Professional golf arrived at a crossroads Thursday as an insurgent, Saudi-backed tour teed off on a tree-lined course outside London and the PGA Tour suspended the players who had defected, turning what would normally be a sleepy weekday on the golf schedule into one of the strangest and most consequential days in the history of a sport suddenly on the precipice of seismic change.
Having poached players with tens of millions of guaranteed dollars and promised fans more action than traditional tournaments, LIV Golf staged the opening round of its inaugural tournament at Centurion Club in England amid criticism it was participating in an attempt to cleanse the global reputation of the Saudi Arabian government.
Moments after the first balls flew through the air, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan sent a memo to members from the tour’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., announcing the tour had suspended the 17 of its players participating in LIV Golf and, with several other stars on the verge of leaving, vowing it would do the same to others.
The Tour’s immediate and strong response underscored the existential threat LIV Golf presents to the business model around which professional golf revolved from the days of Arnold Palmer through Jack Nicklaus’s prime to Tiger Woods’s reign.
Shepherded into existence by former pro golfer Greg Norman and backed by a Saudi investment fund, LIV Golf attracted a number of PGA Tour stalwarts by offering massive signing bonuses and purses; shorter, no-cut events; a lighter schedule; and guaranteed prize money and appearance fees that are foreign to almost every form of professional golf. The rebel tour has no designs on turning a short-term profit, aiming instead to gain an instant foothold in the sport. It used nine-figure contracts to lure Phil Mickelson — a six-time major winner and one of golf’s most familiar faces, who infamously referred to the Saudis as “scary mother-------” in an interview with his biographer — and Dustin Johnson, two of the game’s greatest players.
The PGA Tour has argued to its players that moving to LIV Golf will cost them stability and legacy. LIV Golf can offer guaranteed money on par with athletes in other sports, even if many believe the money is tainted by atrocities of a repressive Saudi government.
The insurgent players will compete initially in an eight-event series around the globe. Two tournaments, including the season finale, will be played at courses owned by former president Donald Trump, whose courses the PGA Tour has distanced itself from. With a handful of players, including major winners Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, expected to jump to LIV Golf by its next tournament June 30 in Portland, Ore., the series is threatening to reconfigure the order of a mannerly sport.
“It’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the game,” star Rory McIlroy, perhaps the most vociferous defender of the PGA Tour, told reporters Wednesday at a news conference before the Canadian Open. “The professional game is the window shop into golf. If the general public are confused about who is playing where and what tournament’s on this week and who is, you know, ‘Oh, he plays there, okay, and he doesn’t get into these events,’ it just becomes so confusing. I think everything needs to try to become more cohesive, and I think it was on a pretty good trajectory until this happened.”
Players who join LIV probably will face the same thorny questions their peers did this week, when golfers deflected reporters’ inquiries about the Saudi government’s alleged killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights concerns.
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell said in a news conference that “the Khashoggi situation” was “reprehensible” but that he believed LIV Golf could be a positive force.
“I just try to be a great role model to kids,” McDowell said. “We are not politicians. I know [reporters] hate that expression, but we are really not, unfortunately. We are professional golfers.”
That stance may be exactly what the Saudis want as they seek to change the subject from alleged human rights violations.
“The Saudis want normality. They want to be seen as supporters of a game that a lot of people like to watch and play. They’ll therefore expect the players to behave much as they would do in any other tournament,” said University of Sussex politics professor Dan Hough, who specializes in integrity and corruption in sports. “It’ll be much more a case of talking positively about the tournament they are involved in from a golfing perspective.”
In his memo to PGA Tour players, Monahan pointedly referred to LIV Golf as the “Saudi Golf League” and called LIV Golf participants “players who have decided to turn their backs on the PGA Tour.”
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” Monahan wrote. “But they can’t demand the same PGA TOUR membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. That expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”
Monahan told players he is certain fans and sponsors “are tired of all this talk of money, money and more money.” But the tour has attempted to assuage players with its own financial incentives. It has raised purses, enhanced end-of-season bonus money and introduced the Player Impact Program, which funnels money to stars based on a combination of performance and off-course promotion.
The tour, though, cannot compete financially with the deep pockets of LIV Golf or its guaranteed money for appearances, which violates the PGA Tour’s entrenched pay-for-performance ethos. Its best appeal may be the promise of playing in non-tour events such as the four majors, the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup, which is scheduled for September. The organizations that run those events have not offered definitive decisions on how to deal with the breakaway players.
The U.S. Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open, said this week it will allow players who have already qualified to play next week in Brookline, Mass. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, whose organization runs the PGA Championship, said last month that he didn’t think LIV Golf was “good for the game” and that his group supported golf’s current “ecosystem.”
The PGA Tour also recognizes it could receive a legal challenge from the suspended players, backed by LIV. Mickelson, who took a months-long, self-imposed exile after his controversial comments surfaced, has said he intends to keep the lifetime exemption his performance earned him.
“You probably have more questions,” Monahan wrote in his Thursday memo to players. “What’s next? Can these players come back? Can they eventually play PGA Tour Champions [the tour’s senior circuit]? Trust that we’ve prepared to deal with those questions.”
Meanwhile, the new league — whose LIV name refers to the Roman numeral of its 54-hole events and rhymes with “give” — struck a cheery tone during its first round. Without a traditional television deal, it was streamed on YouTube, Facebook and the LIV website. The event began with a shotgun start, placing threesomes at every tee box on the course as men in Beefeater outfits blew an opening horn.
“I feel so happy for the players. I feel so happy that we’ve brought free agency to golf,” Norman said as the first broadcast began.
Said Johnson: “I’m just excited to get it started. It’s a new chapter for golf. The fans are going to love it. All the players who are here are going to love it.”
But in a statement released by LIV Golf with the first round underway, the crisis roiling this sport was laid bare.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and it deepens the divide between the Tour and its members,” the statement said, in part. “ … This certainly is not the last word on this topic.”
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