|Dates: 9-12 March Venue: TPC Sawgrass, Florida|
|Coverage: Live radio and text commentary on Radio 5 Sports Extra, BBC Sounds and BBC Sport website and app for final two rounds|
LIV Golf has forced the PGA Tour to change its “antiquated system” for the “benefit of professional golf at a high level”, says Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy said the Saudi Arabia-funded LIV tour was “dead in the water” 13 months ago but now admits its impact.
Last week, the PGA Tour announced some of its events will have no-cut, smaller fields which many argue mirrors LIV.
“It already has had significant relevance because it’s made the PGA Tour innovate and adapt,” said McIlroy.
“It’s pushed the PGA Tour to make these changes that will hopefully consolidate its long-term future.
“There is no doubt that LIV has come along and it’s benefited everyone that plays professional golf at a high level. I’m not disputing that,” the four-time major winner added in an interview with BBC Sport Northern Ireland.
The LIV contingent, which includes last year’s winner and Open champion Cameron Smith, are absent from the 144-man field teeing it up this week at the PGA Tour’s flagship $25m (£21m) event at Sawgrass, Florida.
And world number three McIlroy insists Australian Smith “has no one to blame but himself” for being unable to defend the title.
“Would it be great if the defending champion was here this week? Of course it would but he made a decision to go join a rival league.
“Because of that decision, that’s why he’s not here.”
World number five Smith is the first player to miss a title defence at Sawgrass for non-injury reasons.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan accepted that it was “awkward” that Smith was not playing but added: “Ultimately that’s a decision he made, and we’ve got an unbelievable field here this week and a history and tradition that one of these 144 is going to go seek to get.”
While McIlroy supports the PGA Tour’s decision to exclude LIV players from their events, he accepts that the upstart series has “exposed a couple of weaknesses” which he believes will be remedied by the changes that will result in the eight no-cut events having smaller fields and bigger purses.
Some PGA Tour players have criticised the changes which have been characterised in some quarters as the game’s already super rich stars – such as McIlroy – getting richer.
However, the 33-year-old world number three defended the PGA Tour’s shake-up which will come into effect for the 2024 season.
“This is just trying to fill the gaps in a little bit, trying to make the tour a little more attractive, not just for its players but for its media partners who pay so much money to televise these events, for the sponsors that pay so much money and for the fans,” he said.
“No-cut events have been around for ever. Tiger Woods has won 26 no-cut events in his career. Jack Nicklaus won 20.
“And if I go back to the fans part of it and the sponsors and the media partners, I think it would be nice for them to guarantee that the top players are sticking around for four days.”
World number one Jon Rahm has acknowledged the influence of LIV but he is not as supportive of the new PGA Tour regime, which will require players to be present for all the designated events.
“Without LIV Golf this wouldn’t have happened, so to an extent, we should be thankful this threat has made the PGA Tour want to change things,” he said.
“I am OK with sacrificing some of the freedom we’ve had until now for the greater good of the Tour. But 100% of our freedom, just being our schedule being told exactly ‘this is what you have to play’ was a big change right away.
“I would like to be able to have that freedom to still play what we want to play, I think that is necessary for all of us.”
PGA Tour won’t become ‘handout’ series
McIlroy insisted that next year’s changes will not mean men’s professional golf’s premier circuit becomes a “handout tour”.
“It will continue to be a merit-based system,” he said. “If anything we’re just trying to make the tour a little more competitive and a little more cut-throat so that the top players can really elevate themselves and identify themselves as the best players.”
Asked whether the divide between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf will mean there is a tense atmosphere at next month’s Masters, where players from both circuits will be in action, the former world number one replied: “I don’t think so.”
None of the four men’s majors are organised by the PGA Tour, so LIV players with exemptions for the Masters, such as former champions Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, are eligible to play at Augusta National in April, while Smith qualifies because his world ranking is still inside the top 50.
McIlroy, who will go to the Masters hoping once again to become just the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam of winning the four majors, added: “I don’t think it will create any sort of atmosphere.
“As professional golfers, we’re too focused on ourselves. We’re pretty selfish individuals at times.
“Are there guys there that I would have talked to before that I probably won’t talk to now? Yes but again you get into your own little world.
“There are plenty of players over the years that I’ve had to play with that I probably would have preferred not to.”