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LIV Golf’s bid to get OWGR points led to a partnership with the MENA Tour, which has its own checkered history

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

October 11, 2022
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It’s a tale as old as time in developmental tour golf: Mini-tour collects entry fees. Mini-tour fails to pay players. Mini-tour comes up with excuses for why it isn’t paying players. I have received so many DMs telling me a tour hasn’t paid players that I forgot about players on the MENA Tour who messaged me in early 2020. I was reminded in a DM last week, right around the time the tour was announcing an alliance with LIV Golf, and I have since discovered that there is much more to the story.

The fifth event of the 2020 season on the MENA Tour—short for Middle East and North Africa—was played in March at the Ayla Golf Club in Jordan, on a course designed by Greg Norman. The following week the world was shut down by the pandemic. As players headed home, they sought answers, with some saying they hadn’t been paid a dime for the season’s first five events. The following 15 months would produce countless emails and empty promises. Now more than two years after the event in Jordan, players say they are still owed money. In its ongoing quest to get recognized by the Official World Golf Rankings, LIV formed the alliance with the MENA Tour, which has been dormant since March 2020. LIV Golf now has a partner with a checkered past.

The MENA Tour has been played in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011. In May 2016, it was recognized by the OWGR and its tournaments began awarding world ranking points. At one time, it had partnerships with the European Tour (now the DP World Tour), and players from the MENA Tour could earn exemptions into events. In 2016 and ’17, players who finished in the top five on the Order of Merit earned Sunshine Tour cards for the following year. Players who have competed on the MENA Tour include Robert MacIntyre (below) and three-time European Tour winner Stephen Dodd, who won the MENA Order of Merit in 2012. Although it had not held an event in almost two years, last December the MENA Tour announced it had formed a “key strategic partnership” with the Asian Tour, in which LIV was about to make a longterm investment.

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The issues that arose in 2020 were not the first for the MENA Tour. In 2018, officials canceled the season despite multiple emails to players with promises it would be started. Some players who built their schedules around the MENA Tour were forced to scramble for alternatives. After completing a full schedule in 2019, the tour seemed to be on the right track, heading into 2020 with a solid schedule, a new sponsor and a Q school. Members were given the option of paying their membership and entry fees for all seven events in advance. With entry fees of $400 per event ($200 for an amateur), this required nearly $3,000 in upfront money. The purse was $75,000 per event, with the winner getting $13,500.

After the first few events were completed without payment, players began to get restless. The tour promised that things would be taken care of promptly. They weren’t. The first email during the Covid break explained that banks were struggling to transfer money. The tour eventually paid the field for the first two events. (It also paid small purses for Q school and a shootout held before the season.) Yet no one from the last three full-field events had been paid. An email dated Aug. 11, 2020, more than five months after the last event, read in part, “We have experienced delays in distributing prize funds from the first part of 2020…the delay has been caused by it taking longer than originally planned to establish, test, and launch the TransferMate system.”

As players aired their grievances on social media—I received multiple DMs detailing the payment issues—a MENA email ended with a sentence that seemed to have been lifted from a cheesy greeting card: “This is a time for facts, not fear; reasons, not rumours; solidarity, not stigma.” The email was signed by David Spencer, the former longtime tournament director of the Dubai Desert Classic, a prominent event on the DP World Tour. According to players with whom I spoke, Spencer and Norman are friends who have known each other for decades. Spencer was listed on the email as a strategic adviser for the MENA Tour; he is now the commissioner. Spencer sent an email response, which is below.

"The MENA Tour was one of the first professional sporting bodies to feel the effect of COVID-19 when we postponed our playing schedule on the 5th of March. 2020. The health and safely of our players, officials, staff and venue partners at the very beginning of COVID-19 was uppermost in our minds, and we were thankfully able to avoid a possible /ockdown of everyone on our Tour as countnes began to ban travel and close their borders. When making this very rapid decision we were prioritising the safety of our players and staff.

"Like most sporting organisations our Tour relies on a mixture of sponsorship, membership and entry fees to survive with the vast bulk of the funding coming via sponsors, which was significantly impacted by the pandemic. We communicated with our players that there would be a sigmficant delay in paying prize funds but. we remam proud of the fact that our Tour worked closely wffh the sponsors who chose to stand by us. We were able to restart the MENA Tour in April 2022, playing the 'Beautiful That/and Swing' of 4 tournaments to finish off our 2020+ season. and all prize money has been paid in full.

"Operating an OWGR approved Tour is a very intricate business. which has been recently highlighted by the fact we saw the Official Sate/Ute Tour of the PGA Tour, DP World Tour and the Challenge Tour announce that it is shutting its doors after 20 years of operat10n. The PGA EuroPro Tour was a fantastic platform and their closure shines the spotlight on how hard ,t ts to survive.

"For the 2022/2023 MENA Tour Season we are proud to have been able to not only restart with a full schedule and over 2,500 playing opportunities, whilst also being able to reduce our membership fee to $300- and our entry fees $50-, I think these facts clearly point to a revitalised & exciting era for our 267 + members, and the developmental level of the sport."

The empty promises would continue to the point that one player told me, “I stopped reading the emails.” Another player said he was owed nearly $20,000 in earnings, a fortune for those who grind on developmental tours. Another player, who was owed more than $4,000, said of his financial predicament, “It was horrible.” Finally, 13 months after the last tournament, the checks slowly started to appear. “I spoke to a mate of mine who got paid 15 months after the event,” one player said. “We all got paid at different times.”

Still, they were not refunded the entry fees for the tournaments that weren’t played. The tour sent an email saying the entry fees would be given as credit to future events. At the time, the MENA Tour hadn’t put on an event for almost a year and a half, despite promising multiple times that it would restart. I spoke with one player who is still owed entry fees but has stopped playing professionally. “Credit vouchers don’t do me much good,” he said. “I’d like to have the $800.”

Then on Sept. 13, after not having put on a standalone event for more than two years (there were four Asian Developmental Tour that were co-sanctioned by the MENA Tour earlier this year), the tour sent another email saying there would be a 2023 season and that players had until Oct. 2 to apply for membership. The email said that to be considered for the ’23 season, past members would have to register and pay the $300 membership fee. The tour promised 24 events. The most outrageous aspect was that the players would have to pay the membership fee (or use their credit vouchers) without knowing what exemption category they would be placed in and what the schedule looked like. According to the email, those details would be released after the Oct. 2 deadline. It went on to say that if a member didn’t get into any events, he would receive credit for Q school the following year instead of a refund.

On Oct. 5, LIV Golf announced its alliance with the MENA Tour, and a tentative schedule was released. It listed 20 events, 10 of which are LIV tournaments. Of the 10 non-LIV events, only one had a venue listed. For a tour that is struggling to build trust with players, this wasn’t a great step in the process.