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Saudi golf league

The Saudi golf tour: What we know, what we don’t and everything else you might not understand about the proposed new league

March 16, 2022

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The threat of a competing Saudi Arabia-backed professional golf league has floated like a storm on the game’s horizon for the better part of two years. Due to an overabundance of rumor and lack of substantiation, that's where the storm has stayed—in the distance. However, its thunder has never ceased, and in recent months it has gained strength in frequency and sound.

With the concept of a Saudi golf league becoming closer to reality thanks to the March 16 announcement of the LIV Golf International, an eight-event series offering $255 million in prize money, and the reveal of a playing schedule, it’s time to catch up on what has transpired thus far, what we know and what we don’t, and the ramifications of a possible fissure in professional golf.

When did this begin?

The idea of a breakaway circuit from the PGA Tour is far from a novel idea; the PGA Tour itself came to pass after players split from the PGA of America in 1967 to form the Tournament Players Division. More recently, former World No. 1 Greg Norman and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch attempted to create a “World Golf Tour” in the mid-1990s featuring the top players competing in an eight-event series. A television contract with Murdoch’s Fox Sports was even secured. But the endeavor was squashed as then-PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem flexed both the tour’s legal chops and standing in the game. Other iterations of a world tour have come and gone without much fanfare.

However, the current framework began to arise in earnest in the fall of 2019, to the point that current PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan issued a warning in January 2020 that any player who sided with a rival league would face suspension and possibly a lifetime ban. In spite of Monahan's threat, multiple players are reportedly weighing offers to join a fledgling league.

Who is challenging the PGA Tour?

Technically, there are two entities trying to rival the tour: the Premier Golf League and a Saudi-backed golf tour. The PGL was the first of the groups to coalesce in 2020, backed at the time by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. However, the PIF—the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, has $580 billion in assets—eventually backed another entity in the newly formed LIV Golf Investments. LIV Golf aspired to have its own global professional tour, often referred to as the “Super Golf League.” The PGL attempted to achieve a partnership with the European Tour but failed, with the Euro Tour eventually agreeing to a “strategic alliance” with the PGA Tour. Though the PGL concept still exists, and officials behind the venture reportedly have reached out to the PGA Tour about forming a partnership, its prospects have faded with the emergence of LIV Golf.

Why is the Saudi golf league controversial?

The PIF is essentially the financial arm of the Saudi Arabia government, which has been accused of numerous human-rights violations. To improve its reputation, especially to the Western world, Saudi Arabia has heavily invested in various athletic organizations and events, a practice often referred to as “sportswashing.” This exercise, particularly when used by state-run groups, is considered a form of propaganda to distract the public from its abuses. The most famous example of sportswashing is when Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Saudi Arabia has recently hosted motorsports, soccer, boxing, tennis and wrestling spectacles. In October 2021, the PIF purchased an 80-percent stake in Newcastle United, a Premier League soccer club. Since 2019, the country has hosted the Saudi International, an event formerly sanctioned by the European Tour that has drawn some of the top names in golf, who are paid considerable appearance fees.

Luke Walker/WME IMG

What do we know about LIV Golf?

Founded in 2021, LIV Golf named the aforementioned Norman as its CEO in October, followed by a number of former executives from the PGA Tour and other sports affiliations. In February 2022, LIV Golf announced a $300 million, 10-year investment in the Asian Tour at the Saudi International (which now falls under the Asian Tour umbrella and is sponsored by PIF) that included a 10-event international series that will host tournaments in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

On March 15, LIV Golf announced an eight-tournament, $255 million series—called the LIV Golf Invitational—that will kick off at the Centurion Club outside of London the week before the U.S. Open starting June 9. Each event will be a three-round, 54-hole competition with no cuts. There will also be shotgun starts in order to fit the events in a shorter time window, along with a team component, with 48 players divided between 12 squads. Four of the events will be held in the United States. Those sites are Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Portland (July 1-3), Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (July 29-31), the International in Boston (Sept. 2-4) and Rich Harvest Farms in Chicago (Sept. 16-18). Other hosts include Stonehill Golf Club in Bangkok and Royal Greens Golf Club in Jeddah. A site for the final event, the team championship, was not announced.

The first seven events will each boast $25 million purses, $20 million for individual prizes and another $5 million for the team competition. The eighth event will offer $30 million for the top three players of the season, with another $50 million for teams in total prize funds.

What don’t we know about LIV Golf?

LIV Golf has targeted the sport's marquee players to join its league. However, following the Fire Pit Collective’s publication last month of controversial comments by Phil Mickelson—who acknowledged the Saudi government’s crimes but said he was partnering with them to leverage the tour while also stating he paid attorneys to draw up the operating agreement for the breakaway circuit—nearly all of the game’s biggest names have distanced themselves from the LIV effort. To this point, no players have publicly committed to playing on a potential LIV Golf circuit (more on this in a second).

No broadcast partner has been announced, either, although more than a few eyebrows were raised when former FOX Sports President David Hill was signed by LIV Golf; mentioned above, Murdoch’s FOX Sports was originally aligned with Norman’s WGT in the mid-1990s.

Also unclear is the role of sponsors, be it with the league or players. For example the Royal Bank of Canada stripped its logo from its staff members who played in the Saudi International.

Jared C. Tilton

What players have been associated with LIV Golf?

To answer the question on why players would toy with jumping to the SGL: They have reportedly received eight- to nine-figure offers to join the rival circuit. Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau have been the two most prominent and closely associated names to the breakaway league. Mickelson has been adversarial toward the PGA Tour, claiming to Golf Digest the tour’s “obnoxious greed” has opened the possibility of playing elsewhere. It’s worth noting that in Mickelson’s apology for his comments he did not acknowledge the PGA Tour. In the Mickelson fallout DeChambeau released a statement that said, “While there has been a lot of speculation surrounding my support for another tour, I want to make it very clear that as long as the best players in the world are playing the PGA Tour, so will I. As of now, I am focused on getting myself healthy and competing again soon. I appreciate all the support.” Compared to other statements of players who distanced themselves from LIV Golf, DeChambeau’s looked tepid, spurring belief he still may jump.

Lee Westwood has come as close as any player to publicly acknowledging his involvement. Though he hasn't officially said he's with the Saudi league, he did state he had signed an NDA during the Saudi International (Westwood also acknowledged at the 2021 PGA that a big offer would be tough to turn down at his age). Adam Scott said at the 2022 Genesis he's in talks with the Saudi league. Jason Kokrak is a Saudi Golf ambassador and recently told the Five Clubs podcast, “I'm going to try make as much money as I can in as little amount of time, so if the money's right I would love to go play that tour and play against some of the guys that are going to go out over there." A number of European Ryder Cuppers such as Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, and Ian Poulter are reportedly weighing offers, while Patrick Reed—a frequent competitor in the Saudi International—has also been in the mix.

Speaking of ... by proxy, those who competed at this year’s Saudi International have seen their names linked to the SGL. This group includes Matthew Wolff, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Shane Lowry, Paul Casey and Marc Leishman.

What players have said they don't want to be involved with LIV Golf?

Rory McIlroy has been the SGL’s most outspoken critic, stating he’s not comfortable with where the money is coming from. McIlroy reiterated his stance at the 2022 Genesis Invitational to Golf Digest. “Look, I’ve lived it—for the top guys, all that money really isn’t going to change their life,” McIlroy told Golf Digest’s Dan Rapaport. “I’m in a way better financial position than I was a decade ago and my life is no different. I still use the same three, four rooms in my house. I just don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions.”

World No. 1 Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka have also said they will not defect to the SGL. Following Mickelson’s comments, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele committed to the tour as well. Perhaps most importantly, Tiger Woods pledged his loyalty to the PGA Tour at the end of 2021.

“I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is,” Woods said in November 2021. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships, and been a part of the World Golf Championships, the start of them and the end of them. So I have allegiance to the PGA Tour.”

What has been the response from the PGA Tour?

Some observers believe the tour’s recent purse and FedEx Cup prize money increases are a direct response to the SGL threat; however, when the tour’s new media rights deal was announced in the beginning of 2020 (a nine-year agreement believed to be valued at $7 billion), Monahan promised the money would “put us in a position to significantly increase player earnings.” In that same breath, the tour enacted a Player Impact Program in 2021, an initiative aimed at compensating the game’s most popular names separate from how they perform on the course. Last year, $40 million was allocated for the top 10 players on the tour’s PIP standings, with $50 million assigned for 2022. The tour will also award a $50,000 bonus for any player who reaches 15 starts during the 2021-22 season.

As for the idea that players may be excommunicated from the tour if they join the SGL, Monahan remains steadfast in his declaration from January 2020: them or us. Per Monahan’s ultimatum from 2020: “If the Team Golf Concept [one of the other names used by the PGL] or another iteration of this structure becomes a reality in 2022 or at any time before or after, our members will have to decide whether they want to continue to be a member of the PGA Tour or play on a new series.” At a players meeting at the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship, Monahan repeated his position: Any player joining the Saudi-backed golf league will face immediate suspension and possible expulsion from the PGA Tour. Though questions have arisen if the tour can lawfully ban a player for life, legal experts confirmed to Golf Digest that the PGA Tour would likely win any battle challenging its authority to do so.

At the Players Championship, the tour’s flagship event, Monahan said “We’re moving on,” adding “All this talk about the league and about money has been distracting to our players, our partners and most importantly our fans. We’re focused on legacy, not leverage.”

What has been the response from golf’s other organizations?

With its strategic alliance, the European Tour—rebranded in 2022 as the DP World Tour—is in lockstep with the PGA Tour. Perhaps the biggest unknown is how Augusta National, the PGA of America, the USGA and the R&A will respond to players siding with LIV Golf; specifically, if LIV Golf players will still be allowed to compete in the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and the Open Championship. Augusta National, the USGA and R&A issued statements supporting the PGA Tour and European Tour in May 2021, yet most of the statements didn't address the playing status of those who defect. The PGA of America was direct in its answer, with CEO Seth Waugh stating at the 2021 PGA Championship that those players who joined the rival league would not be allowed in future PGA Championships or Ryder Cups.

“If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they're going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the [PGA] Tour,” Waugh said. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don't know that we can be more clear than that. It's a little murkier in our championship, but to play, from a U.S. perspective, you also have to be a member of the tour and the PGA of America to play in our championship, and we don't see that changing.”

Why does all this matter?

Ethics and morals aside, a divided world at the sport’s top levels could have massive ramifications in the game. Should Mickelson, DeChambeau and many of the European names listed splinter, the PGA Tour would likely be fine; only DeChambeau qualifies as a player with notable accomplishments that remains in his prime. Essentially, the SGL would be a Senior Tour light with the possible addition of the polarizing 2020 U.S. Open champ.

However, should a high number of 35-and-younger players with playing pedigrees and popularity side with the Saudi-backed league, professional golf could transform into professional boxing, a sport whose competition has been watered down by rivaling governing bodies with conflicting financial interests. The sport’s relevance, and to an extent existence, would be at stake.

What comes next?

LIV Golf Investments has mostly operated in the shadows. Robust participation in this year’s Saudi Invitational from tour players and matters like Westwood’s NDA and Mickelson’s comments have spurred belief that something is happening. The March 15 schedule announcement is the closest sign that something is coming to fruition. But, reiterated above, zero players remain committed to the venture. If the series is to be played as scheduled, an announcement of players electing to compete in the events will need to happen at some point. Otherwise, no players, no league.