this point.
“You go back to what happened last week in Europe with the European Super League in football. People can see it for what it is, which is a money grab, which is fine if that's what you're playing golf for is to make as much money as possible. Totally fine, then go and do that if that's what makes you happy.
"But I think the top players in the game – I'm just speaking my own personal beliefs – like I'm playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world. That's why I'm playing this game.
“Golf has been very good to me obviously over the years by playing in Europe starting off, coming over to the PGA Tour and playing here. I honestly don't think there's a better structure in place in golf, and I don't think there will be. You have the strategic partnership as well between Europe and the PGA Tour and that's only going to strengthen the structure of golf going forward as well in terms of scheduling and all sorts of other stuff and working together a little bit more.”
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan addressed players at their annual meeting on Tuesday night and said that anyone joining the Super Golf League would face immediate suspension and possibly permanent expulsion for the tour. It would be unlikely anyone breaking away from the PGA or European Tours would be eligible to compete in the Ryder Cup. The other major championships have not weighed in.
Keith Pelley, the chief executive of the European Tour, issued a strong statement against the SGL.
“We are aligned with the PGA Tour in opposing, in the strongest possible terms, any proposal for an alternative golf league," Pelley's statement read.
"Since the launch of our strategic alliance last November, our two organisations have been working together to make global golf less fractured and not create further division, with the interests of all players and fans at the forefront of our thinking."
McIlroy applauded the PGA Tour’s recently implemented Player Impact Program, which sets aside $40m to be distributed among the top 10 most influential and socially engaged players on tour. It is considered a way to reward golf’s most prominent players and keep them from pursuing offers like the SGL.
“I think with the top players being more engaged in the tour and the goings on, it will help the rest of the membership,” McIlroy said of the program. “I think that's how I feel about it.
“I think it's a great initiative by the tour. I think everyone knows it was a little bit designed to try to appease some of the people that had their heads turned by different leagues or SGL, PGL, Tour de Force, whatever you want to call it. But I think it's a very prudent move on the tour's part.”
McIlroy used recent Masters runner-up Will Zalatoris – who started the season with no official status on the PGA Tour – to illustrate how the Player Impact program might benefit more than just the usual suspects.
“I think it's still a possibility or there's the potential for anyone to get into this top-10, right?” he said. “Like a Will Zalatoris, he was on the Korn Ferry last year, he's had a wonderful rise. He's cool, he's got a really cool look, he's young. There's a possibility, if he keeps playing the way he's playing this year, he could be in that top-10. And to think about that, to think about this kid that's coming up that was on the Korn Ferry like a year ago and could make that top-10, I think that's pretty cool. So it means that there's the potential there for anyone on tour to get in there if they play well enough.
“I don't want to say winning takes care of everything, but if you play well on this tour, you have amazing opportunities. I just picked Will out of that because of the run he's on at the minute and the potential that he has going forward.”
McIlroy says the backlash after the proposed football European Super League should serve as an example of how pursuing money by breaking away from golf’s traditions can corrupt the integrity of the game.
“Yeah, look, it's a complicated issue, but I just don't see at this point how it can get going,” he said. “And the possibility that people, if they do go in that direction, can't play in the biggest tournaments in the game? The game of golf, whether it's a right thing or a wrong thing, is so about history … we still talk about Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen and Ben Hogan and all those guys because that's what this game is. It's steeped in history and the legacies that those guys have.
"If you move further away from that, you're basically losing the essence of what competitive golf is. Again, that's my stance on it and that's been my stance for a long time. I just can't see how it happens.”
As for the current state of his own game, which has him currently ranked No. 15 in the world after missing cuts at both the Players Championship and Masters, McIlroy said it has improved with a week off after Augusta to clear his head and using the time since to put in some more work on the range with new supplemental coach Pete Cowan.
“I feel better about my game than I did flying home from Augusta on Friday night, put it that way,” he said. “I've worked a little bit on it, sort of just tried to understand what I do well. I guess trying to sort of focus on my strengths. I think I've neglected my strengths a little bit the past couple of months, and focusing more on those and focusing on what makes me a good golfer and how I swing the club and how I move the club.
“So that's sort of what I've been trying to do the last couple weeks. It feels good. It's all familiar feelings. It's all stuff that I've worked on before, but maybe just gotten away from a little bit by trying to focus on other things. I feel like I'm on a pretty good trajectory at the minute.”