HERTFORDSHIRE, England – The backlash has been fierce, understandably so. Greg Norman is at the front of a group attempting to change professional golf, while disrupting the organization that helped build his Hall of Fame credentials and doing so with funding by a controversial regime.
Norman, 67, has taken the shots and is ready for more after the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event concluded Saturday at the Centurion Club outside London, where South African Charl Schwartzel – a former Masters champion who recently gave up his PGA Tour membership recently – won the inaugural tournament and its $4 million first prize and another $750,000 for being part of the winning team.
“We’re not going anywhere,’’ said Norman, the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf, in an interview Saturday afternoon with SI.com/Morning Read. “We believe what we are doing can be a part of golf’s ecosystem. What we’re doing shows that golf is a force for good and players have come over to us because they have another platform to choose from. They’re professionals, they’re independent contractors. They’re negotiating contracts for their benefit. There’s nothing wrong with a guy having the ability to enhance his value.’’
Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson have seen their value enhanced significantly, with multi-year contracts, each reportedly in excess of a total of $100 million. Tournament purses are $25 million, with $20 million for the individual portion and $5 million paid out to the top three teams. A season-ending team championship event will offer a $50 million purse.
The money is coming from the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which invests in companies around the world and uses its resources to contribute to projects that help the country’s reputation. This has been done in all manner of ways but as it relates to golf, the concept is called sportswashing, and Norman has faced a barrage of questions about it from the moment he became LIV Golf commissioner in November.
The same questions have been directed at the 48 players, who answer uncomfortably by typically saying they do not condone the human rights violations that have occurred in Saudi Arabia and see LIV Golf as good for the game. However, they dodge the fact that LIV Golf is also quite good for their bottom lines.
Still, the pushback in February when Mickelson seemingly derailed the mission due to his “obnoxious greed” comments about the PGA Tour was fierce, and the idea of LIV Golf could still happen seemed remote.
And yet, Norman and the LIV Golf executives to put together an alternative plan that delayed the start of the league and simply offered a series of big-money tournaments.
Getting Johnson and Mickelson gave LIV Golf a boost and momentum that Norman sees continuing. Bryson DeChambeau might be the most significant signing yet, as the 2020 U.S. Open champion is just 28. Patrick Reed, who was announced as a new member on Saturday, is only 31.
Scroll to Continue
Others are expected to join before the next event, June 30-July 2, at Pumpkin Ridge outside of Portland, and Norman said he and his team will consider moving adjusting the league structure – a set field of 48 players with 12 four-man teams each week – beginning next year.
“Look at the energy that’s been generated around here,’’ Norman said. “A lot of the players and captains today have come up and said, “Can we get this going?’’ Obviously, we’ll sit down as a team and we’ll discuss it and discuss with our investors to see what the wishes are. But you can feel it. You can feel that coming sooner rather than later.’’
Norman noted plenty of room for improvement. The series of eight events was not announced until late March, and they pulled off this tournament in 10 weeks.
A substantial amount of planning was needed to get the various aspects in place to run an event this size, and for the most part, things went well. Issues can be improved on the broadcast, for sure, Norman said. They will continue to tweak the fan experience, which saw numerous options, including concerts at the conclusion of play each day.
“We’re a start-up,’’ Norman said. “We are not going to be perfect right away. I’ll reach out to each and every one of the principal players and ask them what’s not going right and work to improve everything.’’
Numerous obstacles remain. LIV Golf is submitting a formal application this week to the Official World Golf Ranking to have its events, whether now or in the future, recognized so players can earn points. The founders of the OWGR include the PGA Tour, Augusta National Golf Club, the USGA, the R&A, the PGA of America, the European Tour Group and the International Federation of PGA Tours.
It hopes that the DP World Tour – which has been silent so far – will still allow LIV members to play its events because the Tour minimum is just four tournaments.
And it is bracing for lawsuits if suspended PGA Tour members want to continue to play in those events despite the suspensions. Norman contends that as independent contractors, players should have the ability to play whenever they want outside the PGA Tour.
“I’ve always said to them we’ll backstop you,’’ Norman said. “I’ve been open and honest with each and every one of them. We’ll back them financially with representation because we 100 percent believe we are right. You can’t guarantee anything, but the indicators point that way.’’
Amid all the uncertainty there is a reality: LIV Golf made it through its first event with some momentum, with four consecutive U.S. events still to come that will offer more clarity.