Golf's Biggest Fight
Whoever thought that the greatest battles the golf world has ever seen wouldn’t be on the golf course? The Ryder Cup’s War by the Shore in 1991, which spurred similar friendly conflicts going forward, was nothing more than a skirmish compared to the onslaught of Greg Norman’s newly launched Saudi-backed LIV Golf, which has potentially changed the face of topflight pro golf, at least as long as the Saudis will continue to back it.
LIV Golf has joined a lawsuit by former PGA Tour players alleging anti-trust violations by the Tour, and the Tour has countersued claiming there is no justification. These are legal tussles that will last many months, if not years.
Norman, with the monumental support of the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, has established a worldwide circuit of eight tournaments with 48-player fields for $25 million purses—$4 million for first place, $120,000 for last—that also includes a team competition. Each contest is 54 holes, which is the origin of the LIV name, the Roman numerals for 54.
On October 10, LIV announced that two-time major champion Dustin Johnson won the inaugural LIV Golf Individual Championship, including a bonus prize of $18 million.
In the process, Norman has raided the PGA Tour ranks for a few of its biggest names (and some of its journeymen) who have been rewarded with astronomical signing bonuses. Though exact figures have not to this point been revealed, Phil Mickelson is said to have received $200 million, Johnson $125 million, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau $100 million or more. Popular veterans like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Patrick Reed are reportedly in the eight-figure range. The exact nature of the payouts hasn’t been revealed, but longtime PGA pro Pat Perez has said he got his money up front.
The PGA Tour, by the way, has suspended indefinitely all players who have participated in LIV events, and it’s known through court filings that Mickelson was suspended at the start of the year before the LIV schedule began for allegedly recruiting players for the circuit.
Greg Norman’s Great White Shark persona is clearly on the hunt (cue the John Williams Jaws score). Norman tried this once before, in 1994, when he proposed a World Golf Tour, small field events of the world’s best. The PGA Tour under commissioner Tim Finchem threatened to suspend players if they joined the circuit. Norman didn’t have the hundreds of millions of dollars to lure players that he does now and that project folded. Not long after, the PGA Tour, in concert with other tours, established the World Golf Championship events that lasted for a few years.
From the very beginning, Norman’s ongoing mantra about his new venture and the very nature of pro golf is that players should be and are free agents and independent operators who ought to be able to play wherever they want to.
“We have no intention to try to destroy the PGA Tour,” Norman told the New York Post this summer. “Every step of the way we’ve built our model to work within the ecosystem and give everybody the opportunity to work within that ecosystem. It’s pro golf. There’s such a simple solution, it’s ridiculous. I can’t talk about it, because it’s a process we’ve gone through with our legal team knowing everything that’s in the rules and regulations. But it’s not a hard fix, it’s really not. And the longer they do it (suspend players), the less we’re worried about it because we have more people coming in and wanting to invest.”
While PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has railed against LIV Golf as interlopers trying to capitalize on his tour and said he wouldn’t get into a money-throwing game with the new league, he has spearheaded a drastic uptake in the Tour’s scheduling and revenue payouts. Starting in the 2023 season, there will be 12 elevated events with most purses in the $20 to $25 million range and the requirement that the top players compete in at least 20 events.
“Our top players are making a commitment to play in all 12 elevated events and they will also add at least three additional PGA Tour events to their schedule,’’ Monahan said in September. “Our top players are firmly behind the Tour. We’ll be all but guaranteed to see the best players competing against each other in 20 events throughout the season. It’s an extraordinary commitment and testament to what they believe in.’’
When the Tour goes to a calendar-year schedule starting in 2024, this essentially means that the top players will be competing in at least 20 of the 35 main events that run from January through August.
The tour has also opened its wallet in several regards. The Player Impact Program has been doubled to $100 million. Players are also guaranteed minimum earnings of $500,000, with rookies getting it up front, while lower-ranked players will receive a travel stipend of $5,000 for each missed cut.
At the LIV event in Chicago in September, Mickelson was adamant that LIV Golf was not for the short term. “The PGA Tour, for the last 20 or 30 years, has had all the best players in the world. That will never be the case again. LIV Golf is here to stay,” Mickelson said. “The best solution is for us to come together. I think that the world of professional golf has a need for the old historical ‘history of the game’ product that the PGA Tour provides. I think that LIV provides a really cool, updated feel that is attracting a lot of younger crowds. Both are good for the game of golf and the inclusion of LIV Golf in the ecosystem of the golf world is necessary. As soon as that happens, we all start working together. It’s going to be a really positive thing for everyone.”
Tiger Woods has been a staunch defender of the PGA Tour, and there are reports that he turned down a huge offer to change camps. Woods has been described by tour players as the “alpha in the room” at tour meetings to discuss LIV.
“I know what the PGA Tour stands for and what we have done and what the Tour has given us, the ability to chase after our careers and to earn what we get and the trophies we have been able to play for and the history that has been a part of this game,” Woods said at the British Open in St Andrews. “I know Greg tried to do this back in the early ’90s. It didn’t work then, and he’s trying to make it work now. I still don’t see how that’s in the best interests of the game. What the European Tour and what the PGA Tour stands for and what they’ve done, and also all the professional—all the governing bodies of the game of golf and all the major championships, how they run it. I think they see it differently than how Greg sees it.’’
As for the move of big-name players to LIV, Woods had this to say: “I disagree with it. I think that what they’ve done is they’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position.”
There will be much posturing, much legal drama and many more words to come pro and con about LIV. As the LIV-PGA Tour combatants hold the honors on the first tee of public debate, the appropriate word is “Fore!”