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Aussie Lucas Herbert downplays potential clash between LIV and PGA Tour golfers at upcoming Saudi International

January 21, 2023
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Lucas Herbert will make his first start of the PGA Tour season at the WM Phoenix Open.

Atsushi Tomura

If you don’t count a pro-am that Lucas Herbert won in his hometown in Australia in early January, the 27-year-old’s 2023 debut will come at the DP World Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic later this month, an event he won in 2020. After that, the 2021 Bermuda Championship winner will make his first PGA Tour start of the year at the WM Phoenix Open in early February. In between, though, Herbert will be one of three PGA Tour members who are allowed to tee it up in the Saudi International, a $5 million event on the Asian Tour that is sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which also is the financial backer of LIV Golf.

Recently, the PGA Tour granted Herbert, PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Cameron Young and multiple tour winner Cameron Champ conflicting-event releases to play in the Saudi International. It’s held at Royal Greens Golf Club in King Abdullah Economic City and runs against the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am. Herbert, Champ and Young are entered in the field according to the Asian Tour’s website, thanks to a provision in the PGA Tour Player Handbook and Tournament Regulations that allows players who hit the minimum 15 starts to apply for three conflicting-event releases per season. They are required to give the PGA Tour 45 days’ notice, while those pros who tee it up at the Saudi International will be required to play the Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice in the next three years.

Herbert has played each edition of the Saudi International since it debuted as a DP World Tour event in 2019, with a best finish of 21st last year. This year, his reasons for playing are no different: he has permission from the tour, it’s lucrative, and it’s complementary to his schedule. Saudi International tournament organizers have also been known to roll out the red carpet for top players, including appearance fees and travel costs, such as flying them onto their next tournament.

“Some of the reasons were financial, and some of them not financial … it’s going to be a strong field, so there’ll be good World Ranking points,” Herbert told Golf Digest. “The tournament is a short flight from Dubai, which is where I’m starting my season. The event takes good care of us. A lot of things added up to make sense to play it. After that, I’m looking forward to playing the WM Phoenix Open and then [the Genesis Invitational] at Riviera. It’s going to be an exciting season on the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour.”

What is different for the 2023 Saudi International is that LIV Golf is now up and running. It is understood some players signed event contracts with the Saudi International to play a certain number of editions. For those who joined LIV Golf, it was a separate contract to their LIV agreement. All 48 players who competed in LIV Golf's season-closing Team Championship in Miami in October will be among the 126-man field in Dubai, including LIV big-name signings such as Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau.

World No. 64 Herbert, whose lone PGA Tour win came in the 2021 Bermuda Championship, has now played several events with LIV Golf members in the field, including the DP World Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA at Wentworth in September and the Australian PGA and Open late in 2022, which were both co-sanctioned by the Old World circuit. LIV golfers have been temporarily able to play on the DP World Tour due to a UK sports arbitration court ruling. Despite some tension amongst Ryder Cup players at Wentworth, Herbert said his experience at those tournaments had been business as usual.

“Once we’re out there playing it doesn’t feel any different,” Herbert said. “It’s a 72-hole event and I’ll be trying to win. You might read about some added tension in some media reports, but I don’t think there will be any. It will just feel like you’re seeing players you haven’t seen in a while, and that happens all the time. The nature of pro golf is you don’t see a lot of players all that much anyway. It’s not like a team sport. You can play on the same tour as someone, but play an opposite schedule to them and hardly ever see them. At Wentworth and at the Aussie events, I don’t think anything had changed.”

Some players who competed in last year’s Saudi International left for LIV Golf, such as Johnson, Smith, DeChambeau and six-time major winner Phil Mickelson. The 2022 Saudi International winner, Harold Varner, also joined LIV. But several players who teed up in Saudi Arabia last year didn’t join LIV, such as Tony Finau, Shane Lowry and Tommy Fleetwood.

While the Saudi International is sponsored by the PIF, it is an Asian Tour event because of a $300 million investment from the PIF. The disruptor circuit’s 2023 season will kick off Feb. 24 at Mayakoba in Mexico, the former host of the PGA Tour’s fall event, the World Wide Technology Championship.