Through Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Golf is full of money. It always has been. It can be expensive to play compared to many other sports, with new tech clubs, expensive green fees and all that swanky gear.
It’s broadened its appeal in recent decades (thanks in no small part to Tiger Woods), but it still retains a country-club glamor. It remains the sport of choice for much of the corporate world. Rich people, to generalize rudely and lazily, like it. And top players get paid a lot of money for it, of course.
You’re about to get a whole load more. Because more money is coming – competing money – and the whole thing is being turned on its head.
Thursday marks the start of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, a much-discussed collection of eight tournaments in a breakaway league played across three continents. If you’ve never heard of it, you probably don’t care about golf because golf has been all the talk of the last few months.
LIV’s attempt to break the PGA Tour’s stranglehold on the sport’s elite level has so many moving parts that it’s impossible to cover them all in a single column. However, if one certainty is immediately apparent, it is that golfers are getting significantly richer.
LIV is fraught with controversy as it is funded by the sovereign wealth fund of the nation of Saudi Arabia, but with a staggering $25 million prize fund for its first event – $4 million going to the winner – it has always been about to generate revenue to get attention. Even last place goes home with $120,000.
On Tuesday, former world No. 1 and two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, already booked for this week’s LIV Golf Invitational in England, announced that he will be leaving the PGA Tour to compete in the full LIV Series. 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia and other big winners Charl Schwarzel and Louis Oosthuizen followed suit, with world No. 33 Kevin Na being the first to retire last week.
The general view in golf is that they are doing this to avoid potential legal action or protracted bans from the PGA Tour, whose commissioner Jay Monahan has spoken out strongly against LIV since its inception. Johnson is said to have received a nine-figure guarantee for the jump. Phil Mickelson, who had not formally distanced himself from the PGA Tour early Tuesday but will play in England, is expected to receive around $200 million.
The matter is sensitive on several levels, but most pressing is the call of the Saudi government, which US intelligence agencies say commissioned the brutal 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. Amnesty International has directly criticized some golfers signed by LIV for not speaking out about the Saudi government’s “human rights abuses”.
Taking the Saudi money, says the most popular school of public thought, will help Saudi Arabia “sport launder” its money problems.
“I’m not in this about Khashoggi or anything,” Greg Norman, the former Australian world number one and two-time major champion who is the organizational face of LIV, told The Washington Post. “I’m here to play golf. That’s important to me. If I can focus on the game of golf and not get drawn into these other things, that’s my priority.”
Norman’s argument, which is regularly made, is that it is not a golfer’s job to solve political problems and that they should be free agents who should be allowed to play in any event they choose. It’s an attitude that got him caught in the middle of a wave of criticism, but he’s not backing down.
For a while it seemed as if his project was doomed. As recently as April, LIV’s most notable public signee was journeyman Robert Garrigus, who ranked outside the top 1000.
While most of the top players have stayed in place, enough have moved that LIV will not only field a respectable field this week, but there must be real concern at PGA Tour headquarters that more are coming soon recruits will follow. Johnson’s arrival was a huge success for LIV. Rising young star Talor Gooch will also play no cut and a shotgun start at LIV’s 54 hole event this week, aiming to enhance the viewing experience.
After the threat of expulsion has already proven insufficient, the PGA Tour simply has to react differently. It will almost certainly increase its prize money. Perhaps it will introduce last-place prize money instead of the current system where missing the cut in the bottom half results in a zero payout for the week.
Arguably the biggest problem it faces now is that two of the biggest names in the game, Johnson and Mickelson, have not only borne the brunt of the criticism for chasing the money, but also set a precedent.
If, say, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Scottie Scheffler were to follow soon, the same public disdain might not apply, simply because the first outcry about such things is always the strongest.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement sparks mixed reactions across sports. There has been a Formula 1 race in Jeddah in each of the last two seasons, but the global audience has tuned in anyway. Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell were vilified in the UK for joining LIV, but the same anger was not there when former heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua fought in Saudi Arabia in 2019.
Time will tell if the dam broke. Norman believes that once the paychecks are distributed after the first LIV event, reality will set in and more players will come. The PGA Tour hopes that its prestige and history, as the gold standard of golf excellence for so long, will allow it to protect the exit doors and deter a full-scale escape by playing personnel.
Fans will have to decide if this is a black eye for golf or the start of a corporate reinterpretation of the way sporting events are presented – or maybe even both.
Golf is mired in turmoil, with a level of uncertainty pervading the sport never before encountered. It may unsettle many players. Rightly or wrongly, and since the ethical discussion about it is never far away, it will also make them wealthier.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
Get more out of the PGA Tour Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more.