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Big companies—and some high-profile stars—are investing hundreds of millions on professional golf events, setting up a potential showdown with the PGA Tour
| By Jeff Williams | From The Top 25 of 2021, January/February 2022
Photo/Jeff Harris

Golf legend Greg Norman announced in October that he is the chief executive officer of a Saudi-backed golf initiative that is pumping millions into the game, a venture that could result in the Super Golf League, a rival international tour. In November, the European Tour announced that it was changing its name to the DP World Tour, bankrolled by the Dubai-based multinational logistics company of the same name. The purses? Going up.

Later in November, it was revealed that PGA Tour purses were being elevated across the board, including a $20 million prize fund for The Players Championship, taking place in March at TPC Sawgrass. Other player compensation is going up too, financed by the deep pockets of the sponsors and the Tour’s well-heeled partners.

If that’s not enough, there are also plans for the Premier Golf League, an international tour emanating out of London that is targeting the top 48 players in the world for 18 tournaments starting in 2023 with $20 million purses. Heck, even amateur players will now be able to be compensated for endorsement deals under new amateur rules issued by the United States Golf Association and the R&A. 

Golf is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic flush with cash and rife with possibilities, though the omicron variant has thrown some cold water on optimism. The start of the DP World Tour has been plagued by Covid changes: the Joburg Open in November was shortened to only 36 holes, and more than two dozen players pulled out, then the purse for the South African Open Championship was slashed to $500,000, and the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek was canceled outright. Such cutbacks could be worrying to any future plans.

But despite the trials from the pandemic, the game of golf is getting an oil change, and not six quarts of 10W-30. In the case of the Mideast money backing some of these initiatives, it’s more like a few million gallons of high test. All of these moves mark the potential for the world golf landscape to be completely altered with a bulldozer of cash.

The powers that be are taking notice. According to various reports, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has already threatened players who join the moneybag leagues with expulsion from the PGA Tour.

The PGA Tour has operated with great success for more than 50 years, but it was actually born of rebellion. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer forced the PGA of America to cede its full control in the late 1960s, and in 1968 the then-breakaway PGA Tour came to being. The two biggest names in the game were themselves rebels, their actions bringing the current PGA Tour into reality. Their popularity (along with a bevy of greats like Lee Trevino) carried the tour for decades. Along came Tiger Woods to up the ante even more.

This fall, Golfweek revealed a memo from Monahan sent to players outlining the financials for the coming season, which said that the Tour would be expecting $1.5 billion in consolidated revenue for 2022. Monahan said that 55 percent of all PGA Tour revenue would be directed to players, a sum identified as $838 million.

That figure means bigger purses for golfers, including a raise to $75 million in the FedEx Cup playoffs alone. It also includes $50 million for the rather mysterious Player Impact Program, where a set of metrics (including how golfers use social media) determines which players move the needle the most and are thus rewarded. Strangely, the Tour will not make those results public.

After the Premier Golf League made its intentions known earlier this year, and news of the Saudi initiatives were wafting through the golf atmosphere, it attracted the comment of two of golf’s superstars, each with a very different opinion. Phil Mickelson said these new platforms deserved consideration by players, while Rory McIlroy said he wouldn’t have anything to do with what he described as a money grab.

Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America, comes from the world of big finance, and was once CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas. At the PGA Championship last summer, Waugh weighed on the potential for new competing entities. “I come from a world of disruption, and I think it’s inevitable—I actually think it’s healthy,” he said. “You either disrupt or you get disrupted. That’s what this is . . . They’ve created this conversation, which by the way isn’t new. It’s been around since 2014 in different forms. [It] has created change. It’s created an alliance of the European Tour and the PGA Tour, which we think is really healthy for the game.”

Waugh also spoke about caution, and defended the PGA. “I think you’ve just got to be careful sort of what you wish for. If that’s a better way to watch a game, if a team format or less players . . . they should talk about it as an industry and think about whether there’s better ways to conduct tournaments. But I don’t think anything is hugely broken, so I’m not sure what the solve is for totally, other than an outside body trying to disrupt and get into the game in a way that I don’t think is in the . . . long-term interest of the game.”

Premier Golf League head Andy Gardiner has said that he would like to see his organization work under the PGA Tour umbrella, though whatever the Tour thinks about that concept had not been made public near the end of the year. The PGL proposes both individual and team competition with 54-hole tournaments and first-place checks of $4 million.

It doesn’t seem like Norman is interested at all in joining forces with the PGA Tour, though at this point his intentions of creating a rival tour of the top players remained under wraps at the end of the season. What we do know is that he is the CEO of LIV Golf Investments, backed by the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, he has hired former PGA Tour rules majordomo Slugger White to run the tournaments. So far, the major move made by LIV Golf is investing an estimated $200 million in the Asian Tour, which will help it compete against the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour.

Creating a tour, or at least a smaller series of tournaments involving the top players in the world, is nothing new to Norman. In 1994, he proposed doing that very thing, but when then PGA Tour Commissioner Timothy Finchem said that players would be banned from the PGA Tour if they took part, the idea dissipated into the game’s ether. It was gone then, but not forgotten.

Norman promised to “unlock the sport’s untapped potential” in a press release announcing his association with the Saudi initiatives. “This is only the beginning,” Norman continued. “LIV Golf Investments has secured a major capital commitment that will be used to create additive new opportunities across worldwide professional golf.”

Norman, known as the Great White Shark, is 66 years old and a two-time British Open champion who spent 331 weeks as the No. 1 golfer in the world, second only to Tiger Woods. He is also an extremely successful businessman. His Greg Norman Company (a private firm headquartered in West Palm Beach, Florida) has holdings in wine, fashion, golf course design and more. In an interview, he said he believed so much in the concept of altering (or is it adding to?) the golf landscape, that he was handing over the reins of his business so that he can jump full time into the new project.

“That was a big, big decision because that’s how much I believe in this,” said Norman. “That’s how much I believe in the people who have been behind this to get it to a point where we are now taking it and to a point where we will be live and have the first ball in the air in the [spring] of next year.”

Ernie Els remembers well Norman’s first foray into a competing tour in 1994. Els, then a budding superstar, had just won his first U.S. Open and was in the process of building his own brand. Norman spoke to him about joining the tour, and the conflict he saw then, which he says will confront every player now. “Greg has had this vision for a very long time. Back in 1994 I was called in on that,” said Els. “I was 24 years of age. Greg is older than me and had already established himself. He launched his Greg Norman brand all over the world. I said to Greg, ‘you are in your 30s and in a different position than I am. I am thrilled and honored that you are asking me, but if I jump ship, I might not get back on any tour’ . . . For me the future wasn’t going to be playing on a rival tour. It was to stay in my lane and go through the process.”

Els thinks that there could be, and probably will be, an evolution in the game, but he doesn’t want to see it happen as direct competition to the PGA Tour. “To work with the PGA Tour is what I think should happen,” said Els. “I don’t think there should be a takeover, a rival tour. But work with the PGA Tour. We’ve always played in special events,” he said, with a smaller purse and fewer stars, but they would be set up not to conflict with the major tours. “It would boost golf in the region, that is what has happened in the past. They did that in the Middle East with the Dubai Desert Classic. Abu Dhabi followed suit.”

Part of the allure of the new tour proposals is guaranteed money and tournaments with smaller fields that apparently won’t have cuts. The Tour has traditionally granted releases to players to play in a limited number of international events. Tiger Woods famously was paid upwards of $3 million to play in the Dubai Desert Classic in the early 2000s.

“I’m an international player. I’m a member of the South African Tour, the European Tour, I’m an honorary member of the Asian Tour and member of PGA Tour,” said Els. “I always had to get a release to play an event overseas. That’s the way the PGA Tour wants to defend themselves from other tours taking liberties to use their players to up their events. That’s always been in place and has been quite successful.”

For Els, the PGA Tour and other long existing tours are part of growing the game, with roots that extend down to the junior and amateur levels, helping to bring along the game’s players.

“For another tour to get those roots in, it takes time, to give back to the game. There is a lot to be done to stand shoulder to shoulder with other tours,” said Els. “It’s more than just throwing money at something, you have to really grow the game from the bottom up. They are starting at the top and want to work it down. They want to make an impact in golf and there’s something to be said for that. But I’m not sure how they are going to integrate into what’s been there for a long, long time.”

Els still gives credit to Norman for holding onto a dream. “The Saudis, they wanted to find somebody who is really passionate about it,” said Els. “Obviously, Greg’s the guy. He’s tried back in the day. Now he’s got a big fund behind him. You’ve got to give the guy credit, it’s been a lifelong ambition of his.”

Still, Els foresees that even with the power of the Shark, it will be a long hard slog. “Now the PGA Tour is pumping a lot of money in there, really good television contracts,” said Els. “I see they are going to be playing for $20 million at the Players. These kids are going to make a ton of money and they can do it in the comfort of playing in the U.S., they don’t have to play around the world. I think they could create some new events with the PGA Tour, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think it will be a rival tour and it’s going to be difficult for players to make decisions.”

As the 2021 golf year played out, several prominent players declared their allegiance to the PGA Tour, including four-time major winner Rory McIlroy and reigning U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm. So, too, has Woods.

Had Woods ever said he could potentially support a competing venture, his nod of confidence could establish the credibility (and justify the investment) of the new tours, leagues or whatever you want to call them. Woods was pushing hard at the end of 2021 to recover from his car crash, but even he had his doubts as to whether he could ever play tour-level golf again.

At a December press conference for his World Hero Challenge Tournament in the Bahamas, Woods said he could never again be a full-time tour player, even as he lit up the golf world just taking swings on the driving range. He said his goal was to play a tournament here and there, and later that month he played with his son Charlie at the PNC Championship. While the player who moves the game’s needle far more than anyone else couldn’t be specific about his ability to play at all, he was very clear about what he felt about rival tours.

“I’ve decided for myself and I’m supporting the PGA Tour, that’s where my legacy is,” Woods said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships. I’ve been a part of the World Golf Championships, the start and the end of them. I have an allegiance to the PGA Tour. I understand that some of the comparisons are similar to when Arnold [Palmer] and Jack [Nicklaus] broke off from the PGA of America to start the tour. I don’t see it that way. I think the tour has done a fantastic job, I think Jay [Monahan] has done an unbelievable job at a very difficult time.”

It is interesting how the PGA Tour granted releases to some of its biggest stars to play in the 2022 Saudi International Golf Tournament, taking place in early February at the same time as the PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Mickelson, a five-time AT&T champion, is one of them. So is two-time winner Dustin Johnson. Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Xander Schauffele and others have asked for the release. All will be getting undisclosed—but very healthy—appearance fees.

The Saudi International is now part of the Asian Tour, which has now become a bauble in the Saudi Golf pocket. The Tour waited some time before granting the releases and when it did, it required those players to play in the AT&T in various degrees over the next two years.

McIlroy, who will be playing in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in January at DP World Tour events, has been the most outspoken about rival tours. “You go back to what happened in Europe with the European Super League in football,” McIlroy said. “People can see it for what it is, a money grab, which is fine if what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible . . . I’m playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world. I honestly don’t think there’s a better structure in place and I don’t think there will be.”

Money talks, and in the game of golf, it’s speaking loudly. 


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