Money Can’t Buy the Future of Golf

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BEDMINSTER, N.J.—The least interesting part of the most fascinating rivalry in business right now is that one side has roughly all the money.

Money isn’t the only weapon in corporate battles. It might not even be the most powerful one. Rivalries are won and lost by ideas.

And this particular fight is happening in an unlikely place over a question that has never been so fraught: What is the future of golf?

The rivalry that fractured a sport began when LIV Golf, a breakaway circuit fueled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund, splashed gushers of cash to poach members of the PGA Tour, the traditional organizing body of American golf. The saga continues with LIV’s event this week here at the private club of former President Donald Trump, who recently urged golfers to follow the money and sign with the foreign-backed venture.

It usually takes decades of vicious history and psychological scars to incubate a rivalry. It took LIV a few months to buy one.

“If this is an arms race and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can’t compete,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said last month.

But they aren’t. The PGA Tour’s best shot against LIV’s seemingly bottomless pockets is better strategy. Ideas are the most effective and the most affordable way of leveling the playing field.

There is something counterintuitive at the heart of so many clashes like golf’s civil war: What seems like an existential risk is really an opportunity for reinvention. Complacency breeds competition, then competition sparks rivalry, and rivalry kindles innovation. Ford and GM were driven to get serious about electric vehicles by the threat of Tesla, for example, but the auto giants have followed the lead of the upstart and now are zooming into the future.

Golf needed the same kind of pressure to freshen a stale product, and LIV has many ideas about making the sport more exciting. There is a team component in addition to the individual competition. Golfers begin simultaneously at different holes throughout the course rather than going off from the first hole. Tournaments are 54 holes instead of 72. (The Roman numerals for 54: LIV.) Some bets will pay off and others are gimmicky busts, but it’s an entertainment model that exploits the PGA Tour’s failures of imagination.

“Our product has spoken for itself,” said LIV Commissioner Greg Norman, who was known as The Shark in his playing days. “Park aside all the white noise. It’s worked.”

There are many people rooting against LIV for many reasons, and they are dismayed by what they view as early success. The skeptical hosts of the popular “Fried Egg Golf Podcast” gave their recent episode about the drama this delicious title: “We Regret to Inform You That LIV’s Golf Product Does Not Stink.”

The Tour left itself vulnerable to member defection and fan dissatisfaction by resisting evolution when it comes to how golf is played and, yes, how golfers are paid. LIV appears to be taking advantage.

“The Tour has long needed a competitive product that actually leads to some innovation and forces them to create a better week-in, week-out product,” said Andy Johnson, the founder of the Fried Egg website and co-host of its podcast.

With the Tour under investigation for potential anticompetitive behavior, its executives are limited in what they can say publicly, so I called Mr. Johnson because I figured he would have smart ideas of his own.

His plans for saving the PGA Tour start with leveraging its one massive advantage: talent. LIV has lured big names like Phil Mickelson, but the Tour still has the biggest stars, including 19 of the 20 top-ranked golfers. It also controls feeder tours that provide a pipeline to the next generation at a time when the best players are younger than ever before. And talent is more valuable than money.

If this were simply a financial brawl, the Tour would be in disastrous shape. LIV upended golf by dangling gobsmacking sums of guaranteed cash and tempting major champions with the promise of being paid more to work less. Many former Tour members accepted the offer despite knowing that strings attached to the money would drag them into political turmoil. LIV’s critics say the gilded enterprise is using golf to launder Saudi Arabia’s “horrible record on human rights,” as Mr. Mickelson put it before taking the deal. Others have danced around the topic of “sportswashing” since then, but Mr. Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton this week that LIV has been great for the Saudi global image.

PGA Tour executives have responded to LIV and golf’s peculiar form of inflation by shifting the calendar, cutting the size of the playoffs, announcing plans for smaller events with lucrative prizes for top players and fattening tournament purses.

But now the Tour is going to have to beat LIV on the golf course.

How things have always been done is not always the way they should be done. The PGA Tour’s calendar is so bloated that fans have a hard time keeping track of who is playing when—or why they should pay attention. It hosts tournaments almost every weekend with fields of 156, compared with LIV’s planned schedule of 14 stops for 48 golfers. To wrest back the sport, and to survive in an entertainment business consolidating around tentpole events and bankable stars, the Tour might have to look a bit more like LIV.

Mr. Johnson envisions a series of 15 to 20 tournaments a year that would put the best golfers on the planet in one place. Some could incorporate team elements. Others would benefit from tweaked formats and television experiments.

But the goal is sharpening its edge and enhancing the core product built around the Tour’s deeper roster of talent.

“They should try to create the most competitive golf league,” he said. “That’s where LIV is never going to compete with them.”

The history of rivalries suggests that ideas and talent represent a formidable combination—even when those ideas are not exactly original. One day in 1979, a young entrepreneur famously arranged for a visit to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, where he got a peek at the graphical user interface of a personal computer. This startup founder named Steve Jobs had a flash of insight that would change technology forever.

He understood that every invention is equal parts inspiration and ingenuity. A great idea requires tinkering until it becomes something “insanely great,” as Mr. Jobs described the Apple product born from his visit to Xerox PARC: the Macintosh.

“Picasso had a saying: ‘Good artists copy; great artists steal,’ ” he once said. “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Facebook and Instagram regularly mine TikTok and Snapchat and pilfer the features created to destroy them. They, too, are shameless about stealing. So was the National Basketball Association when it embraced a brilliant concept that began as a rival league’s promotional stunt: the 3-point line.

It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind as the LIV circus pitches a tent at Trump National Golf Club. In fact, the PGA Tour could start by studying that quote from Mr. Jobs.

It happens to be a perfect example of taking someone else’s idea and making it his own.