COLUMBUS, Ohio – Let’s start with the alternate reality. Because that would be more believable. There, James Piot is a fifth-year graduate of Michigan State, a young man on a journey to etching marks on the walls of early professional golf — spots in Monday’s qualifiers, the pursuit of his Korn Ferry Tour card, maybe some mini tour starts. You wouldn’t have heard of James Piot. He would be just another name in the long line of stunning drifters chasing their PGA Tour dreams.
But that’s not how it happened.
Instead, Piot, just 23 years old, is one of the more unexpected characters in the extraordinary theater that is LIV Golf’s frantic attempt to tear down the Gulf’s industrial complex and transform both the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour (aka the Europa Tour ). The LIV Golf Invitational Series organizers identified Piot as a strategic participant in the upcoming eight-event season. He is the reigning US amateur champion and carries some notoriety. It has been speculated that Piot will be paid a northern seven-figure sum for taking part in the tour, with figures ranging from $2 million to $6 million. Piot himself says that “none of them were accurate”. For this story the athlete couldn’t pinpoint the exact number, but can report through a source that Piot will indeed compete in all seven LIV events leading up to the tour-ending team championship at Trump National Doral, which he hopes will qualify for.
Regardless of what the $ number is, Piot is about to receive a life-changing sum of money to take part in a highly controversial league funded by the Public Investment Fund – an autonomous wealth fund directly controlled by the government of Saudi Arabia . In addition to the guarantees, the events he plays pay a minimum of $100,000 for three days of work (LIV tournaments are 54-hole events), even for a DFL finish.
All of this for a recently turned pro who has recorded rounds of 78-78-81-74-71-75-73-76-75-78 in five recent exceptions in PGA Tour events, including the Masters.
“For me the offer was, you know, you’re going to play golf and have status somewhere – so I thought it was fantastic,” Piot said last week, missing the cut at the Memorial Tournament. “When you play with elite players in a team environment, not only are you with them, you get to pick their minds. It’s a time for me to play good golf and keep evolving.”
It’s not Piot’s fault he’s being offered heaps of money and status on a professional golf tour. However, it is his decision to accept. For some viewers out there, it’s entirely irrevocable, and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record makes the whole idea a non-starter. For others, it’s a clear what-would-you-do? Decision that is both obvious and understandable.
But if you boil it down like this – so easy, so simplistic – what is lost is that Piot is actually a young athlete caught in a complicated, convoluted (some say impossible) situation. There are no draft picks in professional golf. Every career is self-made. Aside from the very best, these Viktor Hovlands and Collin Morikawas, the typical road is unpaved and unforgiving.
Piot was offered the chance to play with established professionals, receive guaranteed starts and enjoy early financial stability.
He took it.
How morally justifiable that is is in the eye of the beholder.
However, there is no question that Piot represents a burgeoning dilemma in the ongoing reshaping of reality in the Gulf.
The best amateurs graduating from college – formerly the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour supply chain – are now faced with the possibility of a very different, very lucrative option. How long will LIV last, who knows? But it’s here now and the Saudi’s bankroll is flushed. At the very least, it’s a good bet that this summer’s US amateur champion and several other top juniors will have the same chance as Piot. Most likely the ones that come after that too.
What will these people do?
And what will the PGA Tour do to secure its sovereign affairs?
While veteran pros like Dustin Johnson and Kevin Na enter LIV at significant risk to their long-term PGA Tour eligibility, younger players competing in LIV events come into the game with a left-hand handshake. Your status will not be in some sort of debtor’s prison. During a managers’ meeting at Memorial last Wednesday, PGA Tour officials told agents and managers that amateurs and non-PGA Tour members would not be penalized for playing on the LIV Tour. They remain fully eligible to seek status on both the Korn Ferry Tour and the PGA Tour, and are still eligible to accept tournament exceptions and participate in Monday’s qualifiers.
So LIV will be a viable option, even if many fans don’t want that.
That brings us back to Piot.
As he prepared to compete in the Memorial Tournament early last week, he knew the LIV field would be announced for the inaugural event in London (June 9-11). There was, he says, some concern and wondered what the reaction might be. His name raised some eyebrows when the full list was released on Tuesday.
“The first night it was difficult to stay away from social media,” said Piot. “The things people tweet. You know, people you don’t even know make judgments, stuff like that. At the end of the day, I tell people it’s about golf. I want to do that with my life. It’s an opportunity.”
It is, but it’s a controversial opportunity. Piot is not blind to that. As he spoke to a couple of reporters on Friday, he leaned forward to his main topic of conversation.
“At the end of the day, it’s an opportunity to play golf and have status somewhere,” he said. “That’s pretty much how I saw it. Of course money plays a role, but at the same time it is an exciting format and you have the opportunity to learn from the big ones. Being around these guys – there are so many big championship winners that it’s hard not to learn and get better when you’re in that environment.”
While Piot, who grew up in public courts near his hometown of Canton, Michigan, is listed as an amateur on LIV’s roster, he actually turned pro before playing at Colonial two weeks ago. In truth, he’s been a frontier pro ever since he won the amateur. Not only did he grow up when the Saudi Golf League fell from the sky, but he spent last season figuring out the new world of NCAA legislation on names, pictures and likenesses. He has played his PGA Tour starts in Michigan State golf shirts with logos for Lear (an automaker based in Southfield, Michigan), Barton Malow (a Michigan-based construction company), and Carl’s Golfland, a local chain of golf stores.
All this New World stuff and everyone made it up over time. Piot finds it both “crazy” and “stressful”.
That has been since last summer.
The most bizarre thing about Piot’s journey is how easily it could never have happened.
All of this, you see, traces its way to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, out in the Pittsburgh suburbs, to the Oakmont Country Club. It was a Sunday afternoon last August. Hot. So hot. One of those white hazy skies. Piot was out there, late in what appeared to be an imminent loss by the US amateurs to Austin Greaser, a junior from the University of North Carolina. Piot was 3-down with eight holes to play. That was over.
But then Piot won the next hole. And the next. He then became the first player since 2008 to win four consecutive holes on the back nine of the US amateur championship game. He played the last eight holes of the game at 3-under. He won the 121st US Amateur, 1-up.
That was nine months ago. Now here’s James Piot: “Every once in a while you get caught up in the process and you have to look back for a second and say, ‘Holy shit, huh? You know – like, I actually did that? It was a Heckuva ride.”
Ever since he held the prestigious title of US Amateur Champion, it has opened all doors for him. His next exception will be at the US Open in Brookline in two weeks.
Last week was Piot’s last scheduled start on the PGA Tour. It was another window into a world he had long dreamed of. On Thursday morning he was at the Muirfield Village practice ground chipping balls alongside Jordan Spieth, his lifelong favorite player. A few minutes after Spieth left, a fan came by and asked Piot for an autograph, shouting, “Hey Jordan!”
“Sorry, I’m not Jordan,” Piot replied, smiling. “He’s bigger.” Then Piot took some photos with some other fans.
On Friday, Piot was in the last group to finish the afternoon game at Memorial. The sun was low, the rush was sparse. He shagged No. 17 and pleased a few well drunk onlookers. Going 18th, he tipped his cap as the group was introduced and his amateur title celebrated. It all felt so steeped in tradition.
Now, however, young James Piot is playing seven events across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia, each with a total prize pool 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 in a lipped bogey putt and a tie for 108th place in 9 overs.
But that doesn’t matter in this new world, does it? There’s a shark in the water and, for some, the most unexpected opportunities in its wake.
(Photo above: Rob Schumacher / USA Today)