Can Golf Maintain Its Reputation of Honor, Respect, and Politeness in the Midst of the PGA-LIV Merger?

Two summers ago, some 20 years after I took my first swings as a little girl, I began teaching my husband to golf. With most sports, a quick tutorial and a brief layout of the rules are sufficient for beginners, but teaching someone “The Gentleman’s Game” is much more difficult. 

A new player must understand not only the complex rules of golf but also its etiquette. As if inundating my poor husband with the nuances of various shots and odd rules (“You can’t ground your club in the bunker!”) weren’t overwhelming enough, I also had to make sure we didn’t hold up the golfers behind us or make any serious faux pas when playing with strangers we were grouped with on the first tee. “Next time, try not to walk over someone’s line from their ball to the hole when on the green,” I advised my husband as we drove to the next tee box that steamy summer day. As complex as golf still is, it’s a much different sport nowadays than the one I learned long ago. 

To keep up with the fast-paced modern world, golf (like many other sports) is changing. The most recent golf upheaval is the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour’s controversial merger with LIV Golf, which makes me wonder: Can golf maintain its reputation of honor, respect, and politeness in the midst of all these changes? Or will some of golf’s civility be lost in the transition?

When played according to the rules and etiquette, golf progresses from the tee box in a kind of choreographed dance. The first tee shot is awarded to the person who scored best on the previous hole, and from there on out the person whose ball lies farthest from the hole has honors — this was one of the original 13 rules recorded in 18th-century Scotland. Golf is the only sport in which players call penalties on themselves, relying on an honor system of sorts, even in competition. On public and private golf courses alike, most players stay still and quiet when someone else is swinging, mark their ball once it hits the green to avoid interrupting another player’s line to the hole, and shake hands after the 18th green. Over the years, golf has taught me composure, decorum, and emotional regulation. Many golfers feel the same way. 

Edward Wanambwa, golf journalist, former senior editor of the African American Golfer’s Digest, and frequent golf commentator on ESPN Sports Network, shares these views on the sport’s values. “At its core, golf is about respect, honor, and integrity,” Wanambwa says, “The fact that the players uphold the tenets of the game and play within the rules says it all — no one wants to be known as a cheater in the game of golf.” 

Stella Woo, a young woman who has played competitive golf since she was 12 years old, including two NCAA championships with Williams College, says: “Golf has taught me awareness, patience, and respect.” 

“I attended a PGA Tour tournament as a spectator one year. I remember how silent the massive crowd became when it was time for the player to set up and hit.… I cannot name one other sport that requires the audience to remain silent for a period of time, and the audience actually complying out of respect,” Woo continues. 

In order to overcome its image as an elitist sport, golf has begun to lose some of its formality, and many rules and courtesies have been relaxed in recent years. The United States Golf Association reduced the sport’s number of rules from 34 to 24, and in 2019 the PGA Tour changed its policy to allow pros to wear shorts — if only for practice rounds. Even though many public and private golf clubs still require collared shirts, some allow patrons to wear jeans and t-shirts on the course. Recently I’ve played with people who blast music from speakers throughout the round rather than maintaining quiet and have encountered fewer golfers who count every stroke.

Golf’s etiquette and strict rules are most important at the professional level. PGA pros don’t have the luxury of being careless — for them, it may mean the difference between a trophy and a disqualification. There are numerous examples of this in golf’s history. In 1968, Robert de Vincenzo won the Masters Tournament — until it was revealed that he had signed an incorrect scorecard, attesting to the false score of 66 for nine holes rather than 65. Similarly in 2017, LPGA star Lexi Thompson was penalized two strokes for improperly replacing her ball on the green a day after the infraction had occurred and therefore was disqualified for turning in an incorrect scorecard. Popular golfer Rory McIlroy was once fined for throwing his club after a wayward shot, but it’s not just the pros who must adhere to golf’s etiquette — even the sport’s spectators can come under fire for being rowdy. 

Even though the PGA Tour has set the standards for the game for more than 100 years, it no longer dominates the world of professional golf. In 2021, plans for the LIV Golf Enterprises were revealed. The league, named in Roman numerals for 54, the score if a golfer were to birdie every hole and the number of holes played in LIV events, proposed an alternative to the PGA Tour. LIV events aimed to re-energize golf, making adjustments to the classic tournament structure by including fewer players, no cut (in which players who fail to reach a certain score after the first two rounds won’t continue on to the third), fewer holes (the PGA standard is 72), and greater earning potential for players. While many of these adjustments promised to breathe new life into golf, the controversy of LIV lies in its origins — the league is backed by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, accused of a number of human rights abuses, including ties to the 9/11 attacks

LIV’s arrival was met with instant backlash. Before the new league’s first tournament, the PGA Tour denied its players permission to participate, and when some played anyway, they were suspended, prompting LIV to file a lawsuit. The two leagues became further embroiled when the PGA Tour countersued later in 2022, alleging wrongdoing on the part of LIV for enticing PGA Tour players to break their contracts with the promise of more cash. (The defectors were lured with payments and the promise of bigger prizes — Tiger Woods was reportedly offered somewhere around $700-$800 million to join LIV, which he turned down.) Thus LIV fractured the professional golf community, and soon the greater network of everyday players. 

It came as a shock when, earlier this year, the PGA Tour announced they would be merging with LIV in an attempt to unify the sport. U.S. Senators have since raised questions about the merger, pointing out the potential national security implications of playing for LIV. 

When this decision was announced, I lost some faith in golf. I spoke to other golfers about the LIV fiasco, searching for commiseration, or perhaps a way to come to terms with it all.

Wanambwa’s view on the LIV merger is strong, calling it “cancer to the game.” He shares my own disappointment: “I think the PGA tarnished its image and sold out for the cash. Who knows what the future holds, but golf has changed forever.” 

Woo, meanwhile, saw the collaboration coming: “Players were bound to participate in the LIV events because of the higher money prize and the massive contract deals they were being presented with, so I assumed that the PGA management would have to give in to prevent going out of business.” 

Inevitable or not, the LIV merger is shaking up the world of golf. As Woo says: “This [merger] made me realize that even something I thought could not become modernized — such as golf, a sport that is saturated with strict rules, customs, and tradition — can eventually change as we are entering a new, progressive generation.” The PGA Tour, once a beacon of tradition and strong values, has lost face in this seemingly hypocritical merger. 

Whether or not the standards of respect and honor are upheld at the highest levels of golf, I’ll continue to teach my husband the game as I learned it. No one can deny that golf is changing, but whether or not it loses its reputation for civility is up to the players — to us — as it has always been.

Updated October 6. An earlier version of this essay confused the difference between the PGA and the PGA Tour.  


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