A Primer on the Saudi-Backed LIV Golf League, Including the Threat to the PGA Tour and the Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman Controversy

Embed from Getty ImagesTHIS IS FOR US, you and me, as I decided to write this piece to document the basics on this evolving golf story.

What is this new Saudi-backed golf league?

Sometimes called the Super Golf League and also known as LIV Golf, it’s essentially a rival tour to the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour (European Tour).

How is it financed?

LIV Golf is backed by the Public Investment Fund, which is Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

How is Greg Norman involved?

Greg Norman is the CEO of  LIV Golf. He was named CEO in October 2021.

How is Phil Mickelson involved?

PGA Tour star and Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson has been an active and vocal proponent of LIV Golf. In late February some of Mickelson’s comments stirred controversy (see below). He has taken a break from playing tournament golf, including the Masters and now the PGA Championship, which he won in 2021. He is one of three PGA champions in the last 75 years to not defend his title. Mickelson has also stayed out of the public eye.

How will the new league work?

The league plans an eight-event schedule called the LIV Golf Invitational Series beginning in June. The no-cut 54-hole tournaments are to be played in England, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Thailand. The fields will be 48 players and include a team and individual component. Total prize money for the series is in excess of $250 million.

Why is the PGA Tour threatened?

The PGA Tour doesn’t want to lose any of the world’s best players (who are also PGA Tour members) to a rival tour. It could/would impact a lot of things: its golf product and brand; its tournaments, sponsorships, network contracts and charitable work; and perhaps more.

Aren’t the players independent contractors who can play anywhere?

Technically, yes.

However, the PGA Tour is a membership organization with tournament regulations. It has denied waiver requests by PGA Tour players who have asked for permission to play in LIV Golf’s first event in England.

“We have notified those who have applied that their request has been declined in accordance with the PGA TOUR Tournament Regulations. As such, TOUR members are not authorized to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event under our Regulations,” said PGA Tour senior vice president Tyler Dennis in a memo to players. “As a membership organization, we believe this decision is in the best interest of the PGA TOUR and its players.”

The PGA Tour has also threatened suspension and permanent bans for players who defect.

The DP World Tour, in a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour, has taken similar positions with its players.

What’s the controversy about?

There’s plenty, but here’s a start.

The new league is funded and backed by the Saudi government and its crown prince, who are infamous for their human-rights record, including the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had openly criticized the crown prince.

In his comments that surfaced before his exile, Phil Mickelson admitted as much. Golf writer and Mickelson biographer Alan Shipnuck reported the following in February:

[Phil] didn’t pretend to be excited about hitching his fortunes to Saudi Arabia, admitting the SGL was nothing more than what he called “sportswashing” by a brutally repressive regime.

“They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” he said. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”

More recently, when asked about the Saudis’ human rights record and Khashoggi, Greg Norman said, “We’ve all made mistakes.” LIV Golf later issued a statement saying that everyone agrees the Khashoggi killing was “reprehensible,” including Greg Norman.

There has been strong public reaction to Mickelson’s and Norman’s various comments, many finding their words and stances offensive and openly wondering about their motivations related to the new league.

Is it for the good of golf and about providing players more opportunities, or is it simply a new and bigger money grab?

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Neil Sagebiel

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