Arizona State men’s golf alumni have traditionally been as big a part of the WM Phoenix Open as its crazy costumes and inebriated fans. This year is no different with five former Sun Devils in the field. But it’s the ASU alums not in the tournament who are most conspicuous.
Six former Sun Devils have jumped to LIV Golf, most notably Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, who have a combined 64 PGA Tour victories. The five remaining Sun Devils in the Phoenix Open field have a combined five PGA Tour wins (three by Chez Reavie and two by Grayson Murray).
“The ASU presence, I feel like it’s not as much anymore,” Murray said of the Phoenix Open field.
But while LIV has drained the Sun Devil connection to the Phoenix Open, Arizona State coach Matt Thurmond said he does not believe it detracts from his program.
“While I appreciate everything that the PGA Tour does and has done, and I appreciate everything LIV is doing, I don’t have a horse in the race,” Thurmond said. “What I want is what’s best for our players.”
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 ASU’s team. But eventually the deal “got even better for him,” Thurmond said. So, Puig turned pro in a groundbreaking development for the upstart golf league. The young Spaniard paid his own tuition to complete his degree at ASU and still lives with three current Sun Devils golfers.
“Our relationship as friends, it didn’t change much,” Puig said.
Puig’s LIV decision foreshadowed the arrival of a far more famous Spanish Sun Devil in Rahm. The reigning Master’s Champion and world No. 3 player committed to LIV in a shocking reversal last December.
Like Puig, Rahm still lives in the Phoenix area. In his press conference before LIV Las Vegas this weekend, he expressed sadness at missing out on the Phoenix Open and said he hopes to play in the event again.
Rahm’s absence casts a shadow over the tournament, and the future of the PGA Tour. But the ASU alums 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 making his first PGA Tour start at the Phoenix Open. “He obviously just went to LIV, and I think it’s awesome for him.
“Make your money. That’s what it’s about. This is a job.”
The players did not believe that ASU alums on LIV were actively pulling other Sun Devils to the breakaway tour.
“I think it was just all on an individual basis,” said Reavie, who has played in 400 events on the PGA Tour since 2002.
Puig agreed that the ASU presence on LIV was not a major factor in his decision. But he did speak to Rahm about LIV before the two-time major winner made the switch.
“I don’t know if our talks helped or not,” Puig said.
Puig and Rahm played golf together frequently this past offseason.
“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.
While it has poached some of the world’s best talent, LIV still lags far behind the PGA Tour in popularity among fans. When both tours were live last Saturday, the PGA Tour received over 11 times more viewership than LIV.
A 2022 survey famously found that only 22.3% of golf fans approved of LIV. The league recently came under fire for allegedly threatening to imprison bankers that cooperated with the U.S. government 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.
“It’s not just ASU, it’s all teams,” Thurmond said. “These kids are really excited about what LIV’s 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, the Sun Devil presence on LIV could grow even larger in the coming years. Thurmond said he wouldn’t comment specifically on whether his current stars — including Wenyi Ding, Preston Summerhays and Josele Ballester — had already been approached by LIV.
“But I will say that they have had or actively have opportunities all the time,” Thurmond said.
Though the most famous ASU alums play elsewhere, the Sun Devils on the PGA Tour continue to have an impact. Rookie Kevin Yu posted two top-10 finishes in January, putting him inside the top 30 of the FedEx Cup standings. Yu accrued the second-best career scoring average (70.46) in ASU history during the Golfstat era, trailing only Rahm.
“One thing that stands out with Kevin is his ball-striking,” Thurmond said. “It’s pretty stunning to watch. He hits it as high and as far and as straight … as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Murray won the Sony Open in Hawaii earlier this year, earning his second career victory and first since 2017. He is currently seventh in the FedEx Cup race.
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.
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 scrambling to finish after heavy rain delayed the schedule, it will inevitably be a massive weekend for Sun Devils golfers.
“The golf program here has always been just a major part (of the university),” Thurmond said. “Golf is a really big deal here.”
King Jemison is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.