After LIV Golf lured players with tens of millions of dollars guaranteed and promised fans more action than traditional tournaments, LIV Golf staged the opening round of its inaugural tournament at England’s Centurion Club amid criticism that it was taking part in an attempt to boost the Saudis’ global reputation to clean Arab 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., and announced that the tour had suspended the 17 of its players participating in LIV Golf and, with several other stars on the verge of departure, vowed they would do the same would do with others.
Everything you need to know about the LIV Golf Invitational Series
The tour’s immediate and powerful response underscored the existential threat that LIV Golf posed to the business model around which professional golf revolved from the days of Arnold Palmer to the heyday of Jack Nicklaus to the reign of Tiger Woods.
LIV Golf was founded by former professional golfer Greg Norman and backed by a Saudi investment fund. LIV Golf attracted a number of PGA Tour stars by offering massive signing bonuses and purses. shorter, uncut events; an easier schedule; and guaranteed prize money and appearance fees unheard of in almost any form of professional golf. The Rebel Tour has no intention of making a short-term profit, instead aiming to break into the sport immediately. It used nine-figure contracts to lure in Phil Mickelson — a six-time Major winner and one of golf’s most recognizable faces, who shamefully dubbed the Saudis a “creepy mom ——-” in an interview with his biographer — and Dustin Johnson, two of the greatest players in the game.
The PGA Tour has argued to its players that moving to LIV Golf will cost them stability and legacy. LIV Golf is guaranteed to offer money on par with athletes in other sports, although many believe the money is tainted by atrocities by a repressive Saudi government.
Insurgent players will first compete in a series of eight events across the globe. Two tournaments, including the season finale, will be played on courts owned by former President Donald Trump, from whose courts the PGA Tour has distanced itself. With a handful of players, including big winners Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, expected to jump over to LIV Golf by the next tournament on June 30 in Portland, Oregon, the series threatens to reconfigure the order of a decent sport.
“It’s a shame it’s going to destroy the game,” star Rory McIlroy, perhaps the most vocal defender on the PGA Tour, said at a press conference ahead of the Canadian Open on Wednesday. “The professional game is window shopping to golf. When the general public is confused as to who is playing where and what tournament is this week and who is, you know, oh he’s playing there, okay, and he’s not in those events, it just gets so confusing. I think everything has to try to be more cohesive and I think it was on a pretty good way until that happened.”
Players joining LIV are likely to face the same thorny questions as their peers did this week, as golfers deflected inquiries from reporters about the Saudi government’s alleged assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights concerns.
Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland said in a press conference that “the situation in Khashoggi” was “reprehensible” but that he believed LIV Golf could be a positive force.
Dustin Johnson leaves PGA and joins Phil Mickelson on Saudi Arabia-backed tour
“I’m just trying to be a great role model for kids,” McDowell said. “We are not politicians. I know [reporters] hate that expression, but unfortunately we really aren’t. We are professional golfers.”
This stance may be exactly what the Saudis want as they seek to divert the issue from alleged human rights abuses.
“The Saudis want normality. They want to be seen as a supporter of a game that a lot of people enjoy watching and playing. They therefore expect players to behave similarly to any other tournament,” said Dan Hough, a University of Sussex politics professor who specializes in integrity and corruption in sport. “It’s going to be a lot more about speaking positively about the tournament they’re involved in from a golfer’s perspective.”
In his memo to PGA Tour players, Monahan specifically referred to LIV Golf as the “Saudi golf league” and named LIV Golf attendees “players who have decided to leave the PGA Tour.”
“These players made their choices for their own financial reasons,” Monahan wrote. “But they cannot demand the same benefits, considerations, opportunities and platforms of PGA TOUR membership that you do. That expectation respects you, our fans and our partners.”
Monahan told players he’s sure fans and sponsors are “sick of all this talk about money, money and more money.” But the Tour has tried to reassure players with its own financial incentives. It has raised purses, increased end-of-season bonus money and introduced the Player Impact Program, which directs money to stars based on a combination of off-court performance and promotion.
However, the Tour cannot compete financially with LIV Golf’s deep pockets or its guaranteed money for appearances, which goes against the PGA Tour’s ingrained pay-for-performance ethos. His biggest appeal might be the promise of competing in non-tour events like the four Majors, the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup, which is slated for September. The organizations hosting these events have not made any final decisions on how to deal with the renegade players.
Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed will reportedly join Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf
The US Golf Association, which hosts the US Open, said this week It will allow players who have already qualified to play in Brookline, Massachusetts next week. Seth Waugh, CEO of PGA of America, whose organization hosts the PGA Championship, said last month that he doesn’t think LIV Golf is “good for the game” that his group supports the current golf “ecosystem.”
The PGA Tour also recognizes that it could be legally challenged by the suspended players with support from LIV. Mickelson, who took a months-long self-imposed exile after his controversial comments surfaced, has said he intends to keep the life ban 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 have prepared for these questions.”
Meanwhile, the new league – whose LIV name refers to the Roman numeral of their 54-hole events and rhymes with “give” – struck a cheery tone in their first round. Without a traditional television deal, it was streamed on YouTube, Facebook and the LIV website. The event began with a shotgun start, with threes being placed on the course at each tee while men in Beefeater outfits blew an opening horn.
“I’m so happy for the players. I’m so happy we’ve brought free rein to the sport of golf,” Norman said as the first show began.
Johnson said: “I’m just looking forward to getting started on this. It’s a new chapter for golf. The fans will love it. All players who are here will love it.”
But in a statement published by LIV Golf With the ongoing first round, the crisis that was throwing this sport upside down was revealed.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and deepens the rift between the Tour and its members,” the statement said, in part. “…This is certainly not the last word on the subject.”