McIlroy: LIV defectors shouldn't face punishment

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Following the recent departures of Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton to the LIV Golf League, Rory McIlroy said Tuesday he’s “done trying to change people’s minds” about remaining on the PGA Tour and now believes there should be no punishment for its defectors.

“If people still have eligibility on this tour and they want to come back and play or you want to try and do something, let them come back,” said McIlroy, who’s taken a far-less critical stance against LIV in recent months after being one of the PGA Tour’s most outspoken loyalists. “I think it’s hard to punish people. I don’t think there should be a punishment.”

Those comments differed from what McIlroy said in June, when he noted that “the people that left the PGA Tour (for LIV) irreparably harmed this tour” and thus should have “consequences to actions.”

McIlroy resigned from the PGA Tour policy board in November. This week, he’s preparing to make his PGA Tour season debut at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as an expected deal between the tour, the Strategic Sports Group investment consortium and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia looms over the future of professional golf.

The PGA Tour is close to finalizing a deal with SSG — a consortium of billionaire team owners that includes Tom Werner and John Henry (Boston Red Sox), Arthur Blank (Atlanta Falcons) and Wyc Grousbeck (Boston Celtics) — that would infuse at least $3 billion into PGA Tour Enterprises. The PGA Tour then would focus on finalizing its deal with the PIF and DP World Tour, sources told ESPN’s Mark Schlabach.

“I feel like this thing could have been done with months ago,” said McIlroy, who added he’s no longer involved in any decision-making and doesn’t regret resigning from his position on the policy board. “Should I have never been on the board? I think so … I just didn’t feel like I could influence things the way I wanted to and I felt like I was just banging my head against the wall and it was time for me to step off and kind of concentrate on my own stuff.”

While any agreement remains unsigned, LIV continues to poach players from the PGA Tour, the latest being Hatton on Tuesday ahead of LIV’s season opener in Mexico later this week. Hatton, ranked 16th in the world, had been in the Pebble Beach field before withdrawing and also was part of McIlroy’s team (Boston Common) on the new, tech-infused TGL, which only includes players on the PGA Tour.

McIlroy said he spoke at length Sunday with Hatton and understood his decision to leave for LIV given the life-changing financial compensation it continues to offer players. (The Telegraph of London reported Monday that Hatton received a deal worth about $60 million after officials made a late push for him to sign.)

However, McIlroy said his approach to such conversations with fellow players has changed from a year ago, as has his opinion on whether any returning ones should be punished.

“We’re potentially about to do a deal with PIF, who owns the large majority of LIV, and hopefully seeing things come back together here at some point,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I changed my tune on [punishments] because I see where golf is and I see that having a diminished PGA Tour and having a diminished LIV Tour or anything else is bad for both parties.”

When asked if winning a signature event at Pebble this week or the upcoming Genesis Invitational at Rivera Country Club is “cheapened” by the absence of players like Rahm and Hatton, McIlroy said it would be.

“I’d like to win here and stand up with a trophy on 18 green and know that I’ve beaten all the best players in the world,” McIlroy said. “The faster that we can all get back together and start to play and start to have the strongest fields possible, I think is great for golf.”

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