Nine questions and answers on the Rory McIlroy, PGA Tour board drama

May 12, 2024

Nine questions and answers on the Rory McIlroy, PGA Tour board drama

Go ahead and slap a zero on the “It’s been X days since golf had unnecessary drama” board. Rory McIlroy’s intention to rejoin the PGA Tour Policy Board has been thwarted, as McIlroy remarked last Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Championship that a “subset” of players blocked his return. You have questions and we have ... well, we don’t have answers, because the incontrovertible takeaway from the past two years in professional golf is that no one knows anything, at least for certain. But we do have some idea of the behind-the-scenes intrigue regarding power control and the trajectory of the tour’s future, so we’ll do our best to explain what the heck is going on.

OK, what is going on?

In late April, the Guardian reported McIlory was returning to the PGA Tour Policy Board, taking the place of Webb Simpson, who wanted to surrender his position and give it to McIlroy. McIlroy was previously on the board but resigned his post last November. McIlroy confirmed the report the following day at the Zurich Classic. “I don’t think there’s been much progress made in the last eight months, and I was hopeful that there would be,” McIlroy said. “I think I could be helpful to the process. But only if people want me involved.”

Only if people want me involved proved to be operative words. For the past two weeks there have been rumblings that the planned move had an icy reception from other board members, which McIlroy confirmed Wednesday morning at Quail Hollow.

“There’s been a lot of conversations. Sort of reminded me partly why I didn’t [originally want to stay on the board],” McIlroy said, referencing his departure. “I think it got pretty complicated and pretty messy, and I think with the way it happened, I think it opened up some old wounds and scar tissue from things that have happened before ... there was a subset of people on the board that were maybe uncomfortable with me coming back on for some reason. ... I think Webb just stays on and sees out his term, and I think he’s gotten to a place where he’s comfortable with doing that and I just sort of keep doing what I’m doing.”

So, for the moment, McIlroy remains out and Simpson is still in.

Why did Rory McIlroy resign in the first place?

McIlroy served as the de facto face of the PGA Tour in its battle with LIV Golf, standing up for his tour in the absence of leadership and doing so because he believed it was the right thing to do. Along with Tiger Woods, he spearheaded a player-led initiative in the summer of 2022 that restructured the tour schedule and seemed to prevent further player exodus. McIlroy admitted that putting himself out there in the game’s civil war took an emotional and physical toll, which McIroy said he was still reckoning with.

So when the tour announced last June a surprising partnership with the LIV Golf’s backer, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund - a negotiation that McIlroy was not a part of - McIlroy conceded a sense of betrayal. “It’s hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb and feeling like I’ve put myself out there and this is what happens,” McIlroy said at the RBC Canadian Open a day after the framework agreement announcement.

Nevertheless, McIlroy continued in his position on the tour’s policy board throughout the summer. When he ultimately resigned in late November 2023, he cited personal and professional commitments, but also nodded to the direction a potentially unified professional game could be going, that a deal private-equity deal was on the horizon (which came to fruition two months later, with the tour choosing the Fenway-led Strategic Sports Group) and felt his job was done. The remaining board directors elected Jordan Spieth to take McIlroy’s place.

What spurred McIlroy’s reversal?

According to NBC Sports analyst Brad Faxon (who also serves as McIlroy’s putting coach from time to time), McIlroy regretted his decision “almost immediately.” Also, as McIlroy alluded to in his Zurich comments, talks between the PGA Tour and PIF had stalled. While McIlroy has not moved from his anti-LIV Golf stance, the Ulsterman has conceded that golf’s schism is unsustainable and PIF’s participation in professional golf is inevitable. For McIlroy, the most palliative of avenues forward is one where PIF’s investment is diverted to the tour, which would likely welcome reunification of a fractured sport. McIlroy presumably believed his return to the board helps bridge the current gap.

Why does Webb Simpson want off?

Depends on whom you ask. Simpson, for his part, wants to spend more time focusing on golf and his family. It should also be noted that he is considered one of the more respected and well-liked players on tour, but has come under criticism for his use of four sponsor’s exemptions into limited-field signature events. There is also a belief among players, fair or not, that PGA Tour and SSG leadership wants McIlroy on the board to help advocate for unification. Given his credentials, McIlroy is seen as a stronger proponent than Simpson for this task.

Is Simpson allowed to just hand off an elected spot?

Technically, no; it’s an elected position. But when McIlroy resigned it was just the five other player directors who elected Spieth, not the entire tour membership. It’s also worth remembering the players created a new position for Woods on the board out of thin air. You’re not wrong for thinking everyone is just making this up as they go.

Who is the “subset” that doesn’t want McIlroy to return?

(Sigh) OK, let’s get into it. McIlroy didn’t name names, but sources tell Golf Digest that Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods were not particularly eager to welcome McIlroy back. The icy relationship between Cantlay and McIlroy is well-documented; McIlroy himself conceded last fall in an interview with the Irish Independent. “My relationship with Cantlay is average at best. We don’t have a ton in common and see the world quite differently.”

Later in the interview, when speaking to the infamous spat between McIlroy and Cantlay’s caddie, Joe LaCava, at the Ryder Cup, McIlroy said, “LaCava used to be a nice guy when he was caddying for Tiger, and now he’s caddieing for that d—k he’s turned into a ... I still wasn’t in a great headspace.”

The McIlroy-Woods relationship, sources tell Golf Digest, has also soured over the past six months. It remains cordial, yet their different views on the future of professional golf has led to a falling out of sorts. As for Spieth and McIlroy, McIlroy removed himself from a player text chain following Spieth’s comments at Pebble Beach (where Spieth said the tour doesn’t need PIF after the deal with SSG), leading to an hour-long chat between the two. “My thing was if I’m the original [potential] investor that thought that they were going to get this deal done back in July, and I’m hearing a board member say that we don’t really need them now, how are they going to think about that, what are they gonna feel about that?” McIlroy said. “They are still sitting out there with hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions, that they’re gonna pour into sport. And I know what Jordan was saying. ... But if I were PIF and I was hearing that coming from here, the day after doing this SSG deal, it wouldn’t have made me too happy, I guess?”

The tension remained at the Players Championship, where Spieth and McIlroy played together in the first two rounds and featured combative moments in the first round regarding two of McIlroy’s drops.

What are the Woods/Cantlay/Spieth arguments against McIlroy?

As a preface, let us again state that if anyone deserves grace, it’s McIlroy. What he did over two years for the tour and the game brought an invisible pain and weight that can’t be measured, and he was sold out by the very thing he was trying to defend. However, there is the idea that McIlroy did resign an elected spot, and players - and not just on the board - don’t think he just gets to simply walk on back.

“He was very clear that it was too much for him. He had business dealings, he has a kid, he wants to focus on his game. Trust me, I get it. But once you quit, you’re not getting back,” Kevin Streelman, a former member of the policy board who ran against McIlroy for Player Advisory Council chairman, told Golfweek. “I wouldn’t quit on something that you were elected to by your peers. To want back in is peculiar.”

There is also the perception of a financial entanglement. McIlroy is part of the Fenway-backed TGL Boston team and Fenway is a major player in the Strategic Sports Group. That McIlroy’s team and tour leadership have attempted to sell the board on McIlroy’s return, sources tell Golf Digest, has further raised suspicions.

Additionally, while players are fine with McIlroy changing his stance on PIF involvement, sources tell Golf Digest, a set of them don’t like that McIlroy is frustrated others haven’t changed their opinions with him.

And let’s be honest, there’s also some ego involved, to say nothing of a power play. It’s like “Succession,” only if everyone was Kendall Roy.

How ridiculous is all of this?

Well, as a history minor in college, we were warmed to see McIlroy invoke the Good Friday Agreement when asked his thoughts about how all of this is resolved. For context: “I sort of liken it to like when Northern Ireland went through the peace process in the ‘90s and the Good Friday Agreement, neither side was happy,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “Catholics weren’t happy, Protestants weren’t happy, but it brought peace and then you just sort of learn to live with whatever has been negotiated, right? That was in 1998 or whatever it was and 20, 25, 30 years ahead, my generation doesn’t know any different. It’s just this is what it’s always been like and we’ve never known anything but peace.” McIlroy has a valid point, but also ... we’re invoking a peace treaty that ended a three-decades long actual war in the context about, essentially, two battling golf businesses.

So, what does all of this mean?

Well, unity between the PGA Tour and PIF doesn’t solely hinge on McIlroy’s participation. But Wednesday’s development doesn’t help, to say nothing of the optics of the internal politics at play with the tour. And until those fissures are fixed, it’s unlikely that golf’s civil war will thaw anytime soon. –Golf Digest

Nine questions and answers on the Rory McIlroy, PGA Tour board drama