The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi-backed golf venture looks to lure elite players. The PGA Tour warns: It’s us or them.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has taken steps over the past year that appeared aimed at keeping top golfers from being tempted to join the Premier Golf League. (Chris Carlson/AP)

The commissioner of the PGA Tour threatened top players Tuesday with expulsion from the circuit, per multiple reports, if they sign on with a proposed venture that promises huge payouts.

The subject of the Premier Golf League, which has been floating around men’s golf for several years and appeared to be gaining momentum before the coronavirus pandemic, resurfaced Tuesday when the Telegraph reported players such as Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka have been offered contracts in the tens of millions. The British newspaper also reported that representatives of the PGL from Saudi Arabia, where the venture is getting much of its backing, have stationed themselves in Jupiter, Fla., and are “demanding decisions imminently.”

“It’s still alive, and players and agents are just listening to their pitch,” an unidentified agent who represents PGA players told ESPN. “That’s about it at this point. Just a lot of listening.”

“The money is there,” an agent told Golfweek. “I heard $1 billion. This is real.”

Organizers want the circuit to begin play in September 2022, according to the Telegraph. Reports last year claimed the PGL would comprise 18 tournaments around the world featuring 12 four-person teams competing over 54 holes, with no cuts and shotgun starts to fit entire rounds into a TV-friendly five-hour window. reported Tuesday that the breakaway tour, which might be renamed Super League Golf, has worked out plans for five events featuring 16 four-person teams, with players also competing individually. A source told the website that others invited to join include Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and 2021 Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama. The Telegraph reported that Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler are also mulling offers.

Johnson’s agent, David Winkle, told via text that there was “absolutely no truth whatsoever” to talk that his client had already agreed in principle to captain one of the teams.

“Like most other top players, [Johnson] has listened to their vision,” Winkle said, “but that is all.”

The possible choice of Super League Golf as the venture’s title would be all the more noteworthy because of the recent spectacular rise and fall of the European Super League, a proposed annual soccer tournament composed mostly of an unchanging roster of elite clubs.

The PGL would have a similar, massively disruptive impact on golf. Assuming the venture goes ahead in some form, it is unclear whether it would conflict with the four majors — none of which are directly run by the PGA Tour — or if events would count toward the World Golf Ranking and other points systems critical to the way tournaments assemble their fields.

One thing is clear: The PGL would severely damage the PGA Tour, and Commissioner Jay Monahan has tried to head it off at the pass.

With PGL organizers making overtures to the European Tour last fall — the Telegraph quoted that organization’s CEO, Keith Pelley, as saying it received “a very compelling offer to take the Tour to another level but in a different direction” — the PGA Tour moved to acquire a minority stake in its European counterpart.

Reports then emerged last month that the PGA Tour had created a $40 million bonus pool to reward top players for helping popularize golf. Based on public-visibility metrics such as Q Scores, the Player Impact Program was widely viewed as a means of providing an extra source of funding to golf’s biggest names.

At a meeting Tuesday at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club, where players have gathered to compete in the Wells Fargo Championship, Monahan reminded players (per the Telegraph) that signing with the PGL means an immediate ban and a lifetime suspension from the PGA Tour. Players were also threatened with banishment from Ryder Cup consideration, with Monahan claiming (per Golf Digest) that the European Tour and his organization were of the same mind in regard to the PGL.

One notable player to whom Monahan probably did not have to address his remarks was Rory McIlroy, whose name was not included in reports Tuesday. Saying in February 2020 that he would “like to be on the right side of history on this one,” McIlroy made it clear at the time that he wanted no part of the PGL.

“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it,” McIlroy said. “The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do. … If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice. I’ve never been one for being told what to do, and I like to have that autonomy and freedom over my career, and I feel like I would give that up by going to play this other league.”

“Money is the easy part,” he added. “It shouldn’t be the driving factor. … If everyone else goes, I might not have a choice. But at this point, I don’t like what they’re proposing.”

Other PGA Tour stars were less inclined to shut the door. Tiger Woods said at the time that he and his team were “looking into it,” and Mickelson said in January 2020 that he found the general concept of the PGL “intriguing.”

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” Harris English, the world’s 23rd-ranked player, said Tuesday. “This is the best tour in the world. The best players are making tons of money. Why don’t we just focus on continuing to improve this tour?”

Webb Simpson, No. 9 in the world and the 2012 U.S. Open champion, said he has always viewed the PGL as “something that seems pretty far-fetched to actually happen.”

“Are the best players in the world really going to go to this tour if only eight of the top 25 in the world ranking are going to go?” Simpson asked from Quail Hollow. “I think as a top player, I want to play against the best. At the end of the day, if you have a career long enough, I think most of these guys, they’re financially set. They want to break records; they want to win. … So [if] you create a new tour, all these records get kind of thrown out the window, I think.”

“I don’t think throwing X amount of money at guys is as appealing now as it maybe once was, because of how great the opportunities we have on the PGA Tour,” Simpson added. “Whatever the number is — $350 million we’re playing for this year — and what FedEx has done, there’s so many opportunities for guys to make a great living here.”

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