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It’s difficult to comprehend just how much the landscape has changed in the past 24 months.

When the world’s best made their way to Ponte Vedra Beach for the 2022 Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship event and the so-called fifth major, LIV Golf was – how do I put this politely? – a thing – but nothing concrete had been announced other than its new CEO Greg Norman.

As for potential big-name signings, the then PGA champion Phil Mickelson had been touted as the first to put pen to paper, but then Lefty’s soon-to-be infamous “scary mother******s” interview was leaked and everything was once again up in the air. Rory McIlroy went as far as describing LIV as “dead in the water” – not the kind of thing he would say lightly.

At Sawgrass, none of the players were asked about LIV Golf in the dozens of pre-tournament press conferences – not even Dustin Johnson, another player who had been heavily linked with a big-money move. Indeed, there were more questions regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than there were about what was at the time – and still is two years on – comfortably the biggest news in our sport.

The only question about what we were still referring to as the “Saudi Golf League” was saved for Jay Monahan as rumours swirled that any player defecting would be banned by the PGA Tour: Can you see lawsuits in the future?

“Listen,” he said. “Our PGA Tour rules and regulations were written by the players, for the players. They’ve been in existence for over 50 years. We’re going to keep moving forward as a PGA Tour and focus on the things that we control.”

Cam Smith
Cam Smith won The Players in 2022 – a few months before defecting to LIV. (Credit: Getty Images)

Four days later, Cameron Smith lifted what was the biggest title of his career to date – until he topped it with his maiden major at St Andrews four months later – while Johnson, Anirban Lahiri, Paul Casey and Harold Varner III all finished in the top ten.

Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson, who was still the Ryder Cup captain at this point, were also in the field at PGA Tour HQ.

All of the above would end the year as LIV Golf players with eye-wateringly lucrative and PGA Tour career-ending contracts.

It left Monahan and his team in the embarrassing predicament of not even having their defending champion at TPC Sawgrass in 2023, as the scrutiny and the spotlight intensified with every waking minute.

Fortunately – for the board, at least – Scottie Scheffler understood the assignment, rattling out four rounds in the 60s for a comfortable victory over runner-up Tyrrell Hatton and just the sixth time The Players has been won by five shots or more in 49 renewals.

Hatton, though, was another high-profile loss when he followed Jon Rahm to LIV Golf to form the new Legion XIII team.

• Rory McIlroy: Why I won’t join LIV Golf

• Viktor Hovland: Golf ‘devalued’ by PGA Tour-LIV split

So where does that leave this year’s Players?

It’s been a somewhat fascinating start to 2024 on the PGA Tour. From The Sentry to the time of writing, the winners’ circle includes Chris Kirk, Grayson Murray, Nick Dunlap, Matthieu Pavon, Wyndham Clark, Nick Taylor, Hideki Matsuyama, Jake Knapp and Austin Eckroat.

A wonderful array of talent, and a number of intriguing storylines – notably Dunlap becoming the first amateur since [NAME REDACTED] to win a PGA Tour title.

But golf is no different to any other product. Sex sells. And sex, in the case of our sport, is big-name stars.

Look at the list of winners for the same events last year: Rahm, Si-Woo Kim, Rahm again, Max Homa, Justin Rose, Scheffler, Rahm again, and Kirk.

Think back to that run. Fans were abuzz. Social media was alight. LIV Golf felt like an afterthought because those who followed the game at the top level were getting their fix. How many majors is Rahm going to win? How many majors is Scheffler going to win? The latter took home his first Players, then two weeks later he was putting the Green Jacket on his Spanish rival.

Forget Tiger vs Jack, we joked, in years to come we’ll be asking “Jon or Scottie?”

And oh how we laughed.

Rory McIlroy
Can Rory McIlroy compete again at TPC Sawgrass? (Credit: Getty Images)

But you all blinked and now golf’s future is looking very different.

And even the biggest tournament outside of the majors can’t escape. Scheffler will defend at Sawgrass this week, but there will be no Rahm. No Koepka. No Hatton. No Smith. No DJ. No Anthony Kim!

But let’s look on the bright side. There is still plenty for us to be excited for ahead of its 50th anniversary.

For every Rahm, we still have a McIlroy. For every Koepka, a Scheffler. And for every Hatton, a Fitzpatrick. And we haven’t even mentioned Viktor Hovland, Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth yet. Or Ludvig Aberg for that matter. Or Tommy Fleetwood. Or Xander Schauffele. Or Collin Morikawa. Or Rickie Fowler. Will Zalatoris! Tom Kim! Sahith Theegala! Min Woo Lee!

For all the millions LIV Golf will spend to take the game’s biggest stars on its sportswashing jaunt around the globe, there will always be plenty to be excited about. And you can’t buy history.

But – and it’s a huge but – these guys need to step up this week. Monahan, the CEO of the newly-formed PGA Tour Enterprises, and Tiger Woods, in his role as vice-chairman of the players’ board, need a big week.

Because, as it stands, The Players can no longer call itself “the strongest field in golf”. And, for perhaps the first time, it can kiss goodbye to the “fifth major” talk.

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Alex Perry is the Associate Editor of bunkered. A journalist for more than 20 years, he has been a golf industry stalwart for the majority of his career and, in a five-year spell at ESPN, covered every sporting event you can think of. He completed his own Grand Slam at the 2023 Masters, having fallen in love with the sport at his hometown club of Okehampton and on the links of nearby Bude & North Cornwall.

Associate Editor

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