Dustin Johnson paid £100m to perform late U-turn and join Saudi-backed rebel series

·7 min read
Dustin Johnson U-turns on PGA Tour commitment after being included in Saudi rebel field - David Cannon
Dustin Johnson U-turns on PGA Tour commitment after being included in Saudi rebel field - David Cannon

Dustin Johnson was paid around £100 million by Greg Norman to secure his shock about-turn sign up for the Saudi-backed rebel golf league, Telegraph Sport understands.

As the former world No 1 stunned golf by being named in next week's launch, the PGA Tour has angrily hit back by pledging disciplinary action against him and others involved.

An extraordinary signing-on fee was tabled to lure in Johnson amid Norman’s desperation to land a stellar name at the 11th hour. Phil Mickelson, who has not been named in an initial 42-man entry list, had piled pressure on organisers by telling them he was taking too much heat on his own. Insiders claim Johnson will now receive up to $150million (£119million) just for stating his commitment.

The record-breaking fee will more than compensate for an inevitable storm around Johnson and an expected exodus of major sponsors linked to his commitments on the PGA Tour.

Three months after declaring he was “fully committed” to the PGA, the 37 year-old was named among a 42-man field for next week's LIV Golf Invitational, which offers £20m in prize money due to controversial backing from Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. Six more names are due to be added before the event begins, which could see Mickelson handed a late entry.

Despite the addition of Johnson, who won The Masters 18 months ago, other big names suggested they were less than impressed by the new line-up. Ahead of teeing off at this week's PGA Tour event - the Memorial Tournament - Rory McIlroy said he was happy to continue playing in "proper tournaments", having rejected all advances from LIV Golf. "It's not something that I would do personally", he added.

Telegraph Sport understands Norman, the organiser in chief and a friend of Johnson's, had initially planned to announce the field last Friday, but postponed due to last-minute negotiations with his star signing.

Johnson was previously billed to play in the RBC Canadian Open next week, and had even appeared on promotional posters as he has an endorsement deal with the Canadian bank as one of its ambassadors. Both RBC and the tournament expressed dismay at his decision and have now ended their partnership with Johnson.

The American is by some way the biggest draw ahead of the inaugural tournament from June 9 at the Centurion Club in St Albans, near London. Englishmen Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Richard Bland plus Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland are also in the 12-team field for the three-day event. Like Johnson, McDowell also has a lucrative sponsorship deal with RBC.

Former US Open champion McDowell said it had been a "very difficult decision" to commit to the LIV series, but it was the "right decision for me and my family".

In a plea against sanctions, the Northern Irishman told the National Club Golfer website: "If we do get banned from the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, for example, is that good for the sport of golf?"

Both the PGA and European tours are understood to have denied releases for players, so all of those involved risk punishment after the tournament begins. The PGA said in a statement: “As communicated to our entire membership... members have not been authorised to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event, under PGA Tour Tournament Regulations. Members who violate the Tournament Regulations are subject to disciplinary action.”

RBC added it was "extremely disappointed" that two-time Major winner Johnson has opted to skip the Canadian Open. Johnson's likely dropping by RBC comes after Louis Oosthuizen and Westwood lost their UPS deals. Mickelson has also lost several deals, and yesterday the fashion brand Hugo Boss was also understood to have cut ties with two-time major winner Martin Kaymer.

Norman made the most of a close relationship with Johnson to finally persuade him to sign up. The pair had become close allies since a chance meeting two years ago at The Grove XXIII, the golf club owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan in the superstar belt of Jupiter, South Florida.

Mickelson, 51, meanwhile, had been linked with the breakaway event for months but said in February he was taking a break from the game after apologising for making "reckless" comments.

Amnesty International has been among campaigners to express concern over Saudi involvement, but Norman, LIV Golf's chief executive, said "free agency has finally come to golf".

David Winkle, the agent of world No 13 Johnson, told the Golf Channel Johnson had "been contemplating this for the past two years".

Analysis: Breaking down the 42-player list for first LIV Golf event

By Daniel Zeqiri

Amateurs

Ratchanon Chantananuwat
James Piot 
David Puig

Unlike PGA or DP World Tour tournaments, LIV Golf tournaments will offer amateurs the chance to take a cheque home at the end of the week. So perhaps it is no surprise that the likes of 2021 US Amateur champion James Piot are teeing it up.

Asian tour players

Sadom Kaewkanjana 
Phachara Khongwatmai
Sihwan Kim 
Ryosuke Kinoshita 
Jinichiro Kozuma 
Hideto Tanihara
Scott Vincent

LIV Golf launched a $200m investment into the Asian Tour to help themselves gain a foothold in world golf, and a number of regulars from their tournaments are scheduled to play at Centurion. World No 173 Hideto Tanihara is the most successful with 16 wins on the Japan Golf Tour by the age of 43.

DP World Tour lesser lights

Oliver Bekker 
Richard Bland 
Laurie Canter 
Hennie du Plessis 
Oliver Fisher 
Justin Harding 
Sam Horsfield 
Pablo Larrazabal 
Jediah Morgan 
Shaun Norris 
Wade Ormsby 
Adrian Otaegui 
JC Ritchie 
Blake Windred

The DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour, has long lagged behind its American rival for riches and prestige so a number of journeymen have jumped at the chance to play in the inaugural LIV event. World No 66 Richard Bland is the pick of them, enjoying a strong 18 months that saw him almost qualify for the Masters.

Sam Horsfield is one of the younger names at just 25, viewed as a major prospect but has failed to train on. Oliver Fisher, still just 33, was a potential rival for Rory McIlroy as a youngster but has slipped to 979th in the world rankings. Fisher is a member at Centurion.

Veterans with strong CVs

Sergio Garcia
Martin Kaymer 
Graeme McDowell 
Ian Poulter 
Lee Westwood 
Bernd Wiesberger 
Charl Schwartzel 
Louis Oosthuizen 
Branden Grace

If they play, these names will be the backbone of the tournament and attract plenty of headlines. Garcia, Kaymer, McDowell, Schwartzel and Oosthuizen are all major champions, and Lee Westwood a former world No 1. Like Ian Poulter, Westwood and Garcia are European Ryder Cup stalwarts. Wiesberger came close to winning the Race to Dubai when winning three times in 2019.

Oosthuzien, 39, is a surprise name given he finished in the top three of three majors in 2021. His compatriot Branden Grace holds the record for the lowest round at a major thanks to a 62 at the 2017 Open Championship.

 Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa tees off on the 12th hole - GETTY IMAGES
Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa tees off on the 12th hole - GETTY IMAGES

PGA Tour rebels

Taylor Gooch 
Dustin Johnson 
Matt Jones 
Chase Koepka 
Kevin Na 
Hudson Swafford 
Peter Uihlein 
Andy Ogletree
Turk Petit

All American with the exception of Australian Matt Jones, these players have risked derision and potential sanctions from the biggest Tour in world golf. Andy Ogletree and Turk Petit are Korn Ferry Tour players, the tier below the PGA Tour. Chase Koepka is the younger brother of Brooks.

By far the best player in the field is Dustin Johnson, whose inclusion will shock the sport. The two-time major champion looks to have plenty of years in him even if his 2022 form has been below his high standards. Johnson won five points from five at last year's Ryder Cup and is the World No 13.

Once an additional five players from the Asian Tour come through qualifying, there will be one spot in the field remaining. All eyes on Phil Mickelson's next move.