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Dustin Johnson quits PGA, joins Phil Mickelson on Saudi-backed tour

Dustin Johnson has resigned from his membership the PGA Tour and will join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf. (Paul Childs/Reuters)
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Dustin Johnson said Tuesday he has resigned his membership in the PGA Tour to play in the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series. Johnson’s announcement came a day after Phil Mickelson said he would play this week in the breakaway circuit’s inaugural event outside London.

Johnson, a two-time major champion and former world No. 1, will play all eight events in the $255 million series that starts Thursday at Centurion Club. It was revealed last week that Johnson’s name was listed among a group of players who will play in LIV Golf’s inaugural event.

“I don’t want to play for the rest of my life,” the 37-year-old Johnson told reporters during a Tuesday news conference in England that was led by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. “This gives me an opportunity to do what I want to do.”

Johnson reportedly will receive more than $100 million, plus any prize money, by joining the new league. He has won $74 million — more than any golfer other than Tiger Woods and Mickelson — over his career on the PGA Tour.

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The move puts Johnson’s eligibility for this year’s Presidents Cup and the 2023 Ryder Cup in doubt. Johnson was 5-0 in matches in last year’s Ryder Cup and has played in Presidents Cup competition four times. “The Ryder Cup is unbelievable and has meant a lot to me,” he said, “but ultimately I decided this was best for me and my family. All things are subject to change and hopefully at some point it will change and I will get a chance to do that again.”

Louis Oosthuizen, ranked 21st in the world, said he had quit the PGA Tour as well. “It was probably going to be my last year on Tour,” the 39-year-old South African said. “I always said when I get to 40, I want to do something else. Everyone knows I love being on the farm [in Florida and South Africa]. So I was almost done. Then along came this.”

There are political ramifications to joining the Saudi tour, given the country’s murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights violations.

“I think we all agree up here, take the Khashoggi situation — we all agree that was reprehensible,” Northern Ireland golfer Graeme McDowell told the news conference. “No one is going to argue that fact, but we are golfers. Speaking personally, I feel that golf is a force of good in the world.”

Last week, the Royal Bank of Canada announced that it would no longer sponsor McDowell and Johnson because of their move to the LIV series.

Mickelson has for years complained that golfers have been mistreated financially by the PGA Tour, and he and three unidentified players paid for attorneys to write the operating agreement for the fledgling league, which is being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Mickelson has not played in a PGA Tour event since missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January; he missed the Masters for the first time since 1994 and did not defend his PGA Championship title. His absence followed comments that he made to biographer Alan Shipnuck in which he said he was willing to overlook Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to get the new league off the ground.

“They’re scary motherf-----s to get involved with,” Mickelson said. “We know they killed [Khashoggi] and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

In a statement Monday, Mickelson said: “I have made mistakes in my career in some of the things I have said and done. Taking time away and self-reflecting has been very humbling. I needed to start prioritizing the people that I love the most and work on becoming a better version of myself.”

Financial details of Mickelson’s deal with LIV Golf were not made public. Golf Channel reported he was set to receive approximately $200 million for his participation.

Greg Norman, a two-time British Open champion and former world No. 1 who heads LIV Golf Investments, echoed some of Mickelson’s language about the PGA Tour in declaring Monday that the new venture “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for many of the players teeing it up in the inaugural event.

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Describing the 51-year-old Mickelson as “unequivocally one of the greatest golfers of this generation,” Norman stated: “His contributions to the sport and connection to fans around the globe cannot be overstated and we are grateful to have him. He strengthens an exciting field for London where we’re proud to launch a new era for golf.”

Mickelson will join 47 other golfers in the LIV Golf event starting Thursday at Centurion Club; it will be a 54-hole tournament that will feature team competitions, shotgun starts and no cuts. The name “LIV,” which is pronounced like “give,” refers to the Roman numerals for 54.

At No. 15 in the world rankings, Johnson will be the highest-ranked player in the field, but the 72nd-ranked Mickelson, by virtue of his career accomplishments and his popularity, is perhaps an even greater asset to the new operation. In the PGA Tour’s inaugural Player Impact Program, which gives out bonuses based on performance and marketability, Mickelson finished second behind Tiger Woods.

After Johnson, LIV Golf’s next-highest-ranked player is Oosthuizen (21), followed by fellow American Kevin Na (34). A 38-year-old who has been a regular on the PGA Tour since 2005, Na said he was resigning from the tour to avoid possibly “facing disciplinary proceedings and legal action.”

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PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has said any golfer who joins LIV Golf could be permanently banned, and the tour did not give its golfers permission to play in this week’s event. Norman has countered that Monahan cannot legally ban players who wish to play on different tours.

The PGA Tour had granted releases to several players to play in the Saudi International, an Asian Tour event staged in February where Mickelson made his most recent competitive appearance. While there, he blasted the PGA Tour for “sitting on hundreds of millions of digital moments” worth, in his estimation, many billions of dollars and for charging him and other golfers to use footage of shots they made in tour events.

“That type of greed is, to me, beyond obnoxious,” Mickelson said then.

In comments Monday to Sports Illustrated, Mickelson said he had not “resigned my membership” from the PGA Tour.

“I worked really hard to earn that lifetime membership [with at least 20 wins and 15 seasons on the tour],” he added. “And I’m hopeful that I’ll have the ability to play wherever I want, where it’s the PGA Tour, LIV or wherever else I want.”

In his statement Monday, Mickelson said he intends to “play the majors,” which are not operated by the PGA Tour. The USGA, which operates the U.S. Open, on Tuesday announced that anyone who has qualified for next week’s tournament will be allowed to take the course at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

“Our decision regarding our field for the 2022 U.S. Open should not be construed as the USGA supporting an alternative organizing entity, nor supportive of any individual player actions or comments,” the USGA said in a statement. “Rather, it is simply a response to whether or not the USGA views playing in an alternative event, without the consent of their home tour, an offense that should disqualify them for the U.S. Open.

Mickelson also has lost a number of sponsorships since his comments about the Saudis were made public, among them KPMG and Amstel Light.

“I am ready to come back to play the game I love but after 32 years this new path is a fresh start, one that is exciting for me at this stage of my career and is clearly transformative, not just for myself, but ideally for the game and my peers,” Mickelson said in his statement.

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LIV Golf: The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, controversial and lavish, figures to present some level of harm to the stately old PGA Tour. Players are noticing.

Barry Svrluga: “LIV Golf? At the moment, at least, it feels like it has more legs. This is more than an existential threat to the way professional golf is staged and the way professional golfers make their schedules and their livings. This is an actual threat.”

The Shark is on the attack again: With decades of resentment and an appetite for combat, golf legend Greg Norman is throwing his sport into chaos. This time, he’s doing it with Saudi money.