With Tuesday’s announcement that six more golfers have departed for LIV, it’s time to take stock of the distribution of talent in men’s professional golf.
If you’re the PGA Tour, you can hang your hat on the fact that 17 of the top 18 players in the world still compete on your tour. But you also can’t ignore the significant blows LIV has dealt over the last several months. By my count, 31 PGA Tour pros (plus Martin Kaymer, who doesn’t play much on Tour but seems like he should count, so I’m including him) have ditched for the Land of Shotgun Starts, committing to the controversial Saudi-backed league before its first “real” season has even begun.
So which of them will the PGA Tour miss, and how much? Which players will prove most crucial to LIV’s chances of success? Who moves the needle? Using an arbitrary series of judgment calls, I ranked ’em all — No. 32 through No. 1 — to identify the most valuable LIV signees. Here they are!
The Major Champs
Three guys with impressive pasts but less impressive presents.
32. Graeme McDowell
A former U.S. Open Champion and Ryder Cupper who peaked at No. 4 in the world but has slipped to No. 399.
31. Martin Kaymer
A two-time major champ, Players champ and Ryder Cupper who reached World No. 1?! That’s some clout. But he, like McDowell, has fallen outside the top 300 in the world and doesn’t add to LIV’s level of competition.
30. Charl Schwartzel
One of LIV’s stable of Masters champions and a four-time Presidents Cupper who still has game (T10 at Augusta this year) but isn’t necessarily selling tickets for either tour.
The Presidents Cup Contenders
29. Anirban Lahiri
28. Branden Grace
27. Matt Jones
None of these guys are spring chickens — Grace is the youngest at 34 — but they would have been serious contenders for this September’s Presidents Cup team had they not made the jump. Lahiri was an inspiring watch and a terrific quote throughout his week at the Players Championship (he ended up finishing second) and marks the first significant LIV signing of a Tour pro from Asia. Grace and Jones each won on Tour in 2021, which meant they sacrificed certain Tour status for certain money while also laying the groundwork for their countrymen to join them in forming South African and Aussie teams.
The Retirement Planners
26. Kevin Na
25. Charles Howell III
24. Pat Perez
These three American 40somethings are fairly well known on the PGA Tour. Perez is a cult favorite, Na was inside the top 30 as recently as this spring and Howell has been using the Tour as his personal ATM for more than two decades. But it’s fairly easy for the Tour to let them go, too, dismissing them as solid pros whose best years are behind them. As Perez put it: “It’s simple. I’m 46. I’ve been on the road since 1998 … It’s like winning the lottery for me. I couldn’t be more excited.”
The American 30somethings
While these guys aren’t on the brink of retirement, they also aren’t on the brink of superstardom.
23. Peter Uihlein
Okay, I admit it: Uihlein is probably way too high at No. 23, but I liked this tier.
22. Cameron Tringale
There’s something vaguely tragic about Tringale bouncing from the PGA Tour when he’s best-known as the pro who has won the most money without a victory. Arguably a self-own by LIV on that one.
21. Hudson Swafford
Credit where it’s due: Swafford won in 2022! But he also failed to record a finish higher than T30 in his next 12 starts. Maybe this was him selling high and maximizing value in the process.
20. Jason Kokrak
Kokrak was playing the best golf of his life in late 2021, winning the Houston Open and jumping to No. 20 in the world. His leap is significant for that reason; he had a secure future on Tour laid out ahead of him but chose LIV anyway. Kokrak already had a deal with GolfSaudi, though, and has said it’s a priority of his to make as much money as possible in as little time as possible, so this felt like a natural match.
The Fan Favorites
Likable and good at golf? We’re entering “value” territory.
19. Carlos Ortiz
The 31-year-old Mexican golfer hasn’t been on his best form of late. Still, he’s a Tour winner and a fan favorite as well as a mentor for younger Latin pros like Mito Pereira and (spoiler alert) Joaquin Niemann.
18. Harold Varner III
HV3 is among the most beloved figures on Tour. He’s funny, honest and connects with everybody. He’s also an inspiring story, a kid that grew up at a Gastonia muni and one of just a few Black golfers on the PGA Tour. I appreciated Varner’s Instagram statement because of its honesty: Whatever sum he was offered by LIV was too much to turn down.
17. Marc Leishman
Leishman is known as an affable Aussie with a warm smile and an excellent lawn. While the five-time Tour winner isn’t in the form that got him to No. 12 in the world a few years ago, he still has plenty in the tank and was also a key to securing someone significantly higher on the list…
16. Louis Oosthuizen
It’s tough to know how to grade Oosthuizen because he is somewhere between greatness and retirement. He nearly won multiple majors in 2021 and began this year ranked No. 10 in the world. If he didn’t join LIV, he also would have likely played sparingly. But his smooth swing has always been universally beloved.
16. Paul Casey
15. Lee Westwood
14. Ian Poulter
13. Sergio Garcia
This group is significant for three reasons. They’re household names. They’re Ryder Cup heroes. And they (minus Casey) were early LIV adopters, normalizing the league and taking the brunt of the heat before helping recruit others to follow in their footsteps. Their futures with the European Ryder Cup team are uncertain, to say the least — which is saying something, considering they’re among the team’s most legendary all-time players.
11. The Rising Star
In addition to his status as a current top-20 player in the world, Ancer is arguably the greatest male golfer in Mexico’s history. That’s significant.
10. The Heel
During his time on the PGA Tour, Reed often flirted with controversy. But he was also a Masters champ, a Ryder Cup star and an incredibly creative golfer. Losing all of that is decidedly bad for the Tour — and besides, every sport needs polarizing figures. His latest $750 million lawsuit against Golf Channel and Brandel Chamblee wasn’t exactly an olive branch, though, so Reed’s relationships with the PGA Tour ecosystem may be slightly icy for now.
9. The Ryder Cup Captain
As a refresher, Stenson was named the captain of Team Europe for the 2023 Ryder Cup. In doing so, he signed an agreement that would bar him from joining a league like LIV. Then he joined LIV. (And he won in his very first start.) It’s one thing to pull out before you could be considered for the Ryder Cup team or its captaincy. It’s another thing to gain leverage from your appointed position and then leave for LIV anyway. Stenson’s departure marked a rough day for the Ryder Cup.
8. The Domino
Based on resume or Q-Score, Gooch belongs lower on this list. But when the initial batch of players was released for LIV London, Gooch’s name was the outlier: He was the only Tour pro who was actually playing the best golf of his life. Gooch didn’t shy away from conflict in the weeks that followed, either. He joined a lawsuit against the Tour, sought to play in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, compared one LIV finish to a Ryder Cup and continued hitting out on social media. It’s tough to quantify the effect he had on those that followed, but he certainly showed that it could be done.
7. Matthew Wolff
Wolff had a rollercoaster couple years on the PGA Tour. There was plenty of good: He won the 3M Open as a rookie in 2019 and then logged four runner-up finishes the following season, including at the 2020 U.S. Open. But there were plenty of tough times, too: Wolff battled loneliness, self-doubt and depression. Wolff was the first golfer signed by Gatorade since Tiger Woods. He was a key piece of Nike and TaylorMade’s golf portfolios. He struggled at the end of his Tour tenure, but there’s no question Wolff is the Tour’s loss and LIV’s gain.
6. Joaquin Niemann
There’s a reason Niemann — who is also just 23 years old — agonized over his LIV decision for weeks: He knew the effect it would have. The World No. 19 is among the best golfers in the world under the age of 25. He’s the best golfer from South America. He’s the defending champion at Tiger Woods’ tournament, the Genesis Invitational. There’s a reason Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott each joined him for practice rounds at the Tour Championship: they hoped to convince him to stay. Now he’ll miss the Presidents Cup and won’t play PGA Tour events for the foreseeable future. That’s a significant blow.
5. The Open Champ
Smith is an outlier on this list even more so than Niemann. He’s 29 years old and playing the best golf of his life. He’s a major champion now as well as a perennial contender at the Masters. He’s exempt for years to come. Even worse for the PGA Tour, he lives in Ponte Vedra Beach. He practice at TPC Sawgrass. He won the Players Championship! Smith earned millions on the PGA Tour this season. His departure signals LIV’s deep pockets but also its ability to expand globally: Smith has been focused on spending more of his time living in Australia, where LIV is expected to hold at least one event.
4. The Entertainer
It feels like ancient history but in the 2020-21 PGA Tour season DeChambeau was likely golf’s greatest newsmaker. From the U.S. Open win to the continuation of his body transformation to his par-5 drive at Bay Hill to his beef with Brooks Koepka, we shouldn’t forget just how important DeChambeau was to the intrigue of the PGA Tour. He finished T8 at the Open Championship, showing signs his game is still there. But while we’ll see him at the next several major championships (he’s exempt off his 2020 U.S. Open win) it seems unlikely we’ll get Bryson back on the PGA Tour anytime soon.
3. The Alpha
There’s a version of Koepka’s story where he’s injured and irrelevant, where his best days are behind him, where it makes sense that he’d take the money and run. But I think Koepka and the PGA Tour miss each other dearly. In a world where Koepka stays on Tour, it’s easy to imagine him setting the tone that the majors and the big-time Tour events are the gold standard and that everything else is irrelevant. Sure, Koepka has always championed the majors while poo-pooing regular Tour events. But there’s no denying his competitive chops nor his run of success. His voice would be significant.
2. The First To Go
It’s hard to know what would have happened had Dustin Johnson not signed up for the first LIV event. Even his signing came down to the wire, which serves as a reminder just how thin LIV’s margins were between success and failure. But given he is the winningest PGA Tour player since Tiger Woods, Johnson’s departure signaled that it was on. LIV was for real.
1. The Kingpin
While plenty of other players have weighed in on LIV’s future, there’s nobody who has come close to matching the significance of Phil Mickelson. He’s the architect. The mastermind. For better or worse, Phil Mickelson’s legacy is now intertwined with that of LIV. He is the league. And that means he’ll never be unseated from No. 1 on this list.