The emergence of LIV Golf has made for some uncomfortable situations over the past 12 months, but few have matched the feeling of unease about defending champion Cameron Smith’s absence from The Players Championship this week.
It was a fact acknowledged by PGA Tour boss Jay Monahan, who conceded it was “awkward” that Smith, banned from playing after his defection to the start-up tour last year, wasn’t in the field.
But it’s not just Smith who isn’t playing.
Five of last year’s top-10 finishers at TPC Sawgrass have since move to LIV Golf, a group that also includes runner-up Anirban Lahiri, Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and Harold Varner III.
While Rory McIlroy said it would “absolutely” be better for the defending champion to play in the showpiece $37m event considered by many to be the “fifth major”, he basically said Smith in particular had made his bed and had to lie in it.
“Would it be better if the defending champion was here this week? Absolutely,” he said.
“But he made a decision that he felt was the best thing for him, and he knew that decision was going to come with consequences, and one of the consequences is right now not being able to play on the PGA Tour.”
World No.1 Jon Rahm said in normal circumstances a defending champion should always play, but this was different.
”Some players made a choice of going to a different golf league knowing that they weren’t going to be allowed to play here,” he said.
“And yes, this is a massive event. It is very close to a major, but it’s still a PGA Tour event. So with that regard, no, I don’t think just him should be allowed to be here.”
For his part Monahan, who has announced a sweep of changes to the PGA Tour in direct response to LIV’s emergence, conceded it was hard to escape the disquiet among many that Smith was not at the tournament when asked about it.
“Listen, Cam Smith had a great performance in 2022. He was a deserved champion,” he said.
“To answer your question directly, yes, it‘s awkward. But you know, 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.”
Smith joked he might even sneak into the tournament as a fan, given it’s played 10 minutes from his house.
But amid rumblings about a potential shift to allow LIV defectors like Smith back on the PGA Tour, should they want, Monahan was blunt, declaring his position “had not changed”, meaning it was unlikely.
“For some reason I’ve been hearing that a lot lately, and I’m not certain where that’s coming from. I mean, the players that are playing on that tour (LIV) are contractually obligated to play on that tour,” he said.
“I’m not a big fan of hypotheticals. But our position, to answer your question directly, has not changed.”
The irony of Smith being banned because of joining LIV as the PGA Tour introduced eight new $20m events, some with no cut, just like LIV, was not lost on Rahm though.
He said there was only one reason the changes were being made.
“Oh, it’s LIV Golf. I mean, without a doubt. Without LIV Golf, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“So to an extent, like I’ve said before, we should be thankful this threat has made the PGA Tour want to change things … I guess it is what we needed.”