Saudi-backed golf tour lures PGA pros, but backlash lands them in the rough

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The world of professional golf is embroiled in a very messy, very public divorce with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Thursday in London, 17 of the world’s top golfers, including Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, teed off in the first event on the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf tour.

Even though 10 of the 17 players had already formally resigned from the PGA tour, commissioner Jay Monahan officially banned all of them from playing in future PGA events moments after the London event began.

LIV players are still eligible to compete in golf’s four major tournaments, which the PGA does not control.

Phil Mickelson of the United States plays from the first tee during the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational on Thursday. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” Monahan said in a statement. “But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. The expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”

 LIV Golf quickly responded: “It’s troubling that the tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing.”

Like many divorces, this is about money.

The eight-event LIV tour is being funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is controlled by members of the Saudi royal family and has about $600 billion in assets. It is offering prize money of $25 million per tournament, dwarfing even the biggest purses on the PGA tour.

It’s also paid massive appearance fees to entice top players to join this new tour. Johnson and Mickelson were reportedly paid $150 million and $200 million before ever hitting a shot.

Fracturing the game

The RBC Canadian Open, one of the oldest stops on the PGA tour with a total purse of $8.7 million, is being held this week in Toronto and is the first PGA event to go head to head with the LIV tour.

(LIV is the Roman numeral 54, referring to the 54 holes that make up tour events as opposed to the 72 on the PGA Tour)

Even before the tournament began, RBC lost its main spokesperson and face of the Canadian Open when Dustin Johnson abruptly bolted to the LIV Tour.

Wyndham Clark of the United States lines up his putt on the 8th green during the first round of the RBC Canadian Open in Toronto on Thursday. One of the oldest stops on the PGA tour, the Canadian Open is also the first PGA event to go head-to-head against LIV tour. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Tournament officials point to a quality field featuring five of the top 10 players in the world and robust ticket sales as evidence that despite LIV’s arrival on the scene, the PGA is stronger than ever.

“You want to watch the best players in the world, especially some of the best young players in the world. They’re here in Canada. They’re here in Toronto,” RBC Canadian Open tournament director Bryan Crawford told CBC.

At the same time, players expressed worry about how this new deep-pocketed tour could change golf’s future.

“Any decision that you make in your life that’s purely for money usually doesn’t end up going the right way,” said four-time major winner Rory McIlroy. “I think it’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the game.”

Canadian golfer Graham DeLaet, who played for more than decade on the PGA tour before recently retiring, says it will be hard for many players to turn their backs on money never seen before in golf.

“There’s a lot of ethical and moral questions regarding where the money is coming from but guys make their own decisions and, when that cheque is dangled in front of your eyes,  I mean it makes things a little more difficult,” DeLaet told CBC.

As DeLaet points out, this story is about more than just money and golf. It’s also about politics.

There has been a renewed focus on Saudi regime backing the upstart LIV tour and its atrocious human rights record including, most recently, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

WATCH | LIV Golf’s big money has lured top golfers away from PGA tour:

Saudi-funded golf league poaches top talent from PGA tour

The LIV Golf league funded by the Saudi government is poaching some of the world’s top golfers, including Dustin Johnson, to leave the PGA Tour.

Golf vs. politics

In the days leading up to the London event, players like Mickelson did their best to keep the worlds of golf and politics separate.

 “I’m certainly aware of what happened with Jamal Khashoggi and I think it’s terrible,” Mickelson said. “I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history, and I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good.”

Mickelson, right, shakes hands with Saudi businessman Yasir Al-Rumayyan after the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational at St. Albans, England. Al-Rumayyan is the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is backing LIV Golf. (Paul Childs/Reuters)

Fellow LIV player Graeme McDowell rejected the notion that by participating in the Saudi backed tour, he was normalizing or excusing the regime’s atrocities.

“I think as golfers, if we tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world that we play golf in, we wouldn’t play a lot of golf,” he said.

Still, some contend that for golfers, many who have made a fortune playing the game, this should be about more than the money being dangled by the LIV Tour.

Cheri Bradish, a sport marketing professor at Toronto Metropolitan University, argues that the golfers who so far have rejected LIV’s overtures may be the ultimate winners in this just-beginning battle.

“If you want to think about keeping your partners, doing your speaking gigs and still having relationships commercially and people will argue with $150 million, you don’t need those,” Bradish said. 

“But you want to believe in this society. that sports figures will understand that they can and could and should do very good things with the platform that they have.”

 



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