The PGA Tour has sternly refused to grant its members the opportunity to take part in the inaugural event of a rival Saudi-backed golf tour, which will debut next month outside London. The move, announced in a memo to tour members on Tuesday night, was no surprise — the PGA Tour is protecting its business — but in the most gentleman’s sport, it revealed an unusual rancor.
He also pressures the world’s best male golfers, who are highly paid entrepreneurs, to choose sides to collect their millions of dollars in compensation. And not without consequence, the center of the dispute is often at the origin of the alternative golf circuit, LIV Golf, whose majority shareholder is the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the new tour has already sparked controversy. Phil Mickelson sparked a firestorm of criticism in February after acknowledging that Saudi Arabia had a “horrendous human rights record” – including the murder of a Washington Post reporter – but said that he would still go on the new tour as it was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to lobby the PGA Tour. Mickelson later said his remarks were “reckless”.
Retired champion Greg Norman, who is the managing director of LIV Golf Investments, made even more startling comments on Wednesday about Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, during an interview on the website of the event in North London.
In a series tense exchanges with journalists, Norman downplayed Khashoggi’s murder (“Look, we’ve all made mistakes”); attempted to distance himself from Saudi Arabia’s recent execution of 81 people in a single day (“I don’t look at the politics of things”); and dodged a question about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the LGBT community by implying that it doesn’t affect them. “I don’t even know if I have gay friends, to be honest with you,” he said.
Norman’s comments – and the threat of the PGA Tour – may make the LIV Tour even more toxic for players considering taking part. But the overwhelming likelihood is that only a small number of players with little reputation on the US-established PGA Tour – plus a handful of golfers past their prime – will make it to the new series, which may not be lacking in popularity. money but currently lacks prestige, even a TV contract.
So far, dozens of Tour players, including all of the top men’s world rankings, have pledged their loyalty to the PGA Tour.
On several occasions, Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner ranked seventh in the world, has declared the breakaway tour “dead in the water”. He also disapproved of his Saudi underpinnings, saying, “I didn’t like where the money was coming from.” Lined up with the 33-year-old McIlroy were some of the game’s dominant new faces, like Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth.
Caught up in the dispute is one of the sport’s most renowned players, Mickelson, who has been away from competitive golf for months since making his comments in favor of the separatist league.
Mickelson was one of many players affiliated with the PGA Tour, including Sergio García of Spain and Lee Westwood of England, who requested a tour release to play in the first event of an international LIV golf series at the Centurion Club. near London from June. 9 to 11.
The tour refuses to grant these releases, which means players who choose to participate in the LIV Golf event will be deemed to be in violation of tour regulations. Disciplinary action could include suspension or revocation of tour membership.
Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour, has made it clear to players this year that the Tour will suspend players who defect to the rival league. The same may be true for a player wishing to play even just one tournament on LIV Golf’s schedule, which features eight events from June to October, including one in Thailand and five in the United States. At the end of July, the host site will be the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ
Hours after the PGA Tour denied player requests to participate in the Centurion Club event, Norman denounced the tour’s decision.
“Unfortunately, the PGA Tour appears intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf unless it’s exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament,” Norman said. He added: “Instead, the tour intends to perpetuate its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market. The circuit action is anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive.
As if to raise the bar, LIV Golf on Tuesday announced plans for more events from 2023 to 2025.
The next stage of the confrontation could be in court. Monahan insisted that the tour’s lawyers believed his decision-making would withstand legal scrutiny.
While a court case will be less than compelling, the most compelling drama in golf drama will be Mickelson’s situation. He has just days to commit to play in next week’s PGA Championship, which he won last year when he became the oldest major champion at 50. Mickelson has been linked to the LIV Golf circuit for months. In February, he was severely reprimanded for inflammatory comments attributed to him in support of the Saudi-backed tour.
In an interview for a biography to be published next week, Mickelson told reporter Alan Shipnuck that he was aware of the kingdom’s “horrible human rights record” but was prepared to helping the new league because it was a “lifetime opportunity” to significantly increase revenue for PGA Tour players.
Shortly after, Mickelson, a six-time major winner who earned nearly $95 million on the PGA Tour, was dropped by several of his sponsors. He apologized and called his remarks “reckless”.
Next week, perhaps as Mickelson makes final preparations for his return to competitive golf at the PGA Championship, Shipnuck’s book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar,” will be published. It is expected to shed light on Mickelson’s gambling habits, among other things.
García, another player who has long been considered a candidate to join the LIV Golf business, recently voiced his support for the alternative tour in an unconventional way. Playing at last week’s PGA Tour event near Washington, García was told by a golf official about a decision on the course that went against him. This decision was later found to be wrong (but not reversed). García, whose career earnings on the PGA Tour exceed $54 million, told the manager, in a reaction picked up by a nearby TV microphone, “I can’t wait to get off this tour.” He continued, “A few more weeks, I don’t have to take care of you anymore.
García, 42, represents the kind of professional golfer who might be most receptive to the promises of the LIV Golf company. A Masters champion with 11 PGA Tour wins, he struggles to keep up with the most powerful and impactful young players taking over golf. His world ranking slipped to 46th place. He is also not American, like other golfers who would have signed with the breakaway. These players are most likely drawn to LIV Golf’s more global and limited schedule. Some players view the US Tour as overbearing, restrictive, and geared towards events held in the United States.
In the meantime, there is some rowdiness in the genteel world of golf. Its short-term impact is unlikely to shake the boat much. The question will be how long the rival tour can maintain its sustainability and if that will be enough to seriously stir the sport’s usually calm and lucrative waters.