FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
An inside look at how the money works on LIV Golf
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf
NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — LIV Golf is about many things: disruption, sportswashing, vengeance (in the case of frontman Greg Norman) and, uh, golf. But more than anything, it’s about cold, hard cash. As with many other issues surrounding this upstart tour, the details around all the money are shadowy. In an effort to get more granular, the Fire Pit Collective spoke with four agents who represent LIV golfers; they were granted anonymity to facilitate candor.
“What you have to understand about professional golfers is that they are all whores,” Agent A says. “That is the starting point.”
Touched off by a recent Brandel Chamblee tweet in which he said prize money is being applied to signing bonuses, there has been discussion this week about how the money is distributed on the LIV tour. The lower-wattage players in the field at Pumpkin Ridge have to kill what they eat, guaranteed nothing beyond the last-place money of $120,000 in the 48-man field. The more established players who jumped to LIV from the PGA and European tours have received guaranteed money that, contrary to Chamblee’s tweet, is in addition to whatever the player claims from the tournament purses, which this week is $20 million plus an additional $5 million for the concurrent team competition. “The prize fund is the prize fund,” says Pat Perez, who is making his LIV debut this week. “Whatever you win you get to keep. That’s why guys are taking this seriously.”
As with team sports, the guaranteed money on LIV varies from player to player, based on age, starpower, current form and projected performance. “Every deal is different,” Ian Poulter says. “There hasn’t been a lot of talk about the money [among players] because that’s personal.” Some of the numbers that have been floated in media reports have been fantastical: $200 million for Phil Mickelson, $150 million for Dustin Johnson, $100 million for Bryson DeChambeau. “You have to take that with a grain of salt,” Agent B says. “Who does it benefit to inflate those numbers? LIV, obviously, because they’re trying to generate buzz and recruit more players. But it also benefits the agents who are trying to sign new players or nudge other clients to make the jump.”
Though it is subject to negotiation, the standard arrangement in professional golf is that players keep all of the money they win on the course but agents take 20 percent of appearance fees and endorsement deals. LIV’s upfront money is treated like the latter, and as a result, the player representatives are getting a fat cut. (Because there is no cut in the events and players are guaranteed a check, some agencies are taking a commission on the first $120,000 of a player’s winnings, treating it as a de facto appearance fee.) One veteran caddie to a top player who has remained loyal to the PGA Tour says in a text message, “I honestly think that one of the backstories to this LIV thing are agents who desperately want the biggest payday of their lives.”
A key player in the building of LIV Golf is GSE Worldwide, a New York-based outfit that represents seven players who have made the jump: DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Brendan Grace, Abraham Ancer, Carlos Ortiz and Eugenio Chacarra (who just turned pro). On Thursday, Norman told me, “We still have some big announcements coming.” Speculation has centered around another GSE client, Sam Burns. (Andrew Witlieb, the head of the company’s golf division, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) GSE’s aggressive business model dovetails nicely with LIV’s desperate need to sign players. “We call it pushing paper,” Agent A says. “Those guys buy clients. They go in and say, ‘We’ll guarantee you X millions of dollars in income to sign with us.’ That means if [GSE doesn’t] land some big deals, they get their ass handed to them.” But Agent C pushes back on the notion that he or any of his colleagues have steered their players to LIV despite the risks of being banned from what was their home tour, to say nothing of the blowback attached to LIV’s funding coming from Saudi Arabia. “Our job is to present all the options to the player, but they always make the final decision,” Agent C says. “If you push a player to do something that is not in his best interests long-term, you’re not going to be in this business very long.”
Norman and LIV’s newest signee Brooks Koepka pressing flesh on Thursday with Majed Al Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation.
Chris Trotman/LIV Golf
How are players taking care of the rest of their “team” in this era of inflated purses? Most caddies and swing coaches to LIV players are getting the same percentages as always, which means 10 percent of a victory this week is worth a cool $400,000 to the looper. “I’ve heard a little grumbling from the players,” Agent D says, “but there has been so much talk about quote unquote player greed that I think they are sensitive to not squeezing anyone right now. I do expect that at the end of this season some percentages will get adjusted.”
Perez has no such plans. “The whole thing about this is I’m trying to take care of my family,” he says. “And H [caddie Michael Hartford] is family. Claude [swing coach Claude Harmon] is family. So I’m still going to take care of these guys the way we usually operate.” Each LIV player is given four plane tickets per tournament: one first class, one premium economy and two economy. He also gets four rooms in a luxury hotel. So caddies who used to have to pay their own way are now traveling for free. With no cut, they are also guaranteed a check every time out, and the 54-hole events reduce the wear and tear on their aching joints. “I have gotten calls from more than a dozen caddies dying for a bag,” Agent D says.
Chris Trotman/LIV Golf
Perez signed with LIV for four years, which will take him to age 50, when he will be eligible for the PGA Tour Champions … if golf’s warring bureaucracies ever make peace. Like other players with relatively modest upfront money, he received his haul in one chunk. “Mine is in,” he says. “I got it all. It’s fucking incredible.” According to Agent C, the contracts that run into high-eight and nine figures are paid in annual installment across the three-, four- or five-year deals. Every player with a long-term LIV deal is compelled to play every event on the schedule, even as it potentially expands from eight tournaments this year to 14 in coming years. There are clawback provisions should a player miss a significant amount of time for injury. Interestingly, there is also a “morals clause” by which LIV can cancel a contract and recoup the upfront money. This covers incidents of on-course cheating and legal troubles, and particular attention has been given to consorting with or being influenced by gamblers. “With so many guys getting guaranteed money,” Agent C says, “there is the concern that a player could be more tempted to do something during the competitive rounds, which might not mean as much to them. Where there is money there is always corruption. That’s just how humans are.”
The way LIV has quickly reshaped the landscape of professional golf has led to a lot of reflection on human nature. On Thursday, a couple of miles from Pumpkin Ridge, a dozen 9/11 families participated in a protest of LIV’s links to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers. While fans, reporters, political commentators and a few professional golfers wrestle with these larger geopolitical issues, business is booming on the LIV tour. Says Agent A, “I was just talking with the guy doing all the deals for LIV, and he told me he is drinking from a fire hose right now. He is getting bombarded by agents. I think there was some initial apprehension about how this whole thing was going to play out, so a lot of people were on the sidelines, observing. Now the gold rush is on.”