A startup professional golf tour backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has roiled the usually staid world of professional golf — the PGA Tour — in the United States.
The PGA suspended 17 professional players last week for participating in the inaugural Saudi tournament, which began June 9.
The new tour, the LIV Golf Invitational Series, has caused controversy for months, in large part because critics of the Saudi regime’s policies claimed it was a way to launder the reputation of the country’s monarchy, particularly that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The crown prince has been held in disrepute internationally since at least 2018, when agents of his government allegedly assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and dismembered his body to hide the evidence. The CIA later concluded that Salman ordered the killing.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who, as a candidate in 2019, declared that Saudi Arabia should be considered a “pariah” state based on its record of human rights abuses, including the Khashoggi killing, is currently attempting a rapprochement with the Saudi regime. He is expected to visit Riyadh in July.
A new approach
The Roman numerals in the new tour’s name — LIV, or 54 — refer to its format. Unlike the traditional PGA Tour, which typically involves four rounds of golf totaling 72 holes, LIV Golf consists of just three rounds, for a total of 54 holes.
LIV Golf markets itself as taking a fresh approach to a sport steeped in history, decorum and understatement. Its tournaments feature loud music, a team format and “shotgun” starts in which all teams begin play at the same time at different holes.
The new tour also offers large purses. On Saturday, South African golfer Charl Schwartzel won the tournament’s top individual prize of $4 million. Schwartzel’s side also won the team competition, splitting an additional $3 million between the four of them.
The Saudis are also reportedly paying top players undisclosed appearance fees, which in some cases might exceed the prize money on offer at specific tournaments.
Indeed, the amount of money the Saudis are pouring into LIV Golf appears be a major reason it has been able to separate well-known players, including Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, from the PGA Tour.
Early this year, American golfer Phil Mickelson, one of the most popular and successful players of his generation, sparked anger after a biographer quoted him weighing the pros and cons of playing in the new league.
Characterizing the Saudi leadership as “scary,” Mickelson said, “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?”
Mickelson went on to say that he has joined LIV Golf because he saw the new league as a way to force change on the PGA Tour, which he characterized as “manipulative” and “coercive,” toward players.
“The Saudi money has finally given us that leverage,” he said.
Mickelson was immediately dropped by a number of high-profile sponsors. He later apologized and withdrew from professional golf for months. However, he was on hand when the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational London tournament kicked off June 9 in Hemel Hempstead, England.
As the LIV event began, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan sent a letter to the tour members announcing that 17 players had been suspended for their participation. Ten of them had already voluntarily resigned their PGA Tour membership.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” a decision, he wrote, that “disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”
He added: “I am certain our fans and partners — who are surely tired of all this talk of money, money and more money — will continue to be entertained and compelled by the world-class competition you display each and every week, where there are true consequences for every shot you take and your rightful place in history whenever you reach that elusive winner’s circle.”
LIV Golf responded immediately with a statement of its own.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and it deepens the divide between the Tour and its members,” it said. “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. This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”
‘Staggering’ amount of money
John A. Fortunato, a professor at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business, told VOA that the question of “free agency” in golf is not new. Some European players, for example, play in PGA Tour events in the U.S. but also participate in non-PGA events in Europe.
Fortunato, the author of the book Making the Cut: Life Inside the PGA Tour System, also said that freedom from the PGA’s participation rules is probably not the main driver behind some players opting for the LIV, he said.
“The amount of money is staggering,” he said. Indeed, Schwartzel’s $4 million purse in the LIV opener dwarfed the approximately $1.5 million that Rory McIlroy took home for winning a PGA Tour event in Canada on the same weekend.
Television deals and sponsors
Fortunato said the new league’s long-term success will hinge in part on getting television networks to cover its tournaments — a task that will be difficult in the U.S., given that most major broadcast networks as well as cable sports giant ESPN have long-standing relationships with the PGA Tour.
He said another factor will be how two “major” tournaments in the U.S. that are not run by the PGA Tour decide to address the issue of LIV participation.
One of those tournaments, the U.S. Open, begins Thursday, June 16, and appears poised to allow LIV participants to play. But that may be in part because the organizers did not have time to develop a policy toward the new tour.
The next Masters Tournament, held by the Augusta National Golf Club, will not take place until spring 2023. The Masters could prevent LIV participants from playing in Augusta.
“That’s the big domino that I’m watching,” Fortunato said. “And that is the thing that the PGA Tour, I think, is most hoping for.”