The 25 most influential names in golf right now

Golf

The most disruptive year in the history of men’s professional golf is finally coming to an end, although the ongoing battle between the PGA Tour and the LIV Golf League doesn’t figure to come to a conclusion anytime soon.

During the past 12 months, Tiger Woods returned to the course, Phil Mickelson went into hiding, Greg Norman tried to settle his score with the PGA Tour, and Scottie Scheffler became a bona fide star. On the LPGA Tour, Lydia Ko returned to the top, and Nelly Korda and Danielle Kang endured health scares.

The PGA Tour resumes play at the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, Hawai’i, on Jan. 5. The LPGA returns at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions two weeks later. Until then, here’s a look at the biggest newsmakers in professional golf over the past year:

25. Danielle Kang

Kang’s 2022 season started with a bang, as she won the opening Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions and was runner-up at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio. But back problems caused her to play in only a few events, and her brother, Alex, revealed at the U.S. Women’s Open in June that she was playing with a spinal tumor. Somehow, she played through the pain and tied for 63rd. She missed more than two months while recovering, and finished second at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, losing to Atthaya Thitikul in a playoff. She finished in the top 15 in each of her past three starts.

24. Patrick Reed

Reed struggled to recover from double pneumonia in his lungs, which hospitalized him in August 2021. He had just one top 10 on tour before defecting to the LIV Golf circuit in June. Reed was part of the 4 Aces squad that won LIV Golf’s inaugural team championship. He earned more than $12 million in seven LIV events. His lawyer filed a $750 million defamation lawsuit against Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel and others in August. Reed’s allegations included that the defendants conspired “to destroy his reputation, create hate, and a hostile work environment for him, with the intention to discredit his name and accomplishments as a young, elite, world-class golfer, and the good and caring person, husband and father of two children that he is.”

23. Fred Ridley

Ridley made headlines last week when the Augusta National Golf Club chairman announced that any golfer who qualified for the Masters based on previous criteria, including those players competing on the LIV Golf circuit, would be invited to play in the tournament in April. While it was hard to imagine that Augusta National would ban past champions like Bubba Watson, Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Reed from competing, there was speculation that the club might alter its qualifying criteria to make it more difficult for other LIV golfers to get there.

Ridley’s statement contained pretty strong language about how LIV Golf has divided the sport: “Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it. Although we are disappointed in these developments, our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a preeminent field of golfers this coming April.”

22. Will Zalatoris

After so many near-misses, Zalatoris picked up his first PGA Tour victory with a thrilling finish in the first leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the FedEx St. Jude Championship. Somehow, he won a three-hole playoff against Sepp Straka without even making a birdie. He claimed a breakthrough victory after taking a penalty drop from the rocks surrounding the par-3 11th green and making a 7-foot bogey. Zalatoris was in contention at the BMW Championship the next week, but injured his back and hasn’t played since while recovering from two herniated discs. Ranked seventh in the world, Zalatoris already has three runner-up finishes in majors, including a playoff loss to Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship in 2022.

21. Max Homa

Homa won twice during the 2021-22 wraparound schedule, taking home the season-opening Fortinet Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship. It was a breakthrough campaign in many ways, as he won multiple times in the same season for the first time, qualified for the Tour Championship for the first time and made his initial appearance on the U.S. team as a pro — he was a captain’s choice for the Presidents Cup. He won the Fortinet Championship again in September, at the start of the 2022-23 schedule. Homa is one of the funniest golfers on social media, and he’s even better now that he’s a first-time dad. Homa and his wife, Lacey, welcomed their son, Cam, on Oct. 30.

20. Judge Beth Labson Freeman

Freeman is an avid golfer and has a posted handicap of 32.9. Former President Barack Obama appointed Freeman as a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of California in 2014, and she will preside over LIV Golf’s federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour, and the tour’s countersuit against LIV Golf, in which it alleges that LIV Golf interfered with its contracts with players.

In August, Freeman denied temporary restraining orders to three LIV Golf players, Matt Jones, Hudson Swafford and Talor Gooch, who wanted to come back to the PGA Tour to compete in the FedEx Cup playoffs. In her ruling, Freeman wrote that the plaintiffs failed to “even show that they have been harmed — let alone irreparably.” The trial isn’t scheduled to begin until January 2024, but with both sides squabbling over discovery and other matters, Freeman figures to play a critical role in how the sport evolves going forward.

19. Lydia Ko

After becoming the youngest winner in LPGA history and the youngest woman to claim a major championship, Ko won just once from 2017 to 2020. The former prodigy struggled with her confidence and her results hit rock bottom.

At age 25, Ko regained her stellar form this past season and played some of the best golf of her career, winning three times and earning more than $4 million on the course. In November, she won the CME Group Tour Championship and a record $2 million winner’s purse. She was named LPGA Player of the Year and won the circuit’s scoring title. Ko returned to world No. 1 for the first time since 2017. Ko is reportedly set to marry her fiancé, Chung Jun, in Seoul on Friday.

18. Tom Kim

Cameron Young was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, and deservedly so, but Kim might have been the most pleasant surprise of 2022. Playing as a special temporary member, Kim earned his first tour victory at the Wyndham Championship, which earned him full-time status and a spot in the Tour Championship.

Kim won the Shriners Children’s Open by 3 strokes over Patrick Cantlay and Matthew NeSmith in October. Kim, from South Korea, became the first player since Woods in 1996 to win twice before turning 21 years old. More than that, his outgoing personality won over competitors and lots of fans at the Presidents Cup.

17. Bryson DeChambeau

It was just two years ago that DeChambeau captured the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot and then threatened to slay Augusta National the next April with his newly found length of the tee (he finished 46th). Last year, his beef with Brooks Koepka made him one of the most polarizing players on the tour.

A wrist injury derailed DeChambeau’s spring and then he jumped to LIV Golf in June. Most of his headlines in 2022 were for off-the-course reasons, including being one of the most recognizable plaintiffs in a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour. DeChambeau also complained about the PGA Tour not paying him his full Player Impact Program bonus after he left.

16. Brandel Chamblee

Few media members have been as critical of LIV Golf as Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player and Golf Channel analyst. After LIV Golf’s first event outside London in June, Chamblee said: “So when I hear these players say that they are ‘growing the game’ … it makes me want to puke. They’re destroying the game. And they are destroying their reputations. … This is one of the saddest days in the history of golf. They are showing us that they are the greediest, most self-serving, self-interested, willfully blind players in the world of golf today.”

Reed filed a defamation lawsuit against Chamblee and other media members and outlets, alleging they are conspiring with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour to defame LIV golfers.

15. Yasir Al-Rumayyan

Al-Rumayyan, 52, is the governor of the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and Aramco, the state-owned petroleum company. Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman hired Al-Rumayyan to oversee the fund, which is reportedly worth more than $600 billion, and to invest in foreign companies and carry out the monarchy’s ambitions. Critics have called it “sportswashing,” including the fund’s massive investment in LIV Golf.

The Saudis were prepared to dump at least $784 million into its new sporting venture in its inaugural season, according to a LIV Golf news release earlier this year. But former LIV Golf president and COO Atul Khosla, who resigned this month, told ESPN that total expenditures have been much more than that. The Saudis are reportedly losing a lot of money on LIV Golf, and it might be up to Al-Rumayyan to decide how long the funding lasts.

14. Peter Dawson

Dawson, chairman of the Official World Golf Ranking, will oversee one of the most consequential decisions in golf. LIV Golf has applied for recognition from the OWGR so its players can receive ranking points for its events. The major championships and the Olympics use OWGR rankings to determine exemptions and fields.

LIV golfers didn’t receive points for their results during LIV’s inaugural season, and most of its players plummeted in the OWGR rankings. LIV Golf events don’t meet all of the traditional requirements for OWGR inclusion, including playing 54 holes, no cuts and 48-man fields. LIV Golf officials argue the OWGR governing board is biased because PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley and others affiliated with the PGA Tour are members.

13. Keith Pelley

Pelley, CEO of the DP World Tour, has taken heat for deciding to strengthen his circuit’s alliance with the PGA Tour in June. Like Monahan, Pelley attempted to suspend DP World Tour members who competed in LIV Golf events, including Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. The members received a temporary injunction to continue playing. Some players have criticized Pelley for turning the DP World Tour into a “feeder circuit” for the PGA Tour.

“I often get the question, why can’t we work with both the PGA Tour and the Saudis?” Pelley said before the BMW PGA Championship in September. “We tried. But the Saudis remain determined to set up a new series outside of the current ecosystem. That decision has created the conflict we see today, and we chose to partner with the leading tour in the game. Some people might not agree with that decision.”

12. Matt Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick had long been considered one of the most talented players in the world, and his breakthrough finally came at the U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, in June. Fitzpatrick carded a 6-under 274 over 72 holes, which was good enough to defeat Scheffler and Zalatoris by a stroke.

Fitzpatrick’s second shot out of a fairway bunker on the 18th hole in the final round might have been the best shot of the season. Fitzpatrick won the U.S. Amateur at the same course nine years earlier. He became the second man to win a U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open on the same course, joining Jack Nicklaus, who accomplished the feat at Pebble Beach.

11. Justin Thomas

Thomas won only once this past season, but it was a big one — his second major championship at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was his first major victory since taking home the 2017 PGA Championship. The come-from-behind win in May affirmed his decision to put Jim “Bones” Mackay on his bag full time. Mackay helped Mickelson win five majors during their 25-year partnership. That decision was nearly as good as Thomas getting married on a Friday night, instead of a college football Saturday during the fall.

10. Dustin Johnson

The former world No. 1 golfer pledged allegiance to the PGA Tour, only to do an about-face a few months later and defect to LIV Golf. The two-time major champion reportedly received a signing bonus worth more than $125 million, and he gave LIV Golf an early dose of credibility. He dominated the LIV circuit in his first season, winning the individual title and leading his 4Aces GC team to the inaugural team championship. Altogether, not including the massive sign-up bonus, DJ made more than $35 million in his first season with LIV.

9. Martin Slumbers

No head of a governing body in golf took such a hard line on LIV Golf as Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, which oversees the Open Championship. Speaking at the 150th tournament at St. Andrews in July, Slumbers told reporters that LIV Golf was “harming the perception of the sport.”

“I firmly believe that the existing golf ecosystem has successfully provided stable pathways for golfers to enter the sport and develop and realize their full potential,” Slumbers said. “Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prize money that’s offered to them. I have absolutely no issue with that at all. But there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

There were 24 LIV golfers competing at the Old Course because they had already qualified for the tournament. Slumbers vowed that the R&A wouldn’t ban LIV golfers from competing. The R&A is expected to announce in January or February what it plans to do in 2023.

8. Nelly Korda

Korda’s season was derailed by a blood clot in her left arm, which caused her to miss four months. She struggled to regain her form after returning but rebounded to win the Pelican Women’s Championship in November and return to current No. 2 in the world rankings.

At the QBE Shootout and PNC Championship this month, several PGA Tour players, including Homa and Jordan Spieth, raved about Korda’s swing. “I think I called her the Tiger Woods of the LPGA Tour at one point,” said Kevin Kisner, who played a practice round with her at the QBE Shootout. “She’s hit every shot just like she wants to for eight holes. Like does she hit a bad shot? I have no idea, I’ve never seen her hit a bad shot.”

7. Scottie Scheffler

Heading into 2022, there were questions about whether Scheffler, a former University of Texas star, could close out tournaments on the PGA Tour. Well, he more than silenced his critics during an epic six-start heater, in which he picked up his first victory at the WM Phoenix Open, won again at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and then captured his first major championship at the Masters.

Along with his first four victories, Scheffler finished second four times and had 18 top-25 finishes in 25 starts. Scheffler rose to No. 1 in the world after his match-play championship and earned more than $14 million in official purse money, becoming the first player to make more than $14 million in a single season. He is currently ranked No. 2 after Rory McIlroy. Not surprisingly, the soft-spoken Texan was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year by his peers.

6. Cameron Smith

When Smith claimed a $3.6 million prize at The Players, then the richest winner’s purse in men’s golf history, he seemed to reach the upper echelon of the sport. He had already won the Sentry Tournament of Champions and was one of the best putters in the world. He tied for third at the Masters and tied for 13th at the PGA Championship.

Then, at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews, Smith put together a stunning final-round 64 to win his first major. Two days after the season-ending Tour Championship, Smith, who was then the No. 2 player in the world, left for LIV Golf. Losing the 28-year-old Australian was perhaps the biggest blow to the PGA Tour because he was young, popular with fans and at the height of his career.

5. Jay Monahan

Monahan’s tenure as the PGA Tour’s fourth commissioner had been pretty smooth since he took over in January 2017. But Monahan has been dealing with a firestorm ever since Mickelson’s controversial comments.

Monahan suspended 17 PGA Tour members who played in the inaugural LIV Golf event, including Mickelson, Johnson and Sergio Garcia. They wouldn’t be the last to defect or be suspended. “We’re not going to allow players to free ride off of our loyal members, the best players in the world,” Monahan said.

He didn’t blink when Mickelson and other LIV players filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour. While Monahan might have prematurely said his tour was “moving on” from LIV Golf at The Players in March, he reacted swiftly and decisively to the building threat, with help from McIlroy and Woods, to create a series of elevated events for the 2023 season with increased purses to persuade the best players to remain loyal to the PGA Tour.

4. Greg Norman

Whether you agree with Norman’s methods or not, it’s difficult to argue that the two-time Open Championship winner didn’t do more than anyone to change, or disrupt, the state of men’s professional golf in the past year. It remains to be seen whether LIV Golf’s business model will last, but for the first time in more than five decades, the PGA Tour is facing a competing rival circuit.

Norman’s league, which is being funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and prides itself on being different with 54 holes, shotgun starts and four-man teams, proved what some fans already knew: Many golfers are motivated by money. Norman had a few missteps along the way, including describing the Saudi monarchy’s involvement Jamal Khashoggi’s murder as a “mistake.” Khashoggi was a Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident.

3. Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won three times during the 2021-22 wrap-around season, including the season-ending Tour Championship. Then he won again at the CJ Cup in South Carolina to become world No. 1 for the ninth time in his career. He came painfully close to ending his eight-year major championship drought, finishing second at the Masters, eighth at the PGA Championship, tied for fifth at the U.S. Open and third at The Open.

McIlroy’s most important work came off the course, as he became the most loyal supporter of the PGA Tour during its battle with LIV Golf. During a meeting before the BMW Championship in August, McIlroy and Woods rallied players to remain committed to the PGA Tour, which sparked significant changes. More than that, McIlroy was the conscience of a sport that desperately needed one.

2. Tiger Woods

The 15-time major champion started the year still recovering from serious injuries he suffered in a car wreck outside Los Angeles in February 2021. When news leaked on March 29 that Woods was playing a practice round with his son, Charlie, and good friend Justin Thomas at Augusta National Golf Club, the sporting world wholeheartedly celebrated.

The five-time Masters champion did play in the tournament he loves the most, and thousands of patrons followed him to watch every shot. He limped his way around the famed course and finished 47th. It would end up being his best finish in three starts in majors; he pulled out of the PGA Championship after 54 holes and missed the cut at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews.

The results weren’t great, but Tiger’s return was still the biggest on-course story in golf. His return to competition came at a time when the PGA Tour might have needed him most. If you needed further evidence that he’s still the most popular golfer in the world, he won the Player Impact Program for the second year in a row, despite playing in just three official tour events.

1. Phil Mickelson

The six-time major champion revived his career with a stunning victory at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, which made him the oldest major champion in history at 50. Then things quickly took a turn for the player once fondly known as “Lefty” in mid-February when his controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian monarchy were published.

During a telephone conversation with author Alan Shipnuck, who was writing an unauthorized biography of the golfer, Mickelson said he was willing to get involved with the Saudi Arabian backers of LIV Golf to gain leverage with the PGA Tour.

“They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck during a telephone call that Shipnuck said occurred in November 2021. “… They killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson faced immediate backlash for his comments, which delayed the LIV Golf circuit from getting off the ground. Longtime sponsors KPMG, Amstel Light and others ended their relationships with him. Callaway paused its deal. Mickelson went into self-exile, grew a beard and skipped the Masters and PGA Championship as the defending champion.

He was suspended by the PGA Tour when he teed off in its inaugural event outside London in June.

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