The 25 most influential people in golf in 2023

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

It was another wild year in professional golf, with the best players in the world still competing on rival tours in the men's game.

In June, there was a stunning alliance announced between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund. But the framework agreement didn't prevent one of the sport's biggest names -- Jon Rahm -- from jumping to the LIV Golf League.

Spain's Rahm, Germany's Bernhard Langer and American Lilia Vu kept winning. Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka bounced back, while Rose Zhang and Michael Block burst onto the scene.

Here's a look at the biggest newsmakers in golf in 2023:

1. Jay Monahan

The embattled PGA Tour commissioner signed a framework agreement on June 6 to form a new company, PGA Tour Enterprises, that will combine the golf commercial assets of the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and the PIF, including the rival LIV Golf League.

Monahan agreed to the alliance without telling his own tour's members, even those who are player directors on the PGA Tour policy board. Eight days after the announcement, Monahan took a leave of absence to focus on his mental health and an undisclosed medical condition. He returned to work on July 17.

2. Yasir Al-Rumayyan

Al-Rumayyan is the governor of the Public Investment Fund, which had about $778 billion in assets coming into the year. In addition to funding the LIV Golf League for more than $2 billion annually, PIF would invest an additional $3.5 billion in PGA Tour Enterprises if a deal is reached.

The framework agreement between the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and the PIF is set to expire Dec. 31. The deal could be extended, sources have told ESPN, but Al-Rumayyan might decide if the fractured sport comes back together, or if the best players in the world will continue to compete on rival circuits.

3. Jon Rahm

The Spaniard became the biggest PGA Tour name to jump to the LIV Golf League when he signed a multiyear contract worth more than $300 million on Dec. 7. Rahm, 29, won four times this year, including his second major championship at the Masters in April.

Rahm's defection especially stung the PGA Tour because he had voiced his dislike of LIV Golf's 54-hole format in the past and said he wanted to build his legacy by winning tournaments that greats like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had captured before him.

4. Rory McIlroy

McIlroy had a pretty good year on the golf course, winning the Hero Dubai Desert Classic on the DP World Tour in January and the Genesis Scottish Open in July. He finished in the top 10 in three of the four majors, including solo second at the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.

It can be argued that McIlroy made far more headlines off the course this past year. After missing the cut at the Masters, which he needs to win to complete the career grand slam, he skipped a scheduled start at the RBC Heritage to reset. It was his second missed designated event of the season, causing McIlroy to lose $3 million of his Player Impact Program bonus from 2022.

The Northern Irishman carried a lot of water for the PGA Tour and was a vocal critic of LIV Golf. After the surprising alliance was announced, McIlroy said he felt like a sacrificial lamb. Then, at the Ryder Cup in Italy in October, McIlroy had a dustup with U.S. caddie Joe LaCava on the 18th green. That disagreement caused McIlroy to scream at caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay in the parking lot.

McIlroy resigned as a player director on the PGA Tour's policy board on Nov. 14.

5. Tiger Woods

The 15-time major champion made only two starts in official PGA Tour events this year because of injuries. He tied for 45th at The Genesis, a tournament he hosts at Riviera Country Club outside Los Angeles, and then withdrew during the third round of the Masters in April because of severe pain in his right foot and ankle.

Two weeks after the Masters, Woods announced he had undergone another surgery to address post-traumatic arthritis in his right ankle that was caused by injuries suffered in a February 2021 car wreck. The procedure helped the pain go away, according to Woods, but mobility in his ankle was greatly reduced.

On Aug. 1, Woods joined the PGA Tour policy board for the first time in his career. He is intimately involved in the negotiations between the tour and the PIF. Woods and McIlroy are also helping develop the TGL, a tech-infused golf league, which was forced to delay its launch until 2025 because of damage to its arena in Florida that was going to take too long to repair.

On Nov. 30, Woods returned to action at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, more than seven months after the surgery. He said the pain in his foot and ankle were gone. He finished 18th in the 20-man field. Woods said he felt good enough that he hoped to play one tournament a month in 2024.

6. Brooks Koepka

The former world No. 1 player's best golf seemed to be in the rearview mirror when he jumped to LIV Golf in June 2022. He was plagued by knee problems after falling and trying to pop his right kneecap back into place in March 2021. He ended up shattering his kneecap in the process.

On April 2, Koepka won his second LIV Golf event in Orlando, Florida, then tied for second at the Masters a week later. At Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, in May, Koepka won the PGA Championship for the third time with a 2-stroke victory over Scottie Scheffler and Viktor Hovland.

7. Viktor Hovland

Hovland, 26, had long been considered one of the most talented golfers in the world. His driving and ballstriking were top notch, but his short game had held him back from joining the sport's truly elite.

That changed this year, when the Norwegian won three times, including in back-to-back events in the FedEx Cup playoffs. Hovland won the BMW Championship and then the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. He earned an $18 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup and made $21.6 million for his consecutive victories. He also tied for seventh at the Masters and for second at the PGA Championship.

8. Scottie Scheffler

After winning four times in 2022, including his first major championship at the Masters, it would have been difficult to replicate that success again. But Scheffler won twice more in 2023, at the WM Phoenix Open and The Players, and was arguably better, leading the PGA Tour in nearly every ballstriking measurement.

But Scheffler's putter let him down too often and he hasn't won an official PGA Tour event since March. He did finish first in this month's Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, an unofficial event with a limited field. Scheffler's teary reaction to an ugly 9 and 7 loss with Koepka to Hovland and rookie Ludvig Åberg at the Ryder Cup was a microcosm of the U.S. team's frustration in its 16½-11 ½ loss to the Europeans in Italy.

9. Rose Zhang

The former Stanford star turned pro on May 26, then became the first woman since Beverly Hanson in 1951 to win in her pro debut at the Mizuho American Open in Jersey City, New Jersey. The win earned her an LPGA Tour card, making her eligible for the Solheim Cup.

Even more impressive, Zhang, 20, finished in the top 10 in three of the four major championships in which she competed. She tied for eighth at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship and for ninth at both the U.S. Women's Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California and the Amundi Evian Championship.

Zhang went 0-2-1 in her Solheim Cup debut at Finca Cortesin in Andalucia, Spain, where the European team retained the cup with a 14-14 tie.

10. Lilia Vu

After losing her LPGA Tour card and nearly walking away from the game four years ago, Vu climbed to No. 1 in the world this year. She won four times, including two majors at the Chevron Championship and AIG Women's Open. She was named LPGA Tour Player of the Year and collected more than $3.5 million in on-course earnings.

Vu, 26, became the first woman golfer since Jin Young Ko in 2019 to win two majors in the same season, and the first American to do it since Juli Inkster in 1999. She was only the third American woman to win The Open in the past 20 years, joining Stacy Lewis in 2013 and Mo Martin in 2014.

11. Phil Mickelson

The past year wasn't as eventful for Mickelson as 2022, when he largely made headlines for the wrong reasons. Mickelson's controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian monarchy's history of human rights violations caused several of his longtime sponsors to end their relationships with him. Mickelson wasn't as outspoken in 2023, outside of patting himself on the back a bit after the PGA Tour's framework agreement with the PIF was announced.

In April, Lefty carded a 7-under 65 on Sunday at the Masters -- his best final round in the event -- to tie for second with Koepka. At age 52, he became the oldest player to finish in the top five of a Masters, and his final round was the lowest in the event's history by a player age 50 or older.

Explosive revelations that Mickelson bet more than $1 billion on football, basketball and baseball over the past three decades were included in a book published by professional gambler Billy Walters, Mickelson's former friend, in August. Walters alleged that Mickelson tried to place a $400,000 wager on Team USA in the 2012 Ryder Cup in which he participated; Mickelson denied that he bet on the Ryder Cup.

12. Jimmy Dunne

Until the PGA Tour's surprising deal with the Saudis and DP World Tour was announced in June, Dunne was more of a shadowy figure in the sport, who was friends with Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas and others.

Dunne, the vice chair and senior managing principal of the investment bank Piper Sandler, joined the PGA Tour's policy board this year and initially reached out to Al-Rumayyan -- via a message on WhatsApp -- on the tour's behalf to try to reach a truce.

Dunne and policy board co-chairman Ed Herlihy helped lay the groundwork for the alliance, and then both men testified at a U.S. Congressional hearing regarding the deal on July 12. A member of Augusta National Golf Club and president of Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Florida, Dunne will serve on the PGA Tour Enterprises board.

13. Keith Pelley

Pelley, CEO of the DP World Tour, claimed a significant victory in April when a London-based sports arbitration panel ruled that the circuit was allowed to suspend and fine its members who competed in LIV Golf events in June 2022. Their requests for releases to play in the tournaments had previously been refused.

Several longtime DP World Tour golfers, including Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, resigned from the circuit, making them ineligible to compete for the European team in the Ryder Cup.

14. Greg Norman

After disrupting men's professional golf as the CEO and commissioner of the LIV Golf League, Norman largely stayed out of the spotlight following the alliance between the PIF and PGA Tour. Norman still made quite a mark when he helped recruit Rahm to the LIV Golf League.

LIV Golf's battle to be recognized by the Official World Golf Ranking was dealt a blow in October, when OWGR chairman Peter Dawson notified Norman and LIV Golf COO Gary Davidson that LIV Golf will not be recognized as an eligible tour for now. In a letter, Dawson cited concerns about LIV Golf staging individual and team competitions simultaneously and limited pathways for other players to join the league.

"OWGR has been a very disappointing sticking point," Norman told ESPN last week. "I don't get it, to be honest with you. We had one of our guys win a major championship this year. The last four DP World tournaments played this year, whether it's in South Africa or Australia, were won by LIV players. They're no different. They're exactly the same players. They're still competing."

15. Brian Harman

Harman won his first major championship when he stunned the field with a 6-shot victory at The Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in July. The 36-year-old American opened a 5-shot lead after the second round, then survived the rain and wind to become the oldest major champion since Spain's Sergio Garcia captured the 2017 Masters at 37.

Because of his love for hunting and the outdoors, the British press dubbed him "Brian the Butcher" and the "Butcher of Hoylake." Harman took it in stride.

Harman's 6-stroke margin of victory matched the second largest in Open Championship history by golfers representing the U.S.; Woods won the Claret Jug with an 8-stroke margin at St. Andrews in Scotland in 2000.

16. Talor Gooch

Gooch won three times in the LIV Golf League this year, finishing first in back-to-back weeks in Australia and Singapore in April and then again in Spain in July. He won the circuit's season-long points race and collected more than $36 million in purses and bonuses. In two seasons on the circuit, Gooch has collected about $46.5 million.

In a surprising move last week, Gooch was traded from captain Bubba Watson's RangeGoats team to Koepka's Smash GC in exchange for struggling Matthew Wolff.

"[With] me being an Oklahoma State guy, I know the talent that he is," Gooch said of Wolff, another former Pokes star. "He's one of the best talents in the game. They say you want to sell a stock high, and Bubba sold me pretty high and was able to buy a stock pretty low. And so I have no doubt that Wolfie is going to go and play great. We golfers, when we're comfortable and in a good environment that's conducive, you tend to thrive better in those types of situations."

17. Martin Slumbers

Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, raised some eyebrows at The Open in July when he suggested that the governing body wouldn't rule out taking money from the PIF to help fund escalating costs. Al-Rumayyan attended the tournament as the guest of a corporate sponsor.

"The world of sport has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, and it is not feasible for the R&A or golf to just ignore what is a societal change on a global basis," Slumbers said. "We will be considering within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have."

On Dec. 6, the R&A and United States Golf Association ignored objections from the PGA Tour, top players and equipment manufacturers when it announced a rollback for all golf balls. The governing bodies suggested driving distance for elite players would be rolled back by 13 to 15 yards by changing the test speed for conforming golf balls from 120 miles per hour to 125, while the average recreational player would hardly be affected by the changes.

18. Michael Block

Block, a PGA club professional from Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, California, captured the sport's imagination over four days at the PGA Championship in May.

The Block party started when he was tied for 10th after the second round at Oak Hill and then for eighth after the third. In the final round, he made the first ace of the tournament with a hole-in-one on the par-3 15th hole. Block tied for 15th at 1-over 281 after 72 holes, the best finish by a club pro at the PGA Championship since Lonnie Nielsen tied for 11th in 1986.

Block climbed from 3,580th to 577th in the Official World Golf Ranking after the performance and earned sponsor's exemptions to the Charles Schwab Challenge and RBC Canadian Open, in which he missed the cut.

In September, Block won back-to-back tournaments in California to earn spots in the World Wide Technology Championship in Mexico and The American Express in January.

19. Lexi Thompson

On Oct. 12, Thompson made her PGA Tour debut when she competed in the Shriners Children's Open in Las Vegas. She was the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event since Brittany Lincicome at the 2018 Barbasol Championship.

Thompson was 4 under with seven holes to play in the second round and was on the verge of becoming the first woman in 78 years to make a 36-hole cut on the PGA Tour. She finished at even-par 142, missing the cut by 3 shots.

Truth be told, it was a rather ordinary season for Thompson on the LPGA Tour. She finished 79th in points and slipped to No. 31 in the world. She surprisingly played in the opening match of the Solheim Cup, helping the Americans sweep the opening session. She went 3-1-0 in the competition.

20. Bryson DeChambeau

At the LIV Golf League's tournament at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on Aug. 6, DeChambeau became the first player in the league's two-year history to card a 58 when he made a 35-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. He had birdies on the last four holes of his round.

DeChambeau became the fourth player from a top-level circuit to record a 58. Jim Furyk did it on the PGA Tour at the 2016 Travelers Championship; Ryo Ishikawa and S.H. Kim both did it on the Japan Golf Tour in 2010 and 2021, respectively.

It was DeChambeau's first LIV Golf win and his first victory since March 2021. He also tied for fourth at the PGA Championship.

He won another LIV Golf individual title in Illinois the next month. Then his Crushers GC squad captured the LIV Golf team championship at Trump National Doral to collect a $14 million prize.

21. Mollie Marcoux Samaan

In Marcoux Samaan's third season as LPGA commissioner, the circuit awarded a record $108 million in prize money in official and unofficial events, a 54% increase from 2021. It will jump to a record $116 million in prize money with 10 regular tournaments offering at least $3 million.

On Nov. 15, the LPGA announced the purse for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship will increase by $4 million to $11 million, with the winner's share doubling from $2 million to $4 million, making it the largest winner's check in women's sports history.

"The LPGA represents the best of the best and we're thrilled to be able to offer more opportunities for fans to watch these incredible athletes perform on the biggest stage," Marcoux Samaan said.

ESPN also agreed to a two-year agreement with the LPGA to provide featured group coverage on ESPN+ at eight events.

22. Luke Donald

Donald, a former world No. 1 golfer, took over the European Ryder Cup captaincy when Sweden's Henrik Stenson joined LIV Golf in July 2022. Donald pushed all the right buttons at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club outside Rome, leading the European team to its seventh-straight victory in a Ryder Cup played outside the U.S. The Americans haven't won across the pond since 1993. Things went so well for the European team that Donald was named the team's captain for the 2025 Ryder Cup at Bethpage Black in New York. He will be the European team's first repeat captain since Bernard Gallacher did so in three straight matches from 1991 to 1995.

23. Patrick Cantlay

Cantlay lost a longtime sponsor, Goldman Sachs; gained a new caddie, LaCava; did or didn't take control of the PGA Tour policy board in its negotiations with the Saudis; and somehow became the center of a controversy at the Ryder Cup, where European fans swooned him with their hats (after he reportedly refused to wear a Team USA one over a money dispute). Oh, Cantlay was married in Rome the day after the Ryder Cup.

Cantlay didn't win on the PGA Tour this year, but he did have 10 top-10s in 16 starts on tour.

24. Bernhard Langer

What didn't the 66-year-old German do this year? He won twice on PGA Tour Champions to bring his career victory total to 46, breaking the record held by Hale Irwin. Langer captured the Chubb Classic in February and the U.S. Senior Open in July, his record 12th senior men's major championship title.

On Sunday, Langer and his son Jason won the PNC Championship, giving the elder Langer a tie with Raymond Floyd for the most titles in the event.

25. Carlota Ciganda

The Spaniard became a national hero when she clinched the tying point for the European team at the Solheim Cup. She knocked her tee shot on the par-3 17th hole to about 2 feet and made birdie, setting off a wild celebration for the Europeans.

Ciganda grew up in Pamplona and played collegiately at Arizona State. She was the only player from either team to win four points and go 4-0-0 that week.