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The landscape of men’s professional golf may be changing right before our very eyes.
After years of 72-hole stroke-play tournaments with four majors sprinkled throughout the schedule, golf fans may soon have a new option with a rival golf league making noise once again.
Liv Golf Enterprises, backed by the Public Investment Fund which operates on behalf of the government of Saudi Arabia, will have Greg Norman be the chief operating officer of the enterprise as well as commissioner of a new league which hopes to debut in the spring of 2022.
Here’s what we know about the situation with the Saudis.
Professional golf in Saudi Arabia
The first professional golf event in Saudi Arabia — the Saudi International — was held in 2019 as a European Tour event, just months after the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The event has been criticized as a targeted attempt by the Saudi government to “sportswash” its controversial human rights record and improve its image.
A handful of big names have made the trip to play over the years, including two-time champion Dustin Johnson (2019, 2021). Major champions like Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka have also been paid to play the event. After the 2020 tournament, the Saudi International moved from the European Tour to the Asian Tour schedule for 2021.
After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I’m excited to go play and see a place in the world I’ve never been. I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be ok. I’m excited to experience this for the first time.
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) December 3, 2019
Because of this, Golfweek learned back in July that the PGA Tour would refuse to allow players to compete in the controversial tournament in 2022. Tour members must obtain a waiver to compete on other circuits and, because the Saudi event is no longer sanctioned by the European Tour, the PGA Tour noted to managers that permission would no longer be granted.
That said, last week eight players asked for permission to play in the tournament, scheduled Feb. 3-6 at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City: Johnson, 2020 winner Graeme McDowell, Abraham Ancer, Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson, Kevin Na and Jason Kokrak (who is sponsored by Golf Saudi).
What will the new league look like?
While the official format is still unknown, two different variations of a rival league with Saudi ties — the Premier Golf League and Super Golf League — have been pitched over the last year and a half.
The Norman-led golf league slated for next spring is not the formerly proposed Premier Golf League, whose plan featured 40-48 players on teams of four with a captain playing an 18-event schedule all over the world with a season-ending team championship. In Feb. 2020 the league’s CEO said the PGL would receive backing from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
What players may be involved
No names have been officially announced yet, but a handful of players have previous ties to golf in Saudi Arabia.
Phil Mickelson’s involvement in a rival, Saudi-backed league dates back to the 2020 Saudi International pro-am, where Lefty reportedly played alongside Premier Golf League representatives.
In July 2020, the Guardian reported that the league had sent formal offer letters worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” to a handful of players including Mickelson, Adam Scott, Stenson, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Paul Casey and Koepka.
Almost a year later on May 4, 2021, a report in the Telegraph stated that multi-million dollar offers, some ranging from $30-50 million, were sent to Mickelson, Johnson, Scott, Koepka, DeChambeau, Fowler and Rose. That same month, player managers and agents met with the league’s backers on the Tuesday night before the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah, won by Mickelson.
Rory McIlroy was the first big name to denounce the Premier Golf League with his, “For me, I’m out,” quote in Feb. 2020. A month later he would be joined by Jon Rahm and Koepka. At that time, the players were all ranked inside the top-three in the world.
In May of 2021 after the news of the $30-50 million offers, McIlroy doubled down, saying, “I don’t see why anyone would be for (the new league).” The PGA Tour — which created a “strategic alliance” with the European Tour to combat any rival leagues — has been steadfast in its stance. In a meeting with players that same month, commissioner Jay Monahan drew a line in the sand with multiple sources telling Golfweek’s Eamon Lynch that leaving the Tour for the new league would result in an immediate suspension from the PGA Tour and likely a lifetime ban.
On top of that, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh said PGA Tour defectors would be barred from competing in the biennial Ryder Cup against Europe.
“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 Tour,” Waugh said in May. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don’t know that we can be more clear kind of than that. We don’t see that changing.”
In a direct response to rival golf leagues, the PGA Tour also created the Player Impact Program, a $40 million bonus pool designed to compensate players who drive fan and sponsor engagement. At the end of this year, the money will be distributed to 10 players, with the player deemed most valuable receiving $8 million.
Why Greg Norman?
This isn’t the Shark’s first time wading into the waters of a rival golf league.
Norman, the two-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer who won 20 times on the PGA Tour and 14 times on the European Tour, attempted to get the World Golf Tour off the ground in 1994, but was unsuccessful. The two-time British Open champion’s play was rejected by then-Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who announced the World Golf Championships three years later in 1997.