SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Arizona State men’s golf alumni have traditionally been as big a part of the WM Phoenix Open as the crazy costumes and drunken fans. This year is no different with five former Sun Devils in the field. But it’s the ASU alumni not participating in the tournament that are most notable.
Six former Sun Devils have jumped ship to LIV Golf, most notably Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, who have a combined 64 PGA Tour victories. Mickelson once made 30 straight appearances at TPC Scottsdale.
The five remaining Sun Devils in the Phoenix Open field have combined for five PGA Tour victories (three by Chez Reavie and two by Grayson Murray).
“I feel like the ASU presence isn’t that much anymore,” Murray said of the Phoenix Open field.
But while LIV has taken away the Sun Devil connection to the Phoenix Open, ASU coach Matt Thurmond said he doesn’t believe it will detract from his program.
“While I appreciate everything the PGA Tour does and has done, and I appreciate everything LIV does, I don’t have a horse in the race,” Thurmond said. “What I want is the best for our players.”
The @livgolf_league the season starts today in Mexico.
Six @zondevilmgolf alumni are on six different teams.
Curious to see what this season will look like!
— Matt Thurmond (@MattThurmond) February 2, 2024
In 2022, Thurmond’s star player – David Puig – decided it was best for him to leave school early and join LIV. Puig now plays for Fireballs GC alongside Sergio Garcia.
“It got to the point where we felt like it was such a no-brainer for him,” Thurmond said.
Puig initially played in a few LIV events as an amateur while remaining on the ASU team. But in the end, the deal “became even better for him,” Thurmond said. So Puig turned pro in a groundbreaking development for the fledgling golf league. The young Spaniard paid his own tuition to complete his studies at ASU and still lives with three current Sun Devils golfers.
“Our relationship as friends hasn’t changed much,” Puig said.
Puig’s LIV decision foreshadowed the arrival of a much more famous Spanish Sun Devil in Rahm. The reigning Masters champion and world No. 3 player committed to LIV in a shocking turnaround last December.
Like Puig, Rahm still lives in Scottsdale. During his press conference ahead of the LIV Las Vegas event this weekend, he expressed his sadness at missing the Phoenix Open and said he hopes to compete in the event again.
Rahm’s absence casts a shadow over the tournament – and the future of the PGA Tour. But the ASU alumni still in the Phoenix Open field say their relationships with Rahm are unchanged.
“Jon is one of my best friends,” said Nicolo Galletti, a former Sun Devil who was making his first PGA Tour start at the Phoenix Open. “He obviously just went to LIV, and I think it’s great for him.
“Earn your money. That’s what it’s about. This is a job.”
The players didn’t believe that ASU alumni at LIV were actively attracting other Sun Devils to the breakout tour.
“I think it was all on an individual basis,” said Reavie, who has played in 400 events on the PGA Tour since 2002.
Puig agreed that ASU’s presence at LIV was not a major factor in his decision. But he did talk to Rahm about LIV before the two-time major winner made the switch.
“I don’t know if our conversations helped or not,” Puig said.
Puig and Rahm often played golf together last season.
“We have a lot of things in common, which is crazy because he’s a superstar, and I’m just starting my professional life,” Puig said.
Although it has poached some of the best talent in the world, LIV still lags far behind the PGA Tour in terms of popularity among fans. When both tours were live last Saturday, the PGA Tour had more than eleven times as many viewers as LIV.
A 2022 survey found that only about 22 percent of golf fans approved of LIV. The league recently came under fire for allegedly threatening to jail bankers who cooperated with the US government’s investigation into the planned merger between it and the PGA Tour.
But the ASU men’s golf team seems to feel differently about LIV than most golf fans.
— Sun Devil Men’s Golf (@sundevilmgolf) February 2, 2024
“It’s not just ASU, it’s all the teams,” Thurmond said. “These kids are very excited about what LIV is doing.”
The team aspect of LIV is particularly intriguing for college golfers, according to Thurmond.
With three current players ranked among the top 20 amateurs in the world, Sun Devil’s presence at LIV could grow even greater in the coming years. Thurmond said he would not comment specifically on whether his current players — including freshmen Wenyi Ding, Preston Summerhays and Josele Ballester — had already been contacted by LIV.
“But I will say they’ve had opportunities or are active all along,” Thurmond said.
Although ASU’s most famous alumni play elsewhere, the Sun Devils continue to make an impact on the PGA Tour. Rookie Kevin Yu posted two top-10 finishes in January, placing him in the top 30 of the FedEx Cup standings. Yu posted the second-best career scoring average (70.46) in ASU history during the Golfstat era, behind only Rahm.
“One thing that stands out about Kevin is his ball striking,” Thurmond said. “It’s quite impressive to see. He hits it as high and as far and as straight… as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Murray won the Sony Open in Hawaii earlier this year, earning his second career victory and first since 2017.
Reavie, Galletti and Jesse Mueller – also a volunteer assistant for the Grand Canyon University men’s golf team – round out the Sun Devils in the 2024 Phoenix Open field.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) February 6, 2024
With ASU playing in Hawaii at the Amer Ari Invitational, LIV playing its second event of the season in Las Vegas and the Phoenix Open rushing to finish after heavy rain delayed the schedule, it will inevitably be a huge weekend for Sun Devils- golfers.
“The golf program here has always been just an important part of the university,” Thurmond said. “Golf is very important here.”
King Jemison is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.