ORLANDO, Fla. – Depending on how history writes this chapter of professional golf’s legacy, last fall’s meeting of nearly two dozen PGA Tour stars in a Wilmington, Delaware, hotel will be remembered as either a defiant call to arms or a stopgap on the way to an inevitable disruption of the game.
In the months since that seminal meeting in the Hotel Du Pont, enough details have emerged to paint Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy as high-profile pillars standing against the encroachment of LIV Golf — the Saudi-backed league that, in the months leading up to last year’s BMW Championship, had wooed some of the game’s biggest names away from the PGA Tour with massive contracts.
Asked late last year his message to the gathered stars in Delaware, Woods offered a surprisingly honest answer:
“The message is that we can’t compete dollar for dollar with the [Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], we physically can’t do that,” Woods explained. “But what we can do is talk about better opportunities for younger players getting onto the Tour, what it means to play the Tour, how important it is, how important it is to have a legacy, be able to win major championships.
“There was a lot of talk of ways in which we can increase purses, reward players that are more visible than others that drive the Tour. Reward them, and also give better access to the Tour at different ages and in different ways than we ever have in the past.”
By all accounts, McIlroy was even more outspoken at the Aug. 16 meeting and has become the PGA Tour’s biggest proponent in what has become a war of attrition and litigation. That meeting, many contend, fundamentally changed the path of the Tour with the birth of designated events and an untold number of other changes, but it wasn’t precedent setting.
Nearly three decades before Woods and McIlroy called the Tour’s remaining stars together, there was a stunningly similar meeting at Sherwood Country Club north of Los Angeles, complete with a brazen attempt to reinvent the game with limited-field, big-money events that traveled the globe, a pair of stars standing up for the Tour and none other than Greg Norman.
Norman, the CEO of LIV Golf, gathered the game’s top players at the time in November 1994 at the Shark Shootout, the silly-season event he hosted, to pitch his World Golf Tour concept that (this might sound familiar) would feature 40 of the game’s top players in eight big-purse events, televised and underwritten by Fox.
“[Norman] gave his presentation and no one said anything. Arnold [Palmer] finally said, ‘You know Jack [Nicklaus] and I had the opportunity to do something very similar to this in 1968, when the Tour split from the [PGA of America], and both of us decided we’d do what was best for the game,” Nick Price said. “The King had spoken, and everyone listened.”
According to various accounts, Norman entered the meeting in ’94 confident that he had enough top players on his side to launch the WGT, which planned to hold its events the week prior to marquee tournaments, including the major championships.
“The consensus didn’t stick with [Norman] when he got out there in a public forum. The guys that he thought were onboard totally flipped on him right in front of all of us,” Paul Azinger explained. “We all said no.”
Unlike LIV Golf, which wooed players to the breakaway league with eight- and nine-figure contracts, Norman was counting on increased purses and prestige to attract stars to the WGT. Be it misplaced confidence or a basic lack of awareness, the plan quickly unraveled.
“He tried to get me to commit [to the WGT], and I said I’m not committing because all my contracts were up, I’m No. 1 in the world. How am I going to go to a Titleist or a TaylorMade or another company and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go play this tour now,’” Price said. “They’re going to want to know: where’s the TV? where’s the structure? I wouldn’t have done it anyway.”
While Norman misjudged the support for the WGT among players, it was Palmer and, to a lesser degree, Nicklaus who seemed to turn the room against him.
“Arnold stood up and said, ‘You don’t think Jack and Gary [Player] and I could have done this?’” Azinger recalled. “Once those guys stepped up and they were against it, especially Arnold, it was over that fast. We left that room, and it was over.”
But it wasn’t over, at least not yet. Even the general lack of support among the game’s top players, and Palmer’s outspoken criticism, didn’t keep Norman from pursuing his dream and rumors of the WGT persisted into the spring of 1995.
Few, if any, players were willing to publicly support the WGT, but the concept was intriguing to some.
“Whether you like Greg Norman or you don’t like Greg Norman. Whether you like LIV or you don’t like LIV, he had some good ideas, to be fair,” said Mark O’Meara, who attended the ’94 meeting. “He knew golf was going to be a global game. To be fair, the World Golf Championships were his idea.”
With the threat looming, much like Woods and McIlroy last year in Delaware, Palmer called his own meeting in mid-March, when the Tour arrived at Bay Hill, and he summoned Norman. “I was told to go tell Greg he had to go to the meeting,” recalled Davis Love III.
Norman, Fred Couples, Love and Tour commissioner Tim Finchem huddled in Palmer’s office overlooking the putting green at Bay Hill, and the line was drawn then and there.
“Arnold just said, ‘OK, this is over,’” Love recalled. “This is not the way we set up the PGA Tour. Jack [Nicklaus] and I set this up to run the way it’s run. We could have taken ownership, but we set it up to benefit everyone, not just certain players.”
A tour for everyone is a concept that doesn’t run perfectly congruent with the current state of the Tour. While most agree the circuit needed to do something, anything, to ward off the threat of the rival league, there is a growing movement of players who are pushing back at a tour run from the top down and singularly focused on the stars.
But beyond the politics of the day is a history that has repeated itself. For those who watched the WGT concept unfold in 1994, it’s impossible not to see the connection to LIV Golf and the current stalemate between the leagues.
“Rory is more like Arnie, outspoken. Tiger’s more like Jack, quiet but his voice carries,” Azinger said. “Here we are, some 30 years later. It’s the same thing.”
There are fundamental differences between what happened in 1994 and last fall’s meeting. Three decades ago, Palmer and Nicklaus were attendees, albeit outspoken attendees, while McIlroy and Woods entered the conference room in Delaware with the blueprint for the future of the Tour. They weren’t following the agenda, they were setting it.
There are countless lessons that can be learned from the ’94 meeting and what happened last fall, not the least of which is the power of personality. But there’s also a cautionary tale. Price, who was ranked first in the world ranking at the time, was one of Norman’s closets friends on Tour, but that changed.
“We were [friends],” Price said. “In 1999 and 2000 [he pulls his hands apart with a whoosh], don’t ask me what happened, I don’t know.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Arnold Palmer, “The King,” ended what was every bit the existential threat with his unique force of will. Lawsuits and suspensions and multi-million dollar contracts aside, it remains to be seen if Woods and McIlroy have the same power.