Bold new project or crass money grab? Even golf’s best players can’t agree on the new Saudi-financed golf tour. Here’s what you need to know.
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Tariq Panja and
The new Saudi-financed, controversy-trailed LIV Golf series, which is holding its first event this week at an exclusive club north of London, is the talk of golf. Not always, though, in the ways its organizers had hoped.
But what is it? Who is playing it? What’s all the hubbub, and how can you watch it? Here’s what you need to know.
The new series, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, is billing itself as “an opportunity to reinvigorate golf” through rich paydays, star players and slick marketing. “Golf but louder,” goes one of its slogans.
LIV Golf’s organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Its critics, which include some of the world’s best players, have labeled it an unseemly money grab.
The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history — this week’s total purse is $25 million, with a $20 million pot for the individual event and $5 million more to split in the team competition. The winner’s share this week is $4 million, and the last-place finisher at each event is guaranteed $120,000.
And that is on top of the appearance fees and signing-on payouts individual players have accepted. Phil Mickelson is being paid a reported $200 million to take part, and Dustin Johnson, the highest-ranked player to sign up-to-date, is said to have been tempted by an offer worth $150 million. Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, two other top stars expected to compete in the next LIV series event in Oregon, will surely be expecting similar inducements to surrender their PGA Tour careers.
The 48 players in the initial LIV Golf event were not exactly a who’s who of golf. There were, of course, big names and former major champions familiar to regular watchers of pro golf: Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio García, Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell.
But the biggest names in golf stayed away: Tiger Woods said no despite an offer of nearly $1 billion, per Forbes, and Rory McIlroy has publicly rejected the idea. And a large number of the LIV players are probably strangers to even deeply committed golf fans: The American James Piot, for example, has only ever played in one of golf’s four majors, and missed the cut in it. David Puig is a 20-year-old Spanish amateur. Ratchanon Chantananuwat of Thailand is only 15.
Not everyone is (or, rather, was) a PGA Tour member, either, which was why only 17 members of the LIV Golf Series were suspended by the tour on Thursday.
The PGA Tour suspended the players because it requires members to request and receive a release to play in events that conflict with those on its schedule.
The punishments were not a surprise: The PGA Tour had clearly signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined. So moments after the players hit their first shots in the debut event on Thursday, the tour dropped the hammer.
A new series. The launch of new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Who is playing it? The 48 players in the initial LIV Golf event were not exactly a who’s who of golf, and many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away. But there were big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. On June 9, it suspended the 17 PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players.
“In accordance with the PGA Tour’s tournament regulations, the players competing this week without releases are suspended or otherwise no longer eligible to participate in PGA Tour tournament play, including the Presidents Cup,” the tour said in a statement to its members. It said the suspensions also applied to any PGA Tour affiliates — circuits like the lower-tier Korn Ferry Tour, tours in Canada and Latin America and, notably for the older players who joined the LIV series, the PGA Tour Champions series for golfers over 50.
In addition, the PGA Tour said, the players who have resigned their memberships in the tour will be removed from the FedEx Cup points list — essentially ruling them out of the multimillion-dollar season-ending championship series — and are ineligible to use side doors like sponsor’s exemptions or past champion status to get into tour events.
But in a letter explaining the suspensions to other pros, the tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, also included a direct warning to any players weighing offers to play in LIV Golf events when the series shifts to the United States later this month.
“The same fate,” Monahan said of the bans, “holds true for any other players who participate in future Saudi Golf League events in violation of our regulations.”
With a mix of caginess, disappointment and disdain. While the bans were announced almost as soon as the players hit their first shots, a few did not learn about the suspensions until they had completed their rounds.
Phil Mickelson, whose participation has aroused the most interest, refused to comment, and the former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell said he had expected the punishment, and had already been in contact with lawyers.
Ian Poulter insisted that he and the others in the field had not done anything wrong, and said he would appeal. “It makes no sense how I’ve played the game of golf for all this time, I’ve had two tour cards and the ability to play all over the world,” Poulter told reporters. “What’s wrong with that?”
Sergio García, the Spanish player who had renounced his tour membership when he joined the LIV Golf Series, essentially said he didn’t care what the PGA Tour did. “I resigned a week and a half ago,” he said, “so whatever the PGA Tour says doesn’t — doesn’t go with me because I’m not a member.”
That led to the following exchange with a reporter:
Are you banned anyway?
No, I’m not banned because I’m not a member of it.
Not according to Jay Monahan?
Well he received my letter. That’s up to him. It doesn’t bother me.
Some of the players who have signed up to the LIV series, and even many that have not, believe they are getting a raw deal from the PGA Tour. The biggest stars contend their earnings should be more commensurate with their status in the game, and they have pointed out how the best players in other sports earn far more than golfers do.
Players and their representatives have often pointed out how golf’s main tours are able to secure hundreds of millions in television rights fees thanks to the star power of a handful of top tour professionals. But the money they make, however famous they are, has to be earned in the same way: through prize money. The career prize-money earnings of golf’s highest achievers, top stars like Woods or McIlroy, are equivalent to what the world’s best soccer players or an elite N.B.A. stars can earn from their teams in a single year. (To be clear: Both Woods and McIlroy have been able to make multiples of those on-course earnings through personal endorsements; Woods is reportedly now a billionaire.) Both have also earned sizable bonuses from the PGA Tour’s new program meant to measure a player’s appeal and popularity across the calendar year.
But anger and action are different things: McIlroy is arguably the most high-profile opponent of the breakaway event among current tour players, and he has made several pronouncements that money should not be the main driver of golf’s development. And Woods also has spoken up in favor of the PGA Tour, reminding the world that much of his global fame is thanks to his achievements at tour events.
LIV Golf has set up what are essentially shorter tournaments with smaller fields — three rounds instead of four, and with only 48 players competing instead of the rosters on the PGA Tour, which can be three times as large some weeks — and featuring concurrent individual and team play events.
With the small field, there is no cut midway through the event to lop off the stragglers, and every round starts with a shotgun start, meaning players tee off from each hole on the course simultaneously and then proceed around the course’s layout from there.
The LIV Golf individual competition will feel, in many ways, like a traditional golf event: three rounds, lowest score wins. The team event will see the players drafted by captains into four-man squads (teams with odd names, let’s be honest, like Fireballs and Majesticks) that will contest a separate competition, and for a separate prize pot, each week.
This week’s leaderboard, for example, lists individual scores and team affiliations.
With rare exceptions, PGA Tour events generally consist of four rounds of stroke play, in which players compete against one another to post the lowest score. And while the LIV Golf format might feel unusual for players and viewers, the ultimate goal — circle the 18-hole course in as few shots as possible — is the same.
Eight this year, but plans to expand to 10 next year and even more in subsequent seasons are being drawn up. The first seven events this year make up what LIV Golf is calling its regular season. The eighth will be the team championship and include a four-day, four-round seeded match-play event.
Those season-ending championships all include their own multimillion-dollar paydays for eligible players.
LIV (rhymes with give) Golf chose Roman numerals for its name. If it’s been a while since you studied those in school, LIV translates to 54, which is the number of holes each player will complete in each event’s three-round format, which is one fewer round than a typical PGA Tour workweek, but for a lot more money.
(Before you ask: The most recent N.F.L. championship game was Super Bowl LVI, or 56.)
Despite its high-profile golfers and its big-money backing, LIV Golf has not yet secured a broadcast rights agreement in the United States — the most lucrative market for televised sports — and will be shown on lesser-watched streaming services in much of the world. (Here’s a full list of non-U.S. options.) That doesn’t mean you can’t watch in the United States, though: This week’s tournament will be available via live streams on LIVGolf.com, YouTube and Facebook.
Normally, television networks would have jumped at the chance to show live sports during slow times on the calendar; witness yet another spring football league being shown on television. But ESPN, CBS, NBC and Amazon are in the first year of a nine-year agreement that has them collectively paying hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the PGA Tour to show tournaments. Those networks may have their fill of golf. They may also not want to court controversy, nor anger their business partner, the PGA Tour.
History suggests, however, that if LIV Golf does prove to be a success, major rights agreements won’t be far behind. With consumers continuing to slowly abandon pay television, live sports is just about the only type of programming that delivers large, and lucrative, audiences anymore. And the streaming services that are luring those consumers away know that live sports is one of the best ways to get new customers, and keep old ones.
Not exactly. We asked Ben Hubbard, who covers the Middle East as the Beirut bureau chief for The Times and has written a book on Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, to explain the kingdom’s motivations in a bit more depth. His response:
Saudi Arabia’s backing of the new series is the latest example of the way oil-rich Gulf monarchies use their vast wealth to invest in sports and cultural institutions in hopes of raising their countries’ international profiles and shifting how they are viewed by people in Western countries.
Saudi Arabia’s investments in international sports and culture have accelerated rapidly since 2015, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his ascent to become the kingdom’s de facto ruler and spearheaded a massive overhaul aimed at opening up its economy and culture.
For more that a decade, that effort has included governments hosting Formula One races and professional boxing and wrestling matches; opening branches of world-class museums and universities like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Georgetown University in Qatar; and buying up European soccer clubs. (Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which the crown prince leads as chairman, acquired the Premier League club Newcastle United last year.)
In investing in golf, though, it appears that the Saudis are seeking to win over a different category of sports fan, according to Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who studies Gulf politics at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
“They are looking for an older, more professional market to try to make inroads to, a wealthier demographic,” Ulrichsen said.
That group includes fans of former President Donald Trump, and perhaps even Trump himself, with whom the crown prince enjoys a close relationship.
Two of the LIV Golf Series events, in fact, will be at Trump-owned courses: the first in late July, at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., and the season-ending team championship in October, at Trump National Doral Miami.
Not always well. One of LIV Golf’s biggest signings, Mickelson, provoked outrage in February when he praised the series as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” even as he called Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights “horrible” and used an expletive to describe the country’s leaders as “scary.” The project’s main architect, the former player Greg Norman, made things worse a few weeks later when he dismissed Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”
Not that the pro golf’s existing power structures, including the PGA Tour, hold the moral high ground.
The tour’s next four events are in the United States, starting with a stop at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Ore., from June 30 to July 2, and then tournaments in New Jersey, Boston and Chicago. Trips to Thailand and Saudi Arabia follow, before the season-ending event in Florida. The full schedule is here.
Kevin Draper contributed reporting.