The PGA Tour will refuse to allow some of its biggest stars to play in the controversial Saudi International tournament next year, Golfweek has learned. PGA Tour members must obtain a waiver to compete on other circuits and the Tour has signaled to managers that permission will not be granted because the Saudi event is no longer sanctioned by the European Tour, which also plans to deny permits for its members to compete.
The move will be seen as an escalation in a battle for the future of professional golf that pits the PGA and European tours against the Saudi government, which has been pushing a Super Golf League concept that would lure elite players to a breakaway tour with guaranteed paydays of up to $30 million.
Asked to confirm that releases will not be given to players for the Saudi tournament, a PGA Tour spokesperson replied: “You are correct. This follows a PGA Tour longstanding policy of not granting releases to unsanctioned events.”
Since its inception in 2019, the Saudi International has been widely criticized as an effort by the regime in Riyadh to ‘sportswash’ its human rights record by leveraging golf to improve its image. Despite the controversy, the event has attracted many star players thanks to lavish appearance fees — up to several million dollars in some cases — and chartered private aircraft to and from the Mideast. World No. 2 Dustin Johnson has won the tournament twice while Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka are also among those who have been paid to play.
“There is lots of rumor and speculation floating about as it relates to the Tour’s position on the 2022 Saudi International. It would be premature for me to comment on it, given that we have not yet applied for a release from the Tour,” said Johnson’s manager, David Winkle. “However, given that Dustin has played in the event the past three years and would be returning as their defending champion, I have no doubt he would be quite disappointed if the Tour potentially denied his release.”
“I also think it is important to note that he is in a unique position, having played in the tournament since its inception and has, without question, helped put golf on the map in the Kingdom,” Winkle added. “In doing so, I hope he has helped grow the game in a region where golf is still a relatively new thing.”
The European Tour officially sanctioned the first three editions of the Saudi International, but a spokesman declined to comment on whether its members would be permitted to play the fourth staging, saying the 2022 schedule and player regulations had not yet been published. However, two senior figures with knowledge of decision-making at the European Tour confirmed to Golfweek that waivers will also be denied to its players.
The Saudi International is typically held in early February at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City. Tournament organizers have previously announced high-profile commitments to the field up to three months in advance, suggesting that the timeframe when players would be seeking waivers from either tour to compete is imminent. PGA Tour members who play the Saudi stop without receiving a waiver would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. One Tour source said any punishment would likely be a monetary fine rather than a suspension.
Multiple sources told Golfweek that the 2022 Saudi International could be conducted under the aegis of the Asian Tour, which is headquartered in Singapore. The Saudis recently made a significant investment in the Asian Tour — ball-parked by two sources at $100 million — in an effort to gain traction for their global ambitions in golf. When asked if waivers would be granted to players if the Saudi International is officially sanctioned by the Asian Tour, a PGA Tour spokesperson responded, “We’d prefer not to speak to hypotheticals on matters pertaining to PGA Tour regulations.”
Specifics on the Saudi investment in the Asian Tour have not been announced by either party. One golf industry executive with extensive ties to the Asian market believes the deal will likely involve guaranteeing purses at a number of regular Asian Tour stops (the prize funds of which are typically around $1 million) with the goal of eventually holding several highly lucrative events for elite stars, with purses in the $15-$20 million range.
The Asian Tour deal weds the Saudis to a global tour with a seat on the board of the Official World Golf Rankings, opening the door to potentially conferring valuable ranking points on any Saudi-backed tournaments. The Super Golf League concept would not qualify for ranking points without an affiliation with a major tour. World rankings are one of the criteria by which players can gain admission to compete in major championships regardless of whether they play in PGA Tour or European Tour events.
It’s unclear if the Asian Tour partnership signals a potential abandonment of the Super Golf League idea in favor of an attempt to corral golf’s elite stars on a more limited basis, or if it’s merely a staging post toward the ultimate goal of creating the League. While the Super League has been pitched in various forms for at least seven years, it has thus far failed to entice a single golfer to commit. Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm have both publicly rejected the splinter tour idea and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has made clear that any member who commits to the Saudi-backed scheme risks a lifetime ban.
Despite the threatened consequences, players continue to flirt with the concept. As recently as the Open Championship two weeks ago, at least five players — all of whom have won majors — had written offers from the Saudis, according to a well-placed agency executive familiar with the discussions.
None of those players have yet opted to publicly commit to the League and risk being benched by the PGA Tour while the legality of such a ban is litigated. That in turn has led some seasoned observers to suggest players are using the rival League threat as leverage to secure a greater share of revenue from the PGA Tour.