LIV golf tour a controversial threat to the PGA machine
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Golf is full of money. It always has been. Compared to many other sports, it can be expensive to play, with new-tech clubs, pricey green fees and all that swanky gear to wear.
It has broadened its appeal in recent decades (thanks in no small part to Tiger Woods) but it still has a country-club sheen to it. It remains the sport of choice for much of the corporate world. Rich people, to generalize broadly and lazily, like it. And top players, of course, get paid a lot of money for doing it.
They’re about to get a whole load more. Because more money is coming — rival money — and the whole thing is about to get shaken up.
On Thursday, the LIV Golf Invitational Series will begin, a much-debated collection of eight tournaments in a breakaway league that will be hosted across three continents. If you haven’t heard of it then you probably don’t have any interest in golf, because it is all golf has been talking about these past few months.
There are so many moving parts to LIV’s attempt to break through the stranglehold the PGA Tour has on the elite level of the sport that it’s impossible to cover them all in a single column. However, if there is one certainty to emerge right away, it’s that golfers are about to get significantly richer.
LIV is laden with controversy, being bankrolled as it is by the nation of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, but with an eye-popping prize fund of $25 million for its first event — $4 million going to the winner — it was always going to generate attention. Even last place will go home with $120,000.
On Tuesday, former world No. 1 and two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, who was already booked to play this week’s LIV Golf Invitational in England, announced that he was quitting the PGA Tour to take part in the entire LIV Series. 2017 Masters champ Sergio Garcia and other major winners Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen followed suit, with world No. 33 Kevin Na being the first to resign last week.
The commonly held view in golf is that they are doing so to avoid potential legal action or preempt lengthy bans from the PGA Tour, whose commissioner Jay Monahan has spoken out against LIV in the strongest terms since its inception. Johnson is rumored to have landed a nine-figure guarantee to jump ship. Phil Mickelson, who as of early Tuesday had not formally distanced himself from the PGA Tour but will play in England, is expected to receive around $200 million.
The matter is thorny on a number of levels, but the most pressing one is because of the reputation of the Saudi government, which U.S. intelligence services believe commissioned the brutal 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. Amnesty International has directly criticized some LIV-signed golfers for not speaking up about the Saudi government’s "human rights abuses."
Taking the Saudi money, the most popular school of public thought says, is helping Saudi Arabia "sportswash" its issues with money.
"I’m not in this thing for Khashoggi or anything like that," Greg Norman, the Australian former world No. 1 and two-time major champ who is the organizational face of LIV, told the Washington Post. "I’m in here because of the game of golf. That’s what I care about. If I focus on the game of golf and don’t get dragged into this other stuff, that’s my priority."
Norman’s argument, put forward regularly, is that it’s not a golfer’s job to solve political problems and that they should be free agents allowed to play whichever events they like. It is a stance that has landed him in the middle of a wave of criticism, but he is not backing down.
For a while, it seemed as though his project would be doomed to failure. As recently as April, the most notable public signee to LIV was journeyman Robert Garrigus, ranked outside the top 1000.
While most top players have stayed put, enough have moved over that not only will LIV put up a respectable field this week, but also that there must be real cause for concern at PGA Tour headquarters that more recruits will soon follow. Johnson’s arrival was a big-name get for LIV. Rising young star Talor Gooch will also play this week in LIV’s 54-hole event with no cut and a shotgun start, which is aimed at bettering the viewing experience.
With the threat of expulsion having already proven insufficient, the PGA Tour simply has to react differently. Almost certainly, it will raise its prize funds. Perhaps it institutes prize money all the way down to last place, instead of the current system, whereby being in the bottom half that misses the cut ensues zero payment for the week.
Arguably the biggest problem it has now is that two of the biggest names in the game, Johnson and Mickelson, have not only borne the brunt of the criticism for chasing the money but have also set a precedent.
If, say, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Scottie Scheffler were to follow soon, the same level of public scorn may not apply, simply because the initial outcry on such things is always the strongest.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia generates different responses across sports. There has been a Formula 1 race in Jeddah in each of the past two seasons, but worldwide audiences have tuned in regardless. Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell have been vilified in the United Kingdom for joining LIV, yet the same anger was not there when former world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua fought in Saudi Arabia in 2019.
Time will tell if the dam is broken. Norman believes that it is, that as soon as the paychecks are doled out after the first LIV event, reality will set in and more players will come. The PGA Tour hopes that, as the gold standard for golfing excellence for so long, its prestige and history will enable it to protect the exit doors and avert a full-scale fleeing of playing personnel.
Fans must choose whether this is a black eye for golf, the start of an enterprising reimagining in the way the sport’s events are presented — or maybe even both.
Golf is mired in turmoil, with a level of uncertainty crossing the sport that it has never encountered before. It may be making many players uneasy. Rightly or wrongly, and with the ethical discussion of it all never far away, it will also be making them wealthier.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.