James Piot, LIV Golf, and a reordered reality for golf’s next wave of amateurs

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Let’s start with the alternate reality. Because that’d be more believable. That’s where James Piot is a graduating fifth-year senior from Michigan State, a young man heading off to etch marks on the walls of early professional golf – spots in Monday Qualifiers, pursuit of his Korn Ferry Tour card, maybe some mini-tour starts . You would not have heard of James Piot. He’d be another name in the long line of knockabout drifters chasing PGA Tour dreams.

But that’s not how this played out.

Instead, Piot, all of 23 years old, is one of the more unanticipated characters in the extraordinary theater that is LIV Golf’s feral attempt to bulldoze golf’s industrial complex and unseat (or unsettle) both the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour (aka the European Tour). Those running the LIV Golf Invitational Series identified Piot as a strategic entrant in its upcoming eight-event season. He’s the defending US Amateur champion and carries some name recognition. It’s been speculated that Piot is receiving north of seven figures to participate in the tour, with figures thrown around anywhere from $ 2 million to $ 6 million. Piot, himself, says such “none of them have been accurate.” For this story, The Athletic couldn’t nail down the exact figure, but can report, via a source, that Piot is indeed locked in to play all seven LIV events leading up to the tour’s season-ending Team Championship at Trump National Doral, which he’ll hope to qualify for.

Regardless of whatever the figure $ are, Piot is about to receive a life-changing sum of money to participate in a highly controversial league being funded by the Public Investment Fund – an autonomous wealth fund controlled directly by the government of Saudi Arabia. On top of the guarantees, the events he’s playing in will pay out a minimum of $ 100,000 for three days’ work (LIV tournaments are 54-hole events), even for a DFL finish.

All of this for a recently-turned professional who posted rounds of 78-78-81-74-71-75-73-76-75-78 in five recent exemptions into PGA Tour events, including the Masters.

“For me, the offer was, you know, you’re going to play golf and you’re going to have status somewhere – so for me, I thought it was fantastic,” Piot said this past week, during which he missed the cut at the Memorial Tournament. “Playing with elite players in a team setting, not only are you with them, but you can pick their brains. It’s a time for me to play some good golf and develop. ”

James Piot’s 2021 US Amateur win at Oakmont gave him opportunities on the PGA Tour and now with LIV Golf. (Raj Mehta / USA Today)

It’s not Piot’s fault that he’s being offered gobs of money and status on a professional golf tour. It is, though, his decision to accept. To some onlookers out there, it’s totally irredeemable and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record make the whole idea a nonstarter. To others, it’s a clear-cut what-would-you-do? decision that’s both obvious and understandable.

But when boiling it down like that – so basic, so simplistic – what gets lost is that, in reality, Piot is a young athlete being put in a complicated, tangled (some might say impossible) situation. There are no draft picks in professional golf. Every career is self-made. Other than the very best, those Viktor Hovlands and Collin Morikawas, the typical road is unpaved and unforgiving.

Piot was offered a chance to play with established pros, get guaranteed starts and enjoy some early financial stability.

He took it.

How morally acceptable that is resides in the eye of the beholder.

What is without question, though, is that Piot represents a budding dilemma in the ongoing reordering of reality in golf.

The top amateurs coming out of college – previously the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour’s supply chain – now face the possibility of a very different, very lucrative option. How long will LIV last, who knows? But it’s here now and the Saudi bankroll is flush. At the very least, it’s a good bet this summer’s US Amateur champion and some other top juniors will be presented with the same opportunity as Piot. Most likely, so will those that come after, too.

What will those individuals do?

And what will the PGA Tour do to secure its sovereign affairs?

While long-established pros like Dustin Johnson and Kevin Na are heading to LIV with clear risks to their long-term PGA Tour eligibility, younger players who participate in LIV events are sort of going in with a left-handed handshake. Their status is not going to reside in some kind of debtors’ prison. During a manager’s meeting last Wednesday at Memorial, PGA Tour officials told player agents and managers that amateurs and non-PGA Tour members would not be penalized for playing on the LIV Tour. They will still be fully eligible to pursue status on both the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour, and remain eligible to accept tournament exemptions and participate in Monday Qualifiers.

So LIV will be a viable option, even if plenty of fans don’t want it to be.

This brings us back to Piot.

While preparing to play in the Memorial Tournament early last week, he knew the LIV field was about to be announced for the inaugural event in London (June 9-11). There was, he says, some anxiety, wondering what the reaction might be. His name raised some eyebrows when the full list dropped on Tuesday.

“The first night, it was tough to stay off social media,” Piot said. “The things people were tweeting. You know, people you don’t even know, making judgments, things like that. At the end of the day, I tell people that it’s about playing golf. That’s what I want to do with my life. It’s an opportunity. ”

It is, but it’s a controversial opportunity. Piot isn’t blind to that. Speaking with a couple of reporters on Friday, he leaned into his primary talking point.

“End of the day, it’s an opportunity to play golf and have status somewhere,” he said. “That’s kind of what I viewed it as. Obviously, money is a factor, but at the same time, it’s an exciting format and there’s an opportunity to learn from the greats. Being around those guys – there’s so many major championship winners, it’s tough not to learn and get better when you’re in that environment. “

While Piot, who grew up playing public courses near his hometown of Canton, Mich., Is listed as an amateur on LIV’s “roster,” he actually turned professional prior to playing at Colonial two weeks ago. In truth, he’s been a borderline professional since winning the Amateur. Not only did he come of age as the Saudi Golf League fell out of the sky, but he spent last season figuring out the new world of NCAA Name, Image and Likeness legislation. He’s played his PGA Tour starts in Michigan State golf shirts featuring logos for Lear (an automotive manufacturing company based in Southfield, Mich.), Barton Malow (a Michigan-based construction firm) and Carl’s Golfland, a local golf store chain.

All of this new-world stuff and everyone has been making it up as they go. Piot deems it both “crazy” and “stressful.”

It has been ever since last summer.

What’s most bizarre about Piot’s path is how easily it could’ve never happened.

All of this, see, traces its path to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, out by the Pittsburgh suburbs, to Oakmont Country Club. It was a Sunday afternoon last August. Thief. So hot. One of those white, hazy skies. Piot was out there, late in what appeared to be an impending US Amateur loss to Austin Greaser, a junior from the University of North Carolina. Piot was 3-down with eight holes to play. This was over.

But then Piot won the next hole. And the next. Then he became the first player since 2008 to win four straight holes on the back nine of the US Amateur championship match. He played the final eight holes of the match at 3-under. He won the 121st US Amateur, 1-up.

That was nine months ago. Here’s James Piot now: “Every once in a while, you get caught up in the process, and you have to take a second a look back say,‘ Holy crap, what? You know – like, I actually did this? ‘ It’s been a heckuva ride. ”

Ever since he’s carried the eminent title of US Amateur champion, that’s opened every door. His next exemption will be at the US Open at Brookline in two weeks.

This past week, meanwhile, was Piot’s last scheduled start on the PGA Tour. It was another window into a world he long dreamed of living in. On Thursday morning, he was on the Muirfield Village practice area chipping balls next to Jordan Spieth, his lifelong favorite player. A few minutes after Spieth left, a fan came by and asked Piot for an autograph, yelling, “Hey Jordan!”

“Sorry, unfortunately, I’m not Jordan,” Piot replied, smiling. “He’s a workshop.” Then Piot snapped a few photos with some other fans.

On Friday, Piot was in the final group finishing afternoon play at the Memorial. The sun was low, the crowd was sparse. He birdied No. 17, delighting a couple well-soused onlookers. Walking up 18, he tipped his cap as the group was introduced and his Amateur title was hailed. It all felt so very steeped in tradition.

Now, though, young James Piot is off to play seven events spanning Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia each with a total purse of $ 25 million paid out among 48 players. In his five career appearances on tour, he missed five cuts and never shot under par. His trip to the Memorial ended with a lipped-out bogey putt and a tie for 108th at 9 over.

That doesn’t matter much in this new world, though, does it? There’s a shark in the water and, for some, the most unexpected opportunities in the wake.

(Top photo: Rob Schumacher / USA Today)


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