Golf-Smith headlines LIV Golf absentees at The Players Championship

(Reuters) – There will be some notable absences at The Players Championship this week but none more than defending champion Cameron Smith, who is ineligible for the PGA Tour’s flagship event after he joined the Saudi-funded LIV Golf circuit last year.

World number five Smith is the first player to miss a title defence at TPC Sawgrass for non-injury reasons and his absence was a common theme ahead of Thursday’s opening round in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

“To answer your question directly, yes, it’s awkward,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan told reporters on Tuesday when asked about Smith not being part of the 144-player field.

“But you know, ultimately that’s a decision he made, and we’ve got an unbelievable field here this week and a history and tradition that one of these 144 is going to go seek to get.”

Like all golfers who joined LIV Golf, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Smith has been banned indefinitely from participating in any PGA Tour events.

Five of last year’s top-10 finishers at TPC Sawgrass have since fled to LIV Golf, a group that in addition to Smith consists of runner-up Anirban Lahiri, Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and Harold Varner III.

While world number one Jon Rahm feels the winner of any event deserves the right to defend their title he was not about to lobby for Smith to be in this week’s field.

“We’re talking about different circumstances right now,” said Rahm. “Some players made a choice of going to a different golf league knowing that they weren’t going to be allowed to play here. And yes, this is a massive event. It is very close to major quality event, but it’s still a PGA Tour event.

“So with that regard, no… I don’t think just him should be allowed to be here.”

Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, who has been an outspoken critic of LIV Golf — where every golfer in a 48-player field is guaranteed a payday in no-cut events — was also asked to weigh in on Smith’s absence.

“Would it be better if the defending champion was here this week? Absolutely,” said McIlroy. “But he made a decision that he felt was the best thing for him, and he knew that decision was going to come with consequences, and one of the consequences is right now not being able to play on the PGA Tour.”

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Toby Davis)