Welcome to the Monday Morning Rap, where we’re still mourning the US Men’s National Team loss. Those of you who follow me on that Twitter hell-hole know I’ve been pretty dialed into the World Cup since the onset. And while the November-December date of this WC isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s been perfect for us golf fans, for now is the supposed “offseason”—a time to dive into other sports while keeping a loose eye on tournaments that matter little to a player’s overall legacy.
Unless you are Viktor Hovland—then the fall is the time to head to some beautiful tropical location, hang out with Tiger Woods, collect a few million dollars and build a strong base-layer tan before heading back to Norway for the Christmas holiday. It’s what Hov did last year, when he denied his pal Collin Morikawa the world No. 1 ranking by erasing a six-shot deficit to win the Hero World Challenge. And it’s what he did this year, building a three-shot lead through 54 holes then holding off a challenge from Scottie Scheffler for an eventual two-shot victory.
The 25-year-old certainly didn’t make it easy on himself. Playing the final hole with a two-shot advantage, Hovland played safely away from the water that guards the left side of the 18th with his tee shot. It finished just over a bunker down the right, in the rough and with the ball way above his feet—any golfer knows that the tendency with that shot is to hit a high hook, and Hovland knew that too, and yet he still did it. Viktor was begging for his ball to go hard! Immediately after contact, and apparently he thought it listened, for his let out a genuinely shocked oh my god after it found the hazard. Scheffler could’ve put massive pressure by finding the green with his second, but he pushed his well right into a greenside bunker. Turns out he would’ve need to make birdie to force a playoff, for Hovland gamely got up-and-down for bogey to post a three-under 69 that actually gave him a bit of breathing room after Scheffler failed to get up-and-down for par.
"It's frickin nerve-wracking," Hovland said after a most tiresome bogey. "I was leading by five after the turn and you're just never that comfortable. I didn't play all that great on the back nine but it was good enough.”
Upon finding out that the only other player to go back-to-back at the Hero is one Mr. Tiger Woods, Hovland gave us one of those off-the-cuff answers that makes him so endearing: “That’s pretty badass.” He was then asked if the win could spur him onto great things in 2023.
"I guess we'll find out. The short career that I've had, I've tend to play very well later in the year and earlier in the year. The next goal is to try keep playing like this throughout the year. It's fun to end the year with a win and kind of sit on the couch for a couple weeks with a smile on your face."
As Viktor alludes to there, his triumph in the Bahamas continues one of the more amusing trends in world golf: that a man from Norway, who lives in Oklahoma, absolutely owns resort-style golf in idyllic locations when the rest of the world is cold. Hovland now has five wins in PGA Tour-sanctioned events. They are as follows:
—2020 Puerto Rico Open at Grand Reserve resort
—2020 Mayakoba Classic at Mayakoba in Riviera Maya, Mexico
—2021 Worldwide Technology Championship at Mayakoba
—2021 Hero World Challenge at Albany in The Bahamas
—2022 Hero World Challenge at Albany in The Bahamas
The man absolutely loves himself some wide fairways, Bermuda greens and ocean breezes. This latest victory caps quite a fortnight to end the year for Hovland, who a few weeks ago found out he’d won $2 million for finishing 20th in the Player Impact Program despite not doing any self-promotion at all.
“I haven't really paid too close attention to it, to be honest,” Hovland said early in the week of the PIP. “You know, I just saw my name on the list and I thought, hey, that's nice. But yeah, I don't know if I should have been 18 or 17 or 21. Yeah, I don't really know, to be honest.”
And, later: “I don’t look at social media all that often.”
He then cruised down to the Bahamas, where he shared a house with Morikawa for the week again, won Tiger’s event, banked another $1 million and jumped back into the world top 10 before heading back home for a few weeks. That’s the way to end a year.
The Saudis aren’t done spending on sports
Cristiano Ronaldo appears set to join Phil Mickelson as a past-his-prime legend who, in the dwindling years of his career, with his reputation teetering, has decided to take that Saudi cash.
Surely you’re familiar with Ronaldo even if you never watch soccer, but perhaps you’re not up to speed on the latest drama. Ronaldo is 37 and not the player he once was. In August 2021 he returned to Manchester United, where he shot to stardom, after spending nine years with Real Madrid and three more with Juventus. He had an excellent 2021-22 season but eventually fell out of favor with new United manager Erik Ten Hag, who prefers younger, more active strikers than Ronaldo’s poaching style. In mid-October, frustrated with his lack of playing time, Ronaldo refused to come into a game against Tottenham as a substitute and left the pitch before the final whistle. That resulted in a temporary suspension but, it seems, a permanent destruction of his relationship with ETH. He then did a sit-down interview with Piers Morgan where he said he did not respect ten Hag, that Manchester United has not improved its facilities since he left in 2009, and that the franchise’s American owners do not care about the club. The interview was widely seen as a way to get out of his contract, and it worked: United announced during the World Cup that his teal had been terminated by “mutual consent,” leaving Ronaldo free to join another club when he returns from his duties with Portugal.
While he clearly still thinks of himself as a top-level player, interest from elite clubs has reportedly been almost non-existent—which is why Ronaldo is thought to be seriously considering an offer from Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr that would pay CR7 somewhere around 200 million Euros per year in a compensation package that goes far beyond simply playing soccer: Ronald would also appear in promotional content and will be compensated for his commercial off-field worlk. Per Sky Sports, “the country (is) keen to make him an ambassador for the game there.” Al-Nassr’s chairman is Musalli Al-Muammar, who doubles as an adviser to Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the government’s General Entertainment Authority on sports affairs and internal communications in connection to the Vision 2030 platform. In other words, the guy making the offer has serious ties to Mohammed bin Salman and his mission to change the perception of his country through sport.
This is the Saudi sports playbook, and LIV Golf was just the first chapter: throw jaw-dropping sums of money at huge-name athletes, get them on board, and leverage their fame to change the world’s perception of the Kingdom. Soccer’s influence, of course, dwarfs golf’s around the globe, which is why Ronaldo’s deal will pay him 200 million per year while Mickelson’s was for 200 million over multiple years. Some reports Monday morning claimed that it’s a “done deal,” but Fabrizio Romano—soccer’s Adam Schefter, only if Adam Schefter was 30 years old and Italian—maintains that Ronaldo remains focused on the World Cup and won’t make any decisions until Portugal are finished in Qatar.
Should he indeed sign, Ronaldo and his representatives will likely concoct some statement that claims he’s excited for a new challenge, but in reality the entire world will know it’s a money grab. He’d be going from the most competitive league in the world, playing for perhaps the most famous soccer club on earth, to a side that plays its home games in front of 25,000 people and was only the third best team in Saudi Arabia. As I’ve said throughout this LIV Golf year, every individual is entitled to make their own decisions, and each person’s thinking is impacted by personal life experiences that we know nothing about. The purpose of writing this isn’t to judge Ronaldo but instead to highlight that Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions are not limited to golf, and that even someone as rich and accomplished as Cristiano Ronaldo—he’s on the all-time Mt. Rushmore of soccer and, as the most followed person on all of Instagram, surely isn’t struggling for cash—can be seriously tempted by the mind-boggling money the Saudis can happily offer.
The Hero Shot was actually very cool, and bodes well for golf’s future
One part of the Hero festivities last week caught my eye, and it wasn’t the 72-hole golf tournament. On Tuesday afternoon, some of the guys in the field participated in the “Hero Shot” exhibition, which was a pretty modest production: they basically just put a floating target into the lake that separates the 9th and 18th hole at Albany and had guys hit wedges from 87 yards toward the target. The closer they got to the bulls-eye, which was just a hole in the platform, the more points they got.
It shouldn’t have been as entertaining as it was. A big reason why it was so much fun was that Tiger Woods was mic’d up—but not in the normal way, where everyone around can hear everything he’s saying. This was more of an inside-the-NFL type mic up, where only the audience, and not the people around him, could hear Tiger’s every words. As such, he felt comfortable critiquing other players’ swings to his buddy Justin Thomas.
Here he was complimenting Max Homa:
He pointed out that Matt Fitzpatrick’s backswing might actually be quicker than his downswing:
Listening to Tiger Woods talk x’s and o’s and getting inside an all-time great golf mind will never not be compelling. That, plus the informal and chirpy way all the participants interacted with each other got me pretty excited for The Golf League, the tech-infused deal that Tiger, Rory, JT and Rahm are committed to participating in starting in 2024.
Of course, the reason we care about what these guys have to say is because of their excellence in traditional golf tournaments. If we didn’t watch them pull off high-pressure shots on huge stages on Sunday afternoons, no one would tune in to watch them hit wedges off a mat onto a floating target in the Bahamas. That is to say: there’s room for both in this game. There’s room (and a genuine necessity) for the ultra-serious competition that we see at majors and big-time events on tour, but there’s also room for shorter and different displays of top players’ talent that also show off their personalities. With the emergence of Top Golf, the return of made-TV matches, increased popularity of short courses and the push to play 9- or 12-hole loops, golf has displayed an admirable self-awareness and willingness to adapt in recent years beyond the 18-hole stroke play format. The Hero Shot wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it should serve as further proof that we can and should continue to broaden golf’s entertainment offerings.
Tiger echoes Rory, but Norman’s not having it
Tiger Woods fielded questions from media at Albany on Tuesday, and because Woods’ press conferences are so few and far between today, he has a pretty good idea of what he’s going to be asked. Woods was more than ready for his first question about LIV Golf, which he used to make a definitive statement in support of Rory McIlroy’s view that Greg Norman must step aside if the PGA Tour and LIV Golf are ever to make piece.
“I think Greg's got to leave and then we can eventually, hopefully, have a stay between the two lawsuits and figure something out,” Woods said. “But why would you change anything if you've got a lawsuit against you? They sued us first."
So you now have the world’s No. 1 player and the world’s most famous player calling for Norman, the face of LIV Golf, to get lost. You wonder if their goal is to sow some discord within LIV—perhaps there are some LIV executives who, behind closed doors, are wondering if things might indeed be better if they could replace Norman with a less divisive figure. Someone like Taco Bell CEO and former TaylorMade CEO Mark King, who was rumored to be interested in the position. And if LIV’s goal is indeed to strike a deal with the PGA Tour—as far as gaining legitimacy on the world stage, nothing would be better for LIV than becoming a partner with a major American sports league—surely Norman is acting as a roadblock in that effort.
Norman responded to Woods and McIlroy’s words in defiant fashion, and it almost seems that them wanting him to leave makes him want to stay even more. As has been the case throughout this entire year, this is deeply personal for Norman, who was humiliated when he tried to start a breakaway league in the 90’s and has not forgotten about it.
“I pay zero attention to McIlroy and Woods, right?” Norman told Today’s Golfer. “They have their agenda for whatever reason. They’re saying whatever they want to say. It has no bearing or effect on me. I’m going to be with LIV for a long, long period of time.”
LIV are now in an interesting spot. While calling for Norman to leave is the headline-maker, it’s worth noting that both Woods and McIlroy (and Jon Rahm, it should be noted) have now said on the record that their could be a path forward between the PGA TOUR and LIV Golf should Norman go. So now, if LIV keeps Norman at the helm, Woods/McIlroy and company and claim that it’s LIV and only LIV that are digging their feet in and refusing to compromise for the good of the game. Sergio Garcia picked up on this potential strategic move, and he’s not a fan.
“They say that Greg Norman has to go; and [PGA commissioner Jay] Monahan has to stay or go?” Garcia told Spanish newspaper Marca. “It’s very easy to say those on the other side have to go. And those on your side? There are also people who have done things wrong. You have to look at everything. Greg Norman is our CEO and we support him. We all wish we could come to an agreement. There are people who could have done wrong in both places, but it seems that there are only bad guys on one side.”
There’s been some speculation on social media that Woods and McIlroy’s calling for Norman’s ouster is part of some orchestrated messaging campaign by the PGA TOUR—suggesting that, basically, Tiger and Rory are mouthpieces for Ponte Vedra, and that Jay Monahan wants there to be pressure on Norman to get out of there. From what I’ve heard from sources at the tour, that’s not the case at all. Keep in mind that the PGA TOUR doesn’t feel it has any duty to work with LIV—“Coke and Pepsi don’t work together, do they,” is how one source put it—and, in one sense, actually having to form that most unusual alliance would amount to defeat for the tour. Plenty of folks inside the PGA TOUR view Norman as a gaffe-prone polarizing figure and believe that bringing in a more vanilla choice would actually benefit LIV, so why would they want him gone?
—The Official World Golf Ranking feels weaker than ever after Woods blasted it last week in The Bahamas.
"Yeah, OWGR, it's a flawed system,” Woods said. “That's something we all here recognize. The field at Dubai got less points than Sea Island and more of the top players were there in Dubai, so obviously there's a flawed system. How do you fix it? You know, those are meetings we're going to have to have.”
In other OWGR news, Brooks Koepka is guaranteed to finish the year outside the top 50 for the first time since 2013. Koepka was already sliding down the rankings before he left the PGA TOUR for LIV Golf and has continued to tumble down since.
—The QBE Shootout, which is this week in Naples, will convert to a mixed event with both men and women competing moving forward. Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press broke the news.
—Adrian Meronk dominated down under in winning the ISPS Handa Australian Open by five shots over Adam Scott. It’s the Polish player’s second victory in a national open this year after he won the Horizon Irish Open, a DP World Tour event, in the summer.
These last two weeks of tournaments down in Australia have blessed us with beautiful images of those beautiful courses down in the Sandbelt. I mean, how pure is this:
—You gotta love Tom Kim’s reaction upon learning that his home country, South Korea, beat Portugal to advance to the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Lot of golf and soccer crossover this week. I'm feeling it.
—We had Collin Morikawa on the podcast this week. I sat down with him for a wide-ranging one-on-one interview where we talked about his recent wedding, a disappointing year on the golf course, his putting education, the possibility of a Morikawa’s restaurant and so much more. I was buzzing after the interview until I discovered that I screwed up my audio, so shoutout to Alex Busch for a hell of an edit to make it even semi-listenable. Could’ve been worse, though: at least it was my audio that got messed up, not his.
—In an appearance in the Golf Channel booth, Tiger Woods told Dan Hicks and Paul Azinger that he tells his son Charlie to copy Rory’s swing, not his.
“Have you ever seen Rory off balance in a shot?” Woods asked. “Not ever. That’s one of the things my dad instilled in me, is that you should be able to balance and hold your finish until the ball rolls and stops. You can swing as hard as you want, but you need to have balance.”
That’s as high as praise can possibly get: Tiger Woods telling his own offspring to copy your move, not his. Charlie’s doing a pretty good impression of Rory’s swing these days. Tiger said that while Charlie has started outdriving him, he has yet to beat him over 18 holes.
—Tiger, Rory, JT and Jordan Spieth will play in the latest edition of the Match on Saturday. It’ll be a 12-hole match under the lights in Tampa, and all eyes will be on Tiger’s foot after he withdrew from the Hero World Challenge due to plantar fasciitis.
—Scott Vincent won the Order of Merit on the International Series on the Asian Tour, which gets him playing privileges on LIV Golf in 2023. That's quite the come-up, as he made around $500,000 in International Series events this year, and he'll make roughly $1.5 million next year if he finishes last in the individual competition of every single LIV event. Which, of course, he won't. And that doesn't include any team prizes he might earn.
—Starting Thursday, Barstool Golf will have branded gear in PGA TOUR 2K23. To get it, all you have to do is break 90. What a world we’re living in.
—And starting today, we’re doing 12 days of giveaways on Fore Play’s social media accounts—some from TaylorMade, some from Peter Millar and some from G/Fore. All you have to do is follow up, pay attention and follow the rules.
—The PGA Tour and DP World Tour added the Japan Tour to their strategic alliance, and there's now a pathway for the top Japan Tour players to get onto the DPWT. With LIV already having a deal with the Asian Tour, this keeps the PGA Tour apace in the battle to maintain a strong presence in golf in Asia
—We’ve got Harris English on tomorrow’s podcast. Great guy, great interview.
—I know I said this would be the last Monday Morning Rap of the year, but we’re going to fire up another one next week. You’re welcome.