BANGKOK — Unlike many of the prominent players who are participating in the LIV Golf Invitational Series, Hideto Tanihara has no signed contract to play events, no commitment beyond the upcoming Asian events in Bangkok and Jeddah.
He’s here this week at Stonehill Golf Course, because three other Japanese players who ranked higher than him on the Japan Golf Tour’s Order of Merit are not.
Yuki Inamori, Ryosuke Kinoshita, Jinichiro Kozuma and Tanihara had played at Trump Bedminster in July and formed an all-Japanese team in the LIV format. They were all set to play in the LIV Boston event several weeks later—and then they were not.
There was a letter from the Japan Golf Tour that suggested Japanese players were being threatened by the PGA Tour; there was speculation that Japan star Hideki Matsuyama’s decision to decline offers from LIV Golf caused the new circuit to boot the other Japanese players from their tournaments.
Tanihara is back this week, the only Japanese player in the field, still confused about what all went down but mostly just wanting to play golf.
In an interview Wednesday on the driving range at Stonehill, a new course on the outskirts of Bangkok, Tanihara said Matsuyama’s decision had no impact on the other Japanese players. They were not banned from playing by LIV, but their situation was made more complicated by their loyalty to the Japan Golf Tour as well as their potential desire to play in PGA Tour events.
“When I heard the news [about not playing in Boston], it took the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and JGTO [Japan Tour] to talk it over,” Tanihara said through his interpreter and agent, Motoyuki Sudo. “There was even talk that one of the Japanese sponsors said they might back out of one of the tournaments on the Japan Tour [if players competed in LIV events]. So we had to back off for a while and have them talk it over, and it did take time to talk.
“We then didn’t have enough time to go play Boston or Chicago. So before [Thailand], things became more clear about the whole situation. That’s why I’m here.”
Tanihara, 43, is a 14-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour who has had a few forays onto the PGA Tour, none with much success. He has played in 15 major championships in his career, his best a tie for fifth at the 2006 British Open. The last major he played in was the 2017 PGA Championship.
He won twice last year on the Japan Tour and was once ranked as high as 47th in the world. But at 235th now, there are few aspirations of returning to the PGA Tour. Hence, his surprise at all the controversy surrounding his participation in LIV events.
“Basically, there are all great players playing,” he said. “I just don’t understand what is wrong with what LIV is doing. I am getting paid to play. Tiger [Woods] used to go to other countries to get an appearance fee to play. It’s kind of the same thing. We’re getting paid to play. Coming to LIV, we’re getting paid to play. So what’s the difference?”
Tanihara is not complaining, simply wondering. He had no idea that when he signed up for the first LIV event outside of London in June that it might impact his ability to play in the PGA Tour’s ZOZO Championship, which is next week outside of Tokyo. Same for January’s Sony Open in Hawai’i.
But in early September, the Japan Golf Tour sent a letter to its members explaining that in correspondence with the PGA Tour it was determined that any players who participated in LIV Golf events to this point “remain ineligible for all events across all PGA Tour–sanctioned tours through the end of the calendar year, including the ZOZO Championship.”
While this was initially viewed as singling out Japanese players, the PGA Tour maintained that it was the policy going back to the first LIV event.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan sent a letter to players upon the start of the LIV Golf London event that said those who played were “no longer eligible to participate in PGA Tour tournament play, including the Presidents Cup.”
He added, “The same fate holds true for any other players who participate in future Saudi Golf League events in violation of our regulations. To be clear, these players will not be permitted to play in PGA Tour tournaments as a non-member via a sponsor exemption or any other eligibility category.”
Tanihara remains puzzled by the last part. He’s not a PGA Tour member nor was he when he played in the first LIV Golf event. He was not assured of playing in any more beyond that, and while he is now aware of the PGA Tour stipulations even for non-members, he said that was not made clear before competing that week.
“Before London, we asked if there were any problems,” Tanihara said. “I was not a PGA Tour member. Even PGA Tour members weren’t told until after they teed off. Then in September, they told us we couldn’t play ZOZO and we couldn’t play Sony. That doesn’t make sense to me.
“If the Japan Tour had worked something out with the PGA Tour … unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
The Japan Tour announced last week that it was hoping to stay out of the fray, that it wanted its members to have avenues to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour while also allowing others to play in LIV events due to its association with the Asian Tour.
In a statement, the Japan Tour acknowledged that working closely with either the PGA Tour/DP World Tour or the LIV Golf League jeopardizes a relationship with the other.
“It would be to the benefit of the Tour members and the Tour itself for us to maintain a neutral position on this matter and to stay away from any political conflict,” the Japan Tour said in a statement.
For now, Tanihara will see where LIV Golf takes him. He’s in next week’s event in Jeddah but is unsure of his standing for the final event later this month in Miami, which is a team-only competition.
After all, his all-Japanese team has been discarded, and now he’s with a new one that consists of Joaquin Niemann, Scott Vincent and Jediah Morgan.