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It’s the PGA Tour vs Saudi-backed LIV, and the rivalry shows no signs of slowing down

It’s the PGA Tour vs Saudi-backed LIV, and the rivalry shows no signs of slowing down
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off on the eighth hole during the final round of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on 30 January 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Warren Little / Getty Images)

The world of professional golf has never been renowned for its drama off the course. And while there have been controversies over the years, Sunday afternoon heroics have typically dominated the headlines. However, in the last year that all changed.

After much speculation, last year’s introduction of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit divided the golfing world more than ever before. Players, caddies, and even other professional golf tours had to choose a side of the fence and either stick with the PGA Tour or make the jump to LIV. 

LIV’s offering? Invitational-only 54-hole events which offered no world ranking points. The events had no cut and were played under a shotgun start. And before securing a TV broadcasting deal, the events were live-streamed on YouTube with no ad breaks. 

It was a promise of something different, but for some of the best golfers on the planet — already earning millions of dollars each year while competing on a tour with over a century of history and prestige — it seemed like an easy decision. 

However, as the saying goes, everyone has a price. 

LIV Golf offered prize funds the likes of which had never been seen before in professional golf. Being funded by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) gave the tour an unlimited pot to draw in the world’s best, and in the cases of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Cameron Smith, Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka, among others, LIV made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. 

Team Captain Phil Mickelson of Hy Flyers GC plays his shot from the 10th tee during the quarterfinals of the LIV Golf Invitational – Miami at Trump National Doral Miami on 28 October 2022 in Doral, Florida. (Photo: Eric Espada / Getty Images)

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan speaks during a press conference prior to the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club on 24 August 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Cliff Hawkins / Getty Images)

PGA reaction

The PGA Tour hasn’t taken the emergence of a breakaway professional golf circuit lightly.  

Under the leadership of commissioner Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour immediately banned all LIV golfers from playing in PGA Tour events. This is despite the fact that the likes of Johnson and Mickelson had lifetime exemptions for winning 24 and 45 PGA Tour events, respectively. 

This also had a notable impact on the President’s Cup, where key players such as Smith — the 2022 Open champion and the highest-ranked golfer outside the US and Europe — were not permitted to compete. 

In response to the money, the PGA Tour also made several notable changes. 

First, 12 tour events have been given “elevated status” for the 2022/23 season. These tournaments have a guaranteed prize fund of $20-million and will seek to bring the world’s best players together more often. 

Second, the prize fund for the already lucrative Player Impact Program  (PIP) was doubled from $50-million to $100-million, which will be shared among the top 20 players deemed to have contributed positively to the PGA Tour’s engagement and publicity. Despite rarely playing tournament golf, Tiger Woods has taken the top spot every year since the PIP’s inception in 2021. 

Finally, and arguably most importantly, the PGA Tour has created an Earnings Assurance Program which guarantees that all PGA Tour members who play in a minimum of 15 events in a season will receive a payout of at least $500,000. Similarly, the DP World Tour has created the same initiative with a guarantee of $150,000 to tour members who play a minimum of 15 events. 

And while these amounts may not mean much to those at the top end of the sport, they provide guaranteed earnings to players lower down on golf’s hierarchy who may be starting their careers or struggling to make ends meet. 

Yet, despite having some positive knock-on effects in the golfing world, LIV has also caused division. 


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Souring relations 

The relationship between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf was on edge from the offset, and it was further soured when a consortium of LIV golfers, as well as the entity itself, filed lawsuits against the PGA Tour for “anticompetitive practices” and “restraint of trade”, according to an article in GOLF

The original lawsuit, which was filed by a consortium of 11 golfers including Mickelson, DeChambeau and Ian Poulter, was an effort to force the PGA Tour to allow LIV golfers to compete in events. And although Mickelson and seven others have since withdrawn, LIV Golf’s lawsuit still stands, despite no action having been taken yet. 

In response, the PGA Tour filed a countersuit against LIV Golf. One of the standouts is that, among other things, the PGA Tour has argued that LIV Golf is an entity for sportswashing. 

“LIV has executed a campaign to pay the LIV Players astronomical sums of money to induce them to breach their contracts with the TOUR in an effort to use the LIV Players and the game of golf to sportswash the recent history of Saudi atrocities and to further the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s Vision 2030 initiatives,” the introduction to the PGA Tour’s lawsuit read. 

Additionally, in what may prove to be a pivotal new development, the PGA Tour has argued that the Saudi PIF, rather than CEO Greg Norman, has full autonomy over LIV Golf. As a result, the tour is moving to add the PIF itself, as well as the Saudi PIF governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, as counter-defendants in the lawsuit, according to GOLF

Only time will tell what will come of the lawsuits between the two entities, but at present, the world of professional golf is only becoming more divided. 

Saudi Public Investment Fund governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan pictured after day three of the LIV Golf Invitational at The Centurion Club on June 2022 in St Albans, England. (Photo: Matthew Lewis / Getty Images)

Greg Norman, CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf, waves after being introduced to the crowd during the team championship stroke-play round of the LIV Golf Invitational – Miami at Trump National Doral Miami on 30 October 2022 in Doral, Florida. (Photo: Eric Espada / Getty Images)

‘Us vs them’ 

“This ‘us versus them’ thing has gotten way out of control already,” world number one Rory McIlroy told The Guardian. “If the two entities keep doubling down in both directions, it is only going to become irreparable. We are going to have a fractured sport for a long time. That is no good for anyone.” 

Despite each being offered deals worth close to a billion dollars to join, McIlroy and 15-time major champion Tiger Woods have been outspoken against LIV Golf, and both have called for Norman to step down so the two tours can come to an agreement to end the “war”. 

“He [Norman] has basically found people to fund his vendetta against the PGA Tour. I think he hides behind ‘force for good’ and all that stuff. This has been his dream for 30 years and he has finally found people who can fund that dream,” said McIlroy. 

Yet, Norman has shown no signs of budging. 

“I pay zero attention to McIlroy and Woods, right?” Norman told Today’s Golfer. “They have their agenda for whatever reason. They’re saying whatever they want to say. It has no bearing or effect on me. I’m going to be with LIV for a long, long period of time.” 

The division has even gone as far as dividing the players, and an example of this is the fragmented European Ryder Cup team. After joining LIV Golf, Henrik Stenson was stripped of the Ryder Cup captaincy ahead of the 2023 edition in Rome and replaced by Luke Donald. 

On the playing front, European legends Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell all made the move to LIV Golf, and as a result, seemingly tarnished their legacies with the team structures and their teammates alike. 

“I think it is the first time in my life that I have felt betrayal, in a way. It’s an unfamiliar feeling to me,” McIlroy told The Guardian

“You build bonds with these people through Ryder Cups and other things. Them knowing that what they are about to do is going to jeopardise them from being a part of that ever again? There was a great opportunity for [McDowell] to maybe be the captain at Adare in 2027. Most of Sergio’s legacy is Ryder Cup-based, same with Poulter, Westwood,” he said. 

“I feel like the place where they have been able to build their legacy and build their brand, they have just left behind,” said McIlroy.

Tension in the air

At present, LIV golfers are permitted to play in DP World Tour events, as well as golf’s four majors, provided they qualify. And the tension was clear for all to see as a LIV vs the PGA Tour showdown emerged at the Dubai Desert Classic, which concluded on Monday, as McIlroy edged out LIV’s Patrick Reed by one stroke to take the title.

Earlier in the week, the two golfers made headlines after McIlroy refused to greet Reed on the driving range — most likely due to the fact that while enjoying Christmas Eve with his family, he was subpoenaed by Reed’s lawyer to testify for him in a defamation lawsuit against a number of golf journalists and the Golf Channel. The lawsuit has since been dismissed.

In response, Reed allegedly flicked a LIV Golf-branded tee at McIlroy.

There was another potentially awkward exchange in Dubai when Stenson was grouped with Donald, his Ryder Cup replacement, during Round 3 of the tournament.

And while the PGA and DP World Tour’s seasons are well under way, with world number three Jon Rahm and McIlroy seemingly dominating the game at present, the second season of LIV Golf begins in Mexico in late February.

LIV has added six events to its 2023 schedule, which will consist of 14 events taking place from February to November, while the prize fund stands at about $400-million. DM

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