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Saudi golf league

The Saudi golf tour: What we know, what we don’t and everything else you might not understand about the proposed new league

February 16, 2022

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The threat of a competing Saudi Arabia-backed professional golf league has floated like a storm on the game’s horizon for the better part of two years. Due to an overabundance of rumor and lack of substantiation, that's where the storm has stayed—in the distance. However, its thunder has never ceased, and in recent months it has gained strength in frequency and sound.

With the concept of a Saudi golf league becoming (seemingly) closer to reality, it’s time to catch up on what has transpired thus far, what we know and what we don’t, and the ramifications of a possible fissure in professional golf.

When did this begin?

The idea of a breakaway circuit from the PGA Tour is far from a novel idea; the PGA Tour itself came to pass after players split from the PGA of America in 1967 to form the Tournament Players Division. More recently, former World No. 1 Greg Norman and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch attempted to create a “World Golf Tour” in the mid-1990s featuring the top players competing in an eight-event series. A television contract with Murdoch’s Fox Sports was even secured. But the endeavor was squashed as then-PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem flexed both the tour’s legal chops and standing in the game. Other iterations of a world tour have come and gone without much fanfare.

However, the current framework began to arise in earnest in the fall of 2019, to the point that current PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan issued a warning in January 2020 that any player who sided with a rival league would face suspension and possibly a lifetime ban. In spite of Monahan's threat, multiple players are reportedly weighing offers to join a fledgling league.

Who is challenging the PGA Tour?

Technically, there are two entities trying to rival the tour: the Premier Golf League and a Saudi-backed golf tour. The PGL was the first of the groups to coalesce in 2020, backed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. However, the PIF—the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, has $580 billion in assets—eventually backed another entity in the newly formed LIV Golf Investments. LIV Golf aspired to have its own global professional tour, often referred to as the “Super Golf League.” The PGL attempted to achieve a partnership with the European Tour but failed, with the Euro Tour eventually agreeing to a “strategic alliance” with the PGA Tour. Though the PGL still exists, and reportedly has reached out to the PGA Tour about forming a partnership, its prospects have faded with the emergence of LIV Golf.

Why is the Saudi golf league controversial?

The PIF is essentially the financial arm of the Saudi Arabia government, which has been accused of numerous human-rights violations. To improve its reputation, especially to the Western world, Saudi Arabia has heavily invested in various athletic organizations and events, a practice often referred to as “sportswashing.” This exercise, particularly when used by state-run groups, is considered a form of propaganda to distract the public from its abuses. The most famous example of sportswashing is when Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics.

Saudi Arabia has recently hosted motorsports, soccer, boxing, tennis and wrestling spectacles. In October 2021, the PIF purchased an 80-percent stake in Newcastle United, a Premier League soccer club. Since 2019, the country has hosted the Saudi International, an event formerly sanctioned by the European Tour that has drawn some of the top names in golf, who are paid considerable appearance fees.

Luke Walker/WME IMG

What do we know about LIV Golf?

Founded in 2021, LIV Golf named the aforementioned Norman as its CEO in October, followed by a number of former executives from the PGA Tour and other sports affiliations. In February 2022, LIV Golf announced a $300 million, 10-year investment in the Asian Tour at the Saudi International (which now falls under the Asian Tour umbrella and is sponsored by PIF) that included a 10-event international series that will host tournaments in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

LIV Golf has targeted the sport's marquee players to join its league, meeting with several highly ranked pros and their representatives throughout the year in their hometowns and at golf tournaments (most notably at the 2021 PGA Championship). “Pretty much every player in the top 100 has been contacted at some point,” Phil Mickelson said in February at the Saudi International. However, to this point, no player has announced that he would play in Saudi league if it was launched.

What don’t we know about LIV Golf?

Unlike the PGL—which has laid out its plans on its website—LIV Golf has not announced any formal blueprint for what a proposed league might look like. That means no official word on how many players will be involved, how many tournaments the league will put on, what formats the tournament will use, where the tournaments will be played or if the league has a broadcast partner. There’s been no indication that “Super Golf League” will even be its name.

While rumors are rampant, it bears repeating: To this point, exactly zero players have publicly committed to playing on a potenital LIV Golf circuit (more on this in a second). So, for the moment: no players, no league.

What do we think we know about a possible Super Golf League?

Again, we have no official word from LIV Golf, and there’s always the danger of unfounded gossip bouncing around in echo chambers. But there have been enough pieces dropped from players and sources involved or recruited to put together the outline of a puzzle.

To answer the question on why players would toy with jumping to the SGL: They have reportedly received eight-to-nine-figure offers to join the rival circuit. Like Norman’s World Golf Tour, the belief is the SGL would feature limited fields and likely host a dozen or so events—with some of the tournaments played in the United States (and for clarification, the Asian Tour/LIV Golf international series is believed to be different from the SGL). This speculation gained further traction with comments by PGA Tour player Kramer Hickok on the Stripe Show podcast in mid-February.

"You’re going to see a lot of big names jump over there. I think there’s already been 17 guys that have jumped over, and I can’t say who they are, but there’s going to be some big names going over there," Hickok said on the Stripe Show podcast. "Look, from what I’ve heard the money’s very, very appealing. You’re only gonna have 12-14 events. Those events are gonna have purses. You’re not going to have to deal with missing a cut anymore; there’s only going to be 40 players. And 10 of those 14 events will be in the States. Signing bonuses, huge, huge purses—it’s going to be very appealing for some of these guys. Yeah you’ll see some big names for sure.”

As first reported by No Laying Up in 2021, former President Donald Trump’s golf properties have made a push to serve as SGL host sites, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was seen at the 2022 Saudi International near Dustin Johnson. Additionally, other venues near major U.S. cities reportedly have been targeted by the SGL.

In terms of potential broadcast partners, more than a few eyebrows were raised when former FOX Sports President David Hill was signed by LIV Golf; mentioned above, Murdoch’s FOX Sports was originally aligned with Norman’s WGT in the mid-1990s.

Jared C. Tilton

What players have been associated with LIV Golf?

Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau have been the two most prominent and closely associated names to the breakaway league. Mickelson has been adversarial toward the PGA Tour, claiming to Golf Digest the tour’s “obnoxious greed” has opened the possibility of playing elsewhere. DeChambeau, like Mickelson, has played in the Saudi International multiple times, and at last year's PGA Championship said he had "people in the background" focusing on the SGL matter.

Lee Westwood has come as close as any player to publicly acknowledging his involvement. Though he hasn't officially said he's with the Saudi league, he did state he had signed an NDA during the Saudi International (Westwood also acknowledged at the 2021 PGA that a big offer would be tough to turn down at his age). Dustin Johnson echoed Westwood’s response when asked about receiving an offer at the Saudi International, while Adam Scott said at the 2022 Genesis he's in talks with the Saudi league. Jason Kokrak is a Saudi Golf ambassador and recently told the Five Clubs podcast, “I'm going to try make as much money as I can in as little amount of time, so if the money's right I would love to go play that tour and play against some of the guys that are going to go out over there." A number of European Ryder Cuppers such as Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter are reportedly weighing offers, while Patrick Reed—a frequent competitor in the Saudi International—has also been in the mix.

Speaking of ... by proxy, those who competed at this year’s Saudi International have seen their names linked to the SGL. This group includes Xander Schauffele, Tony Finau, Matthew Wolff, Bubba Watson, Cam Smith, Joaquin Niemann, Sergio Garcia, Shane Lowry, Paul Casey and Marc Leishman.

What players have said they don't want to be involved with LIV Golf?

Rory McIlroy has been the SGL’s most outspoken critic, stating he’s not comfortable with where the money is coming from. McIlroy reiterated his stance at the 2022 Genesis Invitational to Golf Digest. “Look, I’ve lived it—for the top guys, all that money really isn’t going to change their life,” McIlroy told Golf Digest’s Dan Rapaport. “I’m in a way better financial position than I was a decade ago and my life is no different. I still use the same three, four rooms in my house. I just don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions.”

World No. 1 Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka have also said they will not defect to the SGL. Perhaps most importantly, Tiger Woods pledged his loyalty to the PGA Tour at the end of 2021.

“I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is,” Woods said in November 2021. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships, and been a part of the World Golf Championships, the start of them and the end of them. So I have allegiance to the PGA Tour.”

What has been the response from the PGA Tour?

Some observers believe the tour’s recent purse and FedEx Cup prize money increases are a direct response to the SGL threat; however, when the tour’s new media rights deal was announced in the beginning of 2020 (a nine-year agreement believed to be valued at $7 billion), Monahan promised the money would “put us in a position to significantly increase player earnings.” In that same breath, the tour enacted a Player Impact Program in 2021, an initiative aimed at compensating the game’s most popular names separate from how they perform on the course. Last year, $40 million was allocated for the top 10 players on the tour’s PIP standings, with $50 million assigned for 2022. The tour will also award a $50,000 bonus for those any player who reach 15 starts during the 2021-22 season.

As for the idea that players may be excommunicated from the tour if they join the SGL, Monahan remains steadfast in his declaration from January 2020: them or us. Per Monahan’s ultimatum from 2020: “If the Team Golf Concept [one of the other names used by the PGL] or another iteration of this structure becomes a reality in 2022 or at any time before or after, our members will have to decide whether they want to continue to be a member of the PGA Tour or play on a new series.” At a players meeting at the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship, Monahan repeated his position: Any player joining the Saudi-backed golf league will face immediate suspension and possible expulsion from the PGA Tour. Though questions have arisen if the tour can lawfully ban a player for life, legal experts confirmed to Golf Digest that the PGA Tour would likely win any battle challenging its authority to do so.

What has been the response from golf’s other organizations?

With its strategic alliance, the European Tour—rebranded in 2022 as the DP World Tour—is in lockstep with the PGA Tour. Perhaps the biggest unknown is how Augusta National, the PGA of America, the USGA and the R&A will respond to players siding with the SGL; specifically, if SGL players will still be allowed to compete in the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and the Open Championship. Augusta National, the USGA and R&A issued statements supporting the PGA Tour and European Tour in May 2021, yet most of the statements didn't address the playing status of those who defect. The PGA of America was direct in its answer, with CEO Seth Waugh stating at the 2021 PGA Championship that those players who joined the rival league would not be allowed in future PGA Championships or Ryder Cups.

“If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they're going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the [PGA] Tour,” Waugh said. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don't know that we can be more clear than that. It's a little murkier in our championship, but to play, from a U.S. perspective, you also have to be a member of the tour and the PGA of America to play in our championship, and we don't see that changing.”

Why does all this matter?

Ethics and morals aside, a divided world at the sport’s top levels could have massive ramifications in the game. Should Mickelson, DeChambeau and many of the European names listed splinter, the PGA Tour would likely be fine; only DeChambeau qualifies as a player with notable accomplishments that remains in his prime. Essentially, the SGL would be a Senior Tour light with the addition of the polarizing 2020 U.S. Open champ.

However, should a high number of 35-and-younger players with playing pedigrees and popularity side with the Saudi-backed league, professional golf could transform into professional boxing, a sport whose competition has been watered down by rivaling governing bodies with conflicting financial interests. The sport’s relevance, and to an extent existence, would be at stake.

What comes next?

Aside from PR emails announcing new executive hires on a bi-weekly basis, LIV Golf Investments continues to operate in the shadows, so few are privy to when exactly a proposed league will launch. LIV Golf’s opaqueness, coupled with a robust participation in this year’s Saudi Invitational from tour players and matters like Westwood’s NDA and Mickelson’s comments, have spurred the belief that something is happening.

Conversely, it’s now been two years of rumors, creating a we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it assessment from some of the game’s top players.

“We've all heard rumors of this date, this date, in the future—I'm ready for it,” Morikawa said at the 2022 Genesis. “Why not, right? Like we'll call them out, like what are they waiting for? I don't know. I saw something this morning that said someone had an interview with a player and there's other things said about players signing up. There still have been no names. Once again, we go back to evidence, right? Can we see concrete evidence of what's going on? If we can, then people can make decisions. It's an unknown, it's a hidden thing. For me, it's not enough.”

But if Hickok’s comments are correct, answers are coming and coming soon.