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LIV vs. PGA is a heavyweight battle for the soul of golf

Golfers Harold Varner lll (left), James Piot, Bubba Watson, Hudson Swafford, and Turk Pettit pose for a photo ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational Boston at Bolton International, which begins Friday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Imagine you’re at a boxing match. Cue the ring announcer.

In one corner, we present the champions of golf as we know it, the familiar gatekeeper to the game’s tradition and history, the PGA Tour.

In the opposite corner, we present an upstart challenger from across the world, a boisterous and wealthy new tour looking to upend that status quo, LIV Golf.

It’s a heavyweight battle for the soul of the game — the old ways and old money of the PGA versus the bold changes and Saudi-backed blood money of the LIV tour, an ongoing fight that has cleaved this sport in two, leaving no easy answer as to where it all goes from here.

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The endgame is anyone’s guess, but the next round of the fight is impossible to miss, stopping on our doorstep with the LIV Golf Invitational Boston taking place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at The International in Bolton.

Just days after the PGA officially closed out its season with a dramatic and lucrative end to the FedEx Cup playoff series in Atlanta, and just months after Boston hosted one of the sport’s crown jewels with the US Open at The Country Club in Brookline, it’s LIV’s turn in the ring.

Can their brand of the game — “Golf, only louder,” they call it — deliver a knockout punch?

It’s the PGA’s familiar four days of competition with a cut after two rounds versus LIV’s three days of no-cut play, a distinction that actually inspired LIV’s name, representing the Roman numeral for 54, as in 54 holes.

It’s the PGA’s daylong tee times that welcome Mother Nature’s whims into the competitive equation versus LIV’s shotgun starts that aim to take her out of play.

It’s the PGA’s individual players fighting only for themselves versus LIV’s team element that raises the stakes.

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It’s the difference in prize payouts, with the PGA’s earn-to-win tradition versus LIV’s guaranteed payouts and lucrative upfront contracts.

And it’s the money, with the PGA’s notoriously tight purse strings forced open in the face of the bottomless pockets of LIV.

“What it’s done to the world of men’s professional golf is ripped it apart, which is unfortunate,” Rory McIlroy said after his Tour Championship win in Atlanta. “I think there are ways to mend that and bring it back together. But with everything else that’s going on right now, I don’t see that happening anytime in the future.”

Rory McIlroy, who has become the face of the PGA Tour's resistance to the LIV series, won the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta last weekend.Sam Greenwood/Getty
Each side scores points

The fight is on, with a flurry of punches that hasn’t stopped since the game was split by the controversial arrival of the renegade tour. Since LIV debuted June 9 in London, the ongoing and often contentious news cycle seemingly declares alternate winners of rounds.

The PGA just scored big with the finish of the FedEx Cup, not only with the way that McIlroy dramatically outdueled Scottie Scheffler by erasing a six-shot Sunday deficit but that it was McIlroy himself — the man who has emerged, alongside Tiger Woods, as the PGA’s fiercest defender. Woods, whose 46 years and surgically repaired body limit him to rare competitive appearances, flew to Delaware prior to the penultimate FedEx event expressly to bolster PGA support.

From the beginning of the split, points in the court of public opinion went largely to the PGA, which quickly claimed the moral high ground in the wake of the human rights record of a Saudi Arabian regime that is investing billions of dollars into the LIV tour. But other weeks went its way, too, like prevailing in a lawsuit in which LIV players sued to compete in the FedEx Cup, and the recent announcement of new competitive and pay structures within the existing tour. Or even the most recent report that Japanese star and former Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama will stay with the PGA Tour.

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Pick another week, however, and rounds have gone the way of LIV, when it reminds the world that no sport has its hands clean of controversy, when it lures yet more top players from the PGA’s ranks such as world No. 2 Cameron Smith of Australia, the reigning British Open champion, or Americans Cameron Tringale and Harold Varner III, or as it preps for a second, full season that will feature 12 franchises in international locations.

Former PGA Tour star Greg Norman (second from right) is the CEO of LIV Golf. He was with (left to right) Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, former President Donald Trump, and Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of Golf Saudi, at an LIV tournament in Bedminster, N.J., in July.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

This much is clear: While the calendar may indicate that summer is winding down, the summer of golf’s discontent shows no signs of cooling off. The heat is on because LIV, with its deep pockets, bold ideas, and roster of defectors who followed Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman, has emerged as a legitimate threat and because the PGA, with stalwart defenders like Woods and McIlroy, is fighting back.

“Guys that are thinking one way or the other, honestly, I don’t care one way or the other, it doesn’t matter to me if they leave,” McIlroy said. “But I would like them to be completely informed; I don’t want people to make decisions after hearing only from one side.

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“Guys can do whatever they want, make the decision that is best for themselves and families; I just want them to make it based on all of the facts.”

Trading verbal blows

McIlroy’s conciliatory tone is not always echoed by others, and it’s most likely representative of a grudging acceptance that LIV isn’t going away. From the earliest rumblings and rumors of the new league’s arrival to the rantings and rage over charter member Mickelson’s ham-handed admissions about the controversial Saudi Arabian investment fund that would pay for it, there were times when it felt as if LIV would not happen.

The times when McIlroy called it “dead in the water,” or tour members such as Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau publicly stated their loyalty to the PGA only to later bolt for multimillion-dollar contracts with LIV. The time when Norman, the driving force of creation behind an idea he’s been pushing for the better part of 30 years, dismissed a question about the Saudi’s reported involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying, “We all make mistakes.”

Or, of course, the time PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan unilaterally declared that any player competing for LIV would be automatically suspended from the PGA Tour, a stance he tersely and unequivocally stood by in East Lake, answering a question as to whether he could see the potential future return of LIV players with a simple, “No.”

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Asked why not, he said, “They’ve joined the LIV Golf Series and they’ve made that commitment. For most of them, they’ve made multiyear commitments. As I’ve been clear throughout, every player has a choice, and I respect their choice, but they’ve made it. We’ve made ours. We’re going to continue to focus on the things that we control and get stronger and stronger.”

Phil Mickelson, a six-time major winner, was in the field when the LIV series kicked off with an event outside London in June. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

With the fourth of seven scheduled regular-season LIV events (followed by a team championship finale) ready to tee off, the new organization is ready to punch back. Comments range from an official statement in response to the PGA changes Monahan announced last Wednesday — “LIV Golf is clearly the best thing that’s ever happened to help the careers of professional golfers” — to the perhaps less snarky but more outraged reaction of Lee Westwood, now an LIV golfer, who told Golf Digest:

“I laugh at what the PGA Tour players have come up with. It’s just a copy of what LIV is doing. There are a lot of hypocrites out there. They all say LIV is ‘not competitive.’ They all point at the no-cut aspect of LIV and the ‘short fields.’ Now, funnily enough, they are proposing 20 events that look a lot like LIV.

“Hopefully, at some point they will all choke on their words. And hopefully, they will be held to account as we were in the early days.”

The fight is on

Each side believes in what it has to sell. For McIlroy, Woods et al, sticking with the PGA means sticking with the world’s best competition. The PGA Tour is still the only route to the real crown jewels of golf, the four major titles at the Masters, the PGA, the US Open, and the British Open. The PGA Tour is the place of history, of Jack Nicklaus, of Arnold Palmer, of Tiger Woods.

“Everyone is trying to make it to the top level of professional golf, which is the PGA Tour,” McIlroy said. “In the end, the PGA Tour is going to do what they’re going to do, LIV are going to do what they are going to do, and at this point, Jay said it best, that the PGA Tour is trying to control what they can control and put forward the best product for people to tune into.”

Those were the ideas Monahan pushed at the start of East Lake, announcing the changes that include a top tier of events within the existing schedule that will feature the game’s highest-ranked players, a guarantee those top players will come together in 20 events a year, guaranteed money for rookies, and higher payouts to more golfers from the Player Impact Program, which rewards engagement with fans as well as finishes and rankings.

Throw in an official partnership with Woods and McIlroy on a new “Monday Night Football”-type skills competition and it’s impossible to ignore how much the changes echo so much of what LIV purports to be.

Golf, only louder — LIV’s official tagline. A golf tournament, yes, but one that starts with an actual countdown clock. The fight is on, with the next round coming to a golf course near you.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her @Globe_Tara.