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PGA Tour denies waivers for first event of Saudi-backed rival series

Fans line up around the first tee during the Wells Fargo Championship at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The PGA Tour will not allow its members to play in a tournament next month in London staged by an upstart rival, according to a memo obtained by The Washington Post, drawing a line in the sand that could force players to choose between the PGA Tour and a league backed by billions of Saudi Arabian dollars that has rattled the golf world for months.

The PGA Tour informed players who had asked to be allowed to play June 9 to 11 at the Centurion Club in London, the first of eight scheduled LIV Golf Invitational Series events, that it will not approve their releases, potentially setting up a showdown with the Saudi-backed league and some of its own members. Players who defy the ban would face an undetermined penalty — probably a suspension based on the strength of their commitment to the new entity.

In an emailed memo labeled “confidential,” PGA Tour Executive Vice President Tyler Dennis wrote to all players on the PGA, Korn Ferry and PGA Champions tours that players would not be allowed to participate in the LIV Golf event, referring to the series as the Saudi Golf League.

“I would like to share the PGA TOUR’s decision regarding conflicting event and media release requests for the Saudi Golf League’s event to be played in London during the week of the RBC Canadian Open,” Tuesday’s memo read. “We have notified those who have applied that their request has been declined in accordance with the PGA TOUR Tournament Regulations. As such, TOUR members are not authorized to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event under our Regulations. As a membership organization, we believe this decision is in the best interest of the PGA TOUR and its players.”

Members of the PGA Tour cannot play nonsanctioned events without permission, but it regularly grants releases for players to enter tournaments outside of North America on the DP World Tour, formerly known as the European Tour. For the past several years, it has allowed members to play in the Saudi International, which offers a huge purse and is loosely affiliated with the Asian Tour.

How a Saudi challenge changed golf

Backed by Saudi investment money, the rival league has been recruiting top PGA Tour players for years to join a league, which has taken various forms, that dangled incentives not offered on the PGA Tour: gobs of guaranteed money not tied to performance, a condensed schedule and events without a cut.

Phil Mickelson was the loudest and most accomplished fan of the efforts before his controversial comments led to an apparently self-imposed exile from pro tournaments, including the Masters. Mickelson’s agent said last week that he had applied for a release to play in London.

PGA Tour members who remain committed to play at the Centurion Club would not be punished until they compete in the event, as long as they do not engage in other behavior the PGA Tour deems damaging.

The latest iteration of the Saudi effort is led by LIV Golf Investments and its CEO, Greg Norman, one of the sport’s all-time greats. The PGA Tour had made clear before Tuesday that it would ban players who joined the rival league.

But the LIV Golf Invitational Series conceived a way around those bans. Rather than creating a separate tour, it offered an eight-event schedule with $25 million purses — roughly twice those of standard PGA Tour events — that would not require formal membership. In Norman’s view, players could apply for waivers and enter the tournaments while maintaining PGA Tour membership.

It is unclear how many players applied for a release. It’s likely that some applied with the intent to play in the event and perhaps ultimately join the LIV Golf venture while others asked for the release to keep their options open.

In a recent interview with Sky Sports, Norman said six of the top 50 players in the world rankings — plus 19 of the top 100 and 36 of the top 150 — would be playing in the Centurion Club event.

“Pretty impressive, because there’s been a lot of white noise saying the players wouldn’t even show up,” Norman said. “I’ve been very proud of the fact that the players are making their choices as independent contractors to make a decision and go play golf where they want to play golf.”

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Many have criticized LIV Golf as engaging in “sportswashing,” allowing Saudi Arabia to cleanse the reputation of its oppressive regime through sports. In the Sky Sports interview, Norman called the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi “reprehensible.” When asked directly about the recent mass execution of 81 men, Norman said he did not want to discuss politics and said Saudi Arabia is experiencing a “cultural change from within.”

In the past year, the PGA Tour has attempted to ease concerns of players who may be tempted by the perks of the rival organization. Spurred by a new media rights deal, the PGA Tour increased purses by $60 million, with another $40 million added to end-of-season prize money. It also added a pot of $40 million — which will be raised to $50 million — under the umbrella of the Player Impact Program, money distributed to players for a combination of performance and off-course promotion.

In March, Norman vaguely threatened legal action against the PGA Tour if it prevented players from joining the breakaway league after Commissioner Jay Monahan told the Associated Press that players who defected would be banned. But Tuesday’s memo may have been the PGA Tour’s most aggressive action yet.

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The PGA Tour has been clear that it views LIV Golf as a territorial threat that could dilute professional golf’s talent and cause long-term harm.

“The PGA Tour is moving on,” Monahan said in March. “We have too much momentum and too much to accomplish to be consistently distracted by rumors of other golf leagues and their attempts to disrupt our players, our partners, and most importantly our fans from enjoying the tour and the game we all love so much.”

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