JERSEY CITY, NJ — Fred Couples, who has captained three US Presidents Cup teams to victory, is leading a different kind of team this week at Liberty National, hard against the Hudson River off Lower Manhattan. His charge this time: Team USA in the Icon Series, a new event that pits 12 golf-mad American athletes against their counterparts from around the world.
Couples has some strategies to make before games begin in earnest Thursday morning: Should he pair former NFL running backs Reggie Bush and Marshall Faulk, for example, or would he be better off crossing athletes from different sports, pairing, say, former MLB pitcher John Smoltz with college golfer JR Smith. Decisions decisions…
Unfortunately, as Couples walked the property with a reporter Wednesday, the former Masters champion was pondering other decision, one that has dominated the golf news cycle in recent weeks: the choice that many of his fellow PGA Tour players have made to sever ties with the PGA Tour and sign lucrative deals with the new LIV Golf series funded by Saudi Arabia.
As Couples walked onto the course under a sun-dappled sky, one of his Icon players caught up with him: 28-time Olympic medalist and avowed golf fan Michael Phelps.
“Let me ask you a question,” Couples told the swimming legend. “You win the LA Open or a LIV [event] — LA, you get a million nine, LIV you get four [million]. Which trophy would you rather have in your house?
“For me,” Phelps said, “I want to go out there and be a part of history, and try to recreate history. That’s what it was all about.”
“You know what,” Couples said, “here’s a guy who’s made a million [swimming] events and said it right on the button.”
Couples, as you’ve probably figured out by now, is a PGA Tour loyalist, legacy guy. He’s not opposed to the change or improvement, but says he’s “disappointed” that players have jumped ship for LIV. He has made it clear in a few tweets he has posted in the last two months: “Great to see real exciting golf being played in Canada this weekend.” tweeted after the Canadian Open last month, a cheeky shot at that week’s LIV Golf event in London, but on Wednesday Couples laid out in no uncertain terms his feelings about the rival tour and the PGA Tour stars they’ve signed, at least some of whom Couples has captained, or captained against, in past team events.
First, Couples said, he is uncomfortable with LIV’s financial backers: the Saudi government, which has been accused of various human rights atrocities.
“I think this is something familiar to me,” Couples said. “I’m a small farmhand from Seattle, but I know where the money comes from and I think my family would disown me if I went. Of course, it’s easy for me to say because I’m not going, so I can tell you whatever I want.”
The same can’t be said for players who have signed with LIV, Couples said. They have basically been gagged, he said, which has been evident at news conferences.
“These guys, you’ve seen their interviews, right?” The couples said. “Have you ever seen Phil look so stupid in his life? They know it’s a joke.”
Couples was referring to Phil Mickelson’s two most recent press conferences, one at the debut LIV event in London and the other at the US Open, in which Mickelson, in the eyes of many observers, delivered a series of inadequate answers. when trying to explain or rationalize his LIV allegiance.
On Tuesday of this week, at LIV’s second event near Portland, Oregon, more LIV signatories faced the press, including a trio of the new big names: Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Pat Perez. Sitting together on a dais at a joint news conference, the players faced a predictable line of questions from the assembled reporters, including queries about human rights issues in Saudi Arabia, what convinced the players to join LIV and whether the PGA Tour could have done something to prevent players from leaving. As the questions kept coming in, the mood in the room became more and more tense.
“I heard from all the people that Perez was a little confrontational,” Couples said of the three-time PGA Tour winner. “He is a grain of sand in this Tour. He should be soft and kind, but he’s kind of raising his voice. I’m done with that.”
The couples also questioned the long-term viability of LIV. He said he understands that tour organizers aren’t looking for a quick win, but he’s still confused by the huge sums they offer players.
“ME can not they think they can pay a guy $150 million for thatCouples said; LIV players are required to play just eight 54-hole events in 2022 with plans to expand the schedule in 2023 and beyond. “What, Phil wouldn’t have gone for 100 and Dustin [Johnson] for 70? So what does that tell you over there?
The reasons players have cited for signing with LIV also ring hollow for Couples. Many players have said that the lighter schedule is a draw; some have admitted that their life-changing payday was too tempting to resist; others have said that they are simply trying to help “grow the game”.
“Everyone is saying they want to change golf, they’re doing it to make golf better,” Couples said. “No one has said, ‘Hey, when I look back 50 years from now… we’ll have done this tour [what it is].’ No one has said that. You know why? Because they won’t exist in three years.”
For his part, Mickelson has said he is committed to LIV for at least two years. At that point, he will be almost 54 years old and will presumably still be a major draw. If the largely positive reception to him at the US Open last month was any indication, Mickelson is still in good shape for golf fans. Less clear is whether Mickelson’s peer group on Tour feels the same way.
Couples is 10 years older than Mickelson, but they have met in hundreds of tournaments and have established themselves as two of the most beloved players of their generation. In 2006, they played together in the Masters final pair; when Mickelson won his second green jacket that Sunday, he and Couples embraced on the 18th green. Just last year, Couples and Mickelson were vice captains of Steve Stricker’s US Ryder Cup-winning team at Whistling Straits. They have had good times together.
“I don’t think I’ll ever talk to him again,” Couples said. “What for? I’m not in the same boat as him anymore, and I’ll probably never play golf with him again. I’m not saying that to be mean. We’re just in different orbits.”