LIV Golf: Cameron Smith’s defection delivers a sickening blow to the PGA Tour

Cameron Smith
Cameron Smith won six PGA Tour titles, including this year’s Players Championship

It was expected but Cameron Smith’s departure to LIV Golf remains a sickening blow to the PGA Tour and those seeking to preserve the sport’s status quo.

The Australian’s defection is the most significant since Dustin Johnson’s springtime change of heart.

Having pledged his future to the established circuit, the American was swayed by LIV’s millions in time for their opening event in June.

This prompted the likes of Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed to also abandon the preeminent tour in men’s golf.

But Johnson is 38 and has not won since collecting his second major at the 2020 Masters. DeChambeau and Koepka have been beset by debilitating injuries and Reed’s form and popularity are in decline.

European recruits such as Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia are well past their prime. Paul Casey, in his mid-40s with a dodgy back, decided to cash in while he could.

Smith is different. The Australian is 29 and number two in the world. He is at the height of his powers.

The Queenslander is popular with fans; a modest, down-to-earth figure with endearing larrikin qualities and a game of a quality that is only very sparingly conferred by golfing gods.

How the PGA Tour would have loved to have celebrate fully its newly incentivised calendar at its opening event next year. But it cannot.

It will be a Tournament of Champions without its defending champion, even though the Hawaii event is now worth $15m (£12.9m). Smith, who shot a record-breaking 34-under-par to take that title this year, will instead be living the LIV life.

And that is likely to be one that makes it easier for him to spend that time of the year playing or relaxing in his native Australia.

His absence will also be keenly felt at the Players Championship in March. The tour’s flagship event will be worth $25m but will also be without its defending champion.

Likewise the now $20m Genesis Invitational a month earlier. Joaquin Niemann will be absent from defending the title he so thrillingly won earlier this year.

The 23-year-old from Chile is one of the game’s most exciting talents and another significant LIV coup. Ranked 19 in the world, he is also a client of the GSE Worldwide management company that has specialised in carving out lucrative Saudi-funded contracts for a number of their clients.

They include DeChambeau, Abraham Ancer, Casey, Jason Kokrak, Garcia, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and Carlos Ortiz who are all in the field for LIV’s fourth $25m event, which starts in Boston on Friday.

There is no doubting LIV has gathered momentum from a stuttering start. They have resources from the deepest pockets – Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund. They can be a lucrative force in golf for as long as they want.

Even so, the announcement of their latest recruits is not as star laden as LIV would have desired. The absence of Open runner-up Cameron Young and 2021 Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama should encourage the PGA Tour.

American Young was attracted by LIV’s 54-hole shotgun start formats and their bloated prize funds. But he was swayed in the recent meeting of top players instigated by Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods.

“I was very interested,” Young admitted. “I think they have a bunch of good ideas. I think they’re doing some cool stuff.” But the 25-year-old proved an impressionable listener at that vital Delaware meeting earlier this month.

The upshot was the PGA Tour announcing their raft of $20m events for their leading stars as well as an enhanced (and still controversial) Player Impact Programme.

Those changes helped convince Young, who also has an eye on golfing history. “That’s what really helped me decide to stay and pursue those goals that I have for myself.

“Like making the Presidents Cup team or Ryder Cup team and winning a major, when all of that is just uncertain if you go.”

Some things in the game, perhaps, remain priceless.

But, be in no doubt, money is the prime driver and the men’s game perhaps faces a challenge to ensure such largesse does not ultimately prove a turn-off in these straightened times.

Only a couple of weeks ago Smith professed that he was desperate to play for the Internationals against the US in the upcoming Presidents Cup. The breakaway tour’s mantra is that there is no reason why he should not be allowed to compete.

But LIV players are automatically suspended from the PGA Tour, who run the biennial contest. Smith knew the consequences when he signed on the dotted line and he will be aware that Aussie sports fans will not be happy with that decision.

Thanks to his Open win, the Queenslander is assured of his place in the majors for the next five years at least, although it remains to be seen whether the Masters will extend invitations to LIV players.

How sharp will his game remain while playing at a level that is currently significantly below the PGA Tour? According to current standings, the average ranking of the three LIV winners to date (Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Henrik Stenson) is 150.

For golf fans wanting to witness the best at the majors it would be a shame to see Smith’s talents diminish in the absence of competing against the best players week in, week out.

But he has a hundred million reasons for taking his chosen route. Money talks on both sides of the argument.

This remains a bitter power struggle with no end in sight. McIlroy and Woods have become player/commissioners of a PGA Tour that still boasts the vast majority of the very best golfing talent.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has ratcheted the rhetoric by saying it will be “hard to stomach” competing with LIV rebels at Wentworth next week.

Which begs the question of them being barred from the European Ryder Cup team? If Luke Donald uses his six wildcard picks to select any LIV players, how on earth does he form a harmonious team with McIlroy, his biggest star, in it?

This is another issue, among very many, still to be resolved as lawyers from both sides prepare to square up on several fronts.

It has been a frenzied couple of weeks and both camps are justified in claiming victories from the latest skirmishes.

Certainly, LIV know they have secured their biggest asset to date.

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