On the Mark: Saudi-Backed LIV Golf Already Stirring up Controversy
By MARK LORENZANA
The inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Series teed off on Thursday, June 9, at the Centurion Club in London, England. In May of this year, LIV Golf announced that 42 players would compete in its inaugural event, which has a $25 million total purse.
LIV Golf, which is financed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, was founded in 2021 and named Australian entrepreneur and retired professional golfer Greg Norman as its chief operating officer. But this early, the biggest rival of the PGA Tour has already been the subject of controversy.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of numerous human rights violations. In his article in the Washington Post on Sunday, June 12, former Sports Illustrated and ESPN sports columnist Rick Reilly has called LIV Golf an attempt by “Saudi Arabia to ‘sportswash’ its murderous human rights record by buying off pro golfers with stupid money.”
Rory McIlroy, who competes in both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, and who is the most outspoken critic of LIV Golf, told Golf Digest in February of this year that he’s not comfortable with where the money is coming from. “Look, I’ve lived it — for the top guys, all that money really isn’t going to change their life,” McIlroy told Golf Digest’s Dan Rapaport. “I’m in a way better financial position than I was a decade ago, and my life is no different. I still use the same three, four rooms in my house. I just don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions.”
Golf legend Tiger Woods has also refused to jump ship. “I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is,” Woods said in November. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships, and been a part of the World Golf Championships, the start of them and the end of them. So I have allegiance to the PGA Tour,” he added.
World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka have also said that they will not defect to the Saudi golf league.
In January 2020, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan issued a warning that any player who sided with a rival league would face suspension and possibly a lifetime ban. At a players meeting at the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship, Monahan reiterated his position: Any player joining the Saudi-backed golf league will face immediate suspension and possible expulsion from the PGA Tour.
Still, this hasn’t stopped other big names from joining the Saudi-backed tour. Headlining the tour are Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson. In addition, Bryson DeChambeau, Masters Champion Patrick Reed and Players Champion Rickie Fowler have also signed up.
The first seven events of LIV Golf — which had its inaugural event in London on Thursday, June 9 — will each boast $25 million purses, $20 million for individual prizes and another $5 million for the team competition. The eighth event will offer $30 million for the top three players of the season, with another $50 million for teams in total prize funds.
Reilly, in his sports article for the Washington Post, wrote that “Already, the players and media are discovering what life is like under an autocracy. An Associated Press reporter was tossed out of an LIV presser at the Centurion last week for not being ‘polite.‘ (He was asking a hard question; they eventually let him back in.) (Golf writer) Alan Shipnuck got pushed around Thursday when Mickelson was about to talk to reporters.”
Shipnuck later wrote about the incident on his Twitter account: “Well, a couple of neckless security dudes just physically removed me from Phil Mickelson’s press conference, saying they were acting on orders from their boss, whom they refused to name. (Greg Norman? MBS? Al Capone?) Never a dull moment up in here.”
The idea of a breakaway circuit from the PGA Tour, however, is not new. The PGA Tour itself came to pass after players split from the PGA of America in 1967 to form the Tournament Players Division.