Features

Interview

Greg Norman on new Saudi-backed golf series: 'I can't explain how encouraged I am'

Manuela Davies

November 01, 2021

Last week, Greg Norman was officially named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, a Saudi Arabian-funded entity that will pump $200 million into the Asian Tour over the next 10 years. The initial venture is a 10-event series beginning in 2022, but the larger mission is to create a global golf circuit to rival the PGA Tour.

Golf Digest spoke with the World Golf Hall of Famer to discuss his new position, what he feels is wrong with the current golf model, who might play in these events and the controversial source of all that money. While Norman was evasive when asked about specifics, he clearly sought to portray the organization he now leads as a means to further a goal of growing the game around the world—not as a vehicle for an embattled nation to soften its public image

GOLF DIGEST: LIV Golf says its aim is to “holistically improve the health of professional golf on a truly global scale.” What is wrong with the current landscape that you seek to improve?

NORMAN: In 40 years as a professional golfer, I’ve seen many parts of the world that have benefitted from golf and its growth and development. So when I became CEO of LIV Golf Investments, I started looking straightaway at the Asian Tour, seeing the lack of benefit from the growth of the game of golf there. That was what I zoned in on. That’s the first place I went to play golf as a pro.

The initial announcement was for 10 events on the Asian Tour, but it seems the vision is for a more robust offering that is a tour of its own. Is the goal here eventually to compete with the PGA Tour for top-level talent?

I just wanted to create a bed where more great players [can develop] … In the ’80s, I went to play the Swedish Open. There was a gentleman, Sven Tumba, an ice hockey player. His dream was to create a platform that goes down to the grassroots to develop a generation of players to get on the PGA and European Tour. He did a phenomenal job of transforming golf from non-existent in the country to something where you had Swedish players coming through winning majors. It’s no different on the Asian Tour. My dream is to do the same with Asia … if we have an opportunity to invest and grow the game of golf through our investment dollars in Asia, God bless us. There’s nothing wrong with that, and no one should decry us for doing that. I just get a little bit miffed as to why people feel so against me wanting to do that through LIV Golf Investments.

The $200 million—Where is it going toward? Infrastructure? New tournaments? Staffing? Appearance fees?

It’s a collective yes. We’re going to sit back and look at it. Asia has been suffocated because of COVID. The players are dying to get out there and playing. We’re putting together the schedule as we speak. We’re making the opportunity sooner rather than later for these opportunities to get going. The whole world is starting to open up again. The timing is everything, but making sure you do it right is getting with your team and structuring everything correctly. It’s a significant amount of money, and we’re going to be sure we use it the right way.

Regarding the source of the money here, obviously, you considered this before making an extremely important decision for you. Do you have any concerns as to where the money is coming from, and specifically the Saudi Arabian connection?

The PIF (Public Investment Fund), which is our majority investor, they’re obviously a commercial operation. They’re very autonomous. They make investment decisions all around the world. They’ve invested in major U.S. corporations because of commercial reasons. They invested in LIV Golf Investments for a commercial opportunity. They’re passionate about the game of golf.

I’ve been going to Saudi Arabia now for three years. I was invited to do a golf course design project there. Unless you actually go there and see and understand exactly what’s happening there, you [can’t] sit back and make judgmental calls. I made the journey there to look at what was happening in Saudi Arabia before I made any decision on anything because I’m not a person who makes judgement calls. I make sound decisions on sound facts and information that is presented to you. So when the PIF wanted to become a majority investor, I knew what was happening in the country.

Women’s right issues—the women there now, I’ve been so impressed. You walk into a restaurant and there are women. They’re not wearing burkas. They’re out playing golf.

Editor’s note: Saudi Arabia ranked 147th out of 153 nations in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2021. And according to Human Rights watch, despite women’s rights reforms in recent years, “Saudi women still must obtain a male guardian’s approval to get married, leave prison, or obtain certain healthcare. Women also continue to face discrimination in relation to marriage, family, divorce, and decisions relating to children, including child custody.”

You’ve alluded to this, that you’ve been a proponent of global golf. It’s no secret that you pushed for a global tour in the 1990s. Is the idea, basically, that the PGA Tour is too U.S.-focused and that the best players in the world aren’t playing globally as much as they should?

One hundred percent. Seve [Ballesteros] and I were global players. The two of us, in separate schedules and separate directions, went off and did what we wanted to do as independent contractors. It was the competition that we loved and wanted to be involved with on a global basis. We cherished and relished every tournament we played. That spurred conversations with other players: What would happen if we could do this?

In my conversation with Tim Finchem around the Presidents Cup, I went to him because all the international players couldn’t play in a Ryder Cup. And so I wanted to play on a team, so I suggested to Tim Finchem, why don’t the Internationals get to play the winner of the Ryder Cup in the off year? I always wanted to grow the game of golf on a global basis. Always, always.

The PGA Tour has been clear and firm in its messaging: You’re with us, or you’re with them. Jay Monahan has communicated as much to players, and short of joining another tour, it remains to be seen whether they’d even give tour members releases to play in the 2022 events. What is your response to the PGA Tour’s messaging, and what is the plan if the PGA Tour continues its hardline stance?

I can’t speak on behalf of the tour. I’m a lifetime member of the PGA Tour, I’ve done things I needed to do through the PGA Tour and I will continue to do that because of my QBE Shootout, which is a PGA Tour co-sponsored event. I don’t know what their decisions will be. From our perspective, we’re creating the Asian Tour to be shoulder to shoulder in growing and developing the game of golf. I have had numerous conversations with players who have called me up to thank me for what I’m doing in Asia. And those conversations, they’ve said they’re happy that we have a player commission and a CEO that understands what’s going on and our needs. I can’t explain strongly enough how encouraged I am by players, and corporations and additional investors, wanting to come into our platform.

You sound optimistic that these events next year, and eventually when there are additional events, will draw some of the best players in the world. What is your pitch to them?

The players should keep their eyes open … to opportunities that allow [them] to do what you want to do as an independent contractor. Seve and I were staunch supporters of that, of growing the game of golf on a global basis. The tours should keep their eyes wide open, because the Asian Tour will be there. And it’s not geographically confined to Asia. It’s going global with tournaments all over the world.

You keep mentioning the Asian Tour and I know these 10 events will exist under the Asian Tour umbrella. Is the idea to keep this under the Asian Tour or to create a new entity?

All I’m focused on right now, to be honest with you, is the Asian Tour. There has been such an influx of people interested in our initiative, and I have an incredible team behind me that is executing our plan

There were initially reports of a league that sought to incorporate a team concept in events with limited fields. As far as format goes, are these 10 tournaments in 2022 going to be traditional 72-hole stroke-play events?

The 10 premier series will be a 72-hole format with USGA and R&A rules.

One of the things that seems to be most appealing to players about your plans is the prospect of guaranteed money. We saw the PGA Tour respond to this with the Player Impact Program, a way to compensate stars for something other than their on-course performance. Is the idea to provide some sort of contract to these players for a certain amount of money or will it come through appearance fees?

From the Asian Tour perspective, I can only talk about what happened with me over the last 40 years. Every time I went to play somewhere around the world, I got an appearance fee because I’m an independent contractor. You get paid appearance fees for what reason? You can put buns on seats, you can increase TV ratings, and if you can do that you bring in hospitality and sponsorship dollars. It’s a win-win for everybody.

Players have been quiet. They’re probably weary of being the first to say this is a great idea, I’ll play in this series or tour. Cold feet. You know that the success of anything new in sport is going to rely on stars, that you need stars to play. Do you think you will get stars and that people will come out of the shadows soon?

All we can do is provide the opportunity for them to go play somewhere like the Asian Tour. Look, this is all new. It’s 72 hours old since it’s come out. Everyone’s trying to understand it. That’s why my phone has been ringing off the hook from players … to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), sponsors, corporations.

And the general tone is …?

Excitement. To be honest with you, with my hand on my heart, there has not been one individual representing anyone that has said, “This is not good for the game.” Not one.