Cameron Smith, this year’s Open Championship winner, and up to six other players will leave the PGA Tour and join LIV Golf, according to sources from multiple outlets.
Joining Smith, the world’s No. 2-ranked player, with the controversial, Saudi-backed series will be Joaquin Niemann, Harold Varner III, Mito Pereira, Marc Leishman and Cameron Tringale, according to Golf Channel, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, while the latter two are also reporting that Anirban Lahiri will also sign with LIV. All of the golfers, except Pereira, will play in LIV’s next event, next weekend just outside of Boston; Pereira is expected to join at a later date in hopes of playing next month’s Presidents Cup.
When reached Saturday night to confirm or deny the reports, a LIV spokesperson told GOLF.com: “We don’t comment on speculation.”
Rumored for weeks, the signing of Smith marks the highest-ranked player to join LIV. Twice — after his Open Championship win and then ahead of the FedEx St. Jude Championship — the 29-year-old Australian would neither confirm nor deny speculation that he was leaving the PGA Tour, and Rory McIlroy revealed Wednesday that he had also contacted Smith to discuss a potential decision.
“So my whole thing, like I had a conversation with Cameron Smith two days after the Open, and firstly, I wanted to congratulate him, but also I wanted — guys that are thinking one way or another, honestly I don’t care if they leave or not. It’s not going to make a difference to me.
“But I would at least like people to make a decision that is completely informed and basically know this is what’s coming down the pipeline. This is what you may be leaving behind. I just don’t want people making decisions — hearing information from one side and not from another. So I think that’s sort of been my whole thing this entire time. I’ve always said guys can do whatever they want. Guys can make a decision that they feel is best for themselves and their families. But I want guys to make decisions based on all of the facts.
“Sometimes I don’t think some guys made those decisions based on having all the facts in front of them.”
The departure of Smith, Niemann, Pereira, Leishman and Lahiri would also gut the International team ahead of the Presidents Cup, which begins in less than four weeks at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C., though Pereira posted a Presidents Cup picture to his Instagram account on Saturday, hinting that he may join LIV after the biennial event. The Presidents Cup is backed by the PGA Tour, which has suspended every member who has played for LIV.
Niemann’s departure, meanwhile, would become the second-highest ranked player on LIV’s roster — he’s currently No. 17 — though he told Golf Channel after Friday’s Tour Championship second round that he wanted to finish the event, “then see what my decision will be.” Niemann was also reported to be among those last week at a Tiger Woods and McIlroy-led players-only meeting to discuss changes to the PGA Tour in the face of the LIV Golf product, many of which, presumably, were part of those revealed this week.
Only Niemann and Smith are among the 30 playing in the Tour Championship. Niemann was seven shots back of leader Scottie Scheffler when Saturday’s third round was postponed due to storms, while Smith was 11 behind.
Notably, Varner had told Sports Illustrated in June that he had turned down a “nuts” offer to join LIV. Varner had won the Saudi International in January, but told Sports Illustrated that he had talked with basketball legend Michael Jordan and decided to stay; Varner is sponsored by Jordan’s Jumpman line.
“I’m obviously not going,” Varner told Sports Illustrated. “I’ve spoken with Jay [Monahan], I’ve spoken with a lot of people I look up to, and it just wasn’t worth it to me for what it was worth. That’s pretty simple.”
On the Tour side, the departures follow those of Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and multiple others to LIV under the appeal of guaranteed money, though on Wednesday, Monahan sounded as if the Tour would not get in a bidding war over players.
“I’ve been pretty consistent throughout that for us, where we’re competing is with our product, and our product is our schedule,” Monahan said. “We’ve made some strong enhancements to that for top players and for our entire membership, coming into this year and certainly as we go into 2023.
“When you look at our schedule, the value of our platform and what players can achieve off of that platform based on their competitive success and the values that are conveyed through that platform, that coupled with some of these financial programs, when you look at being a member of the PGA Tour and you look at the financials moving forward, you can earn a tremendous — you can have a tremendous career. Your earnings potential is extraordinary.
“Again, you’re doing it in a way where you’re preparing yourself to achieve at the highest level of the game. You’re competing for trophies that matter. You’re competing for history and legacy.
“Look at the schedule. You go to next year, our fans are going to look at the schedule in January and say, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the WGC Dell Match Play, the three player-hosted invitationals. For the first time, I know now that these players are going to be playing there; plus I know that these players are going to be playing additional FedExCup events, 20 events. To me, that is tremendously exciting as a fan, and as we have more excitement from our fans, we grow our business.
“But to directly answer your question, when you’re dealing with a non-economic actor, you have to come back to the core of who you are, and if the core of who you are is providing the single greatest competitive access and opportunities for players, and pipeline, then how do you make that stronger? And that’s what everything starts with. That’s what came out of the meeting last week. That’s what comes out of all the discussions we have at the PAC level and with our board.”