- The Washington Times
Tuesday, June 7, 2022

The idea of a Saudi-backed international golf circuit taking on the 93-year-old PGA Tour felt for months like an ill-advised tee shot destined to end with a “plop” as it landed in the drink.

But the sound the golf world heard instead this week was the “plonk” of the LIV Golf Invitational Series landing on the green. The upstart league has had a stunning couple of days, with stars such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson spurning the PGA Tour in favor of the upstart league.

Those players, along with about a dozen others, are ditching the nearly century-old PGA Tour in favor of the unprecedented cash offered by the Saudis. Mickelson reportedly signed for about $200 million from LIV Golf. Johnson got $125 million to play on the breakaway tour. And the purses for LIV events are about twice as lucrative as comparable PGA events.

“Free agency has finally come to golf,” said Greg Norman, LIV Golf’s CEO, in a statement ahead of the tour’s inaugural event in London on Thursday. 

Now that the LIV is, apparently, a reality — and potentially a legitimate rival for the PGA Tour — the question facing the established circuit is how to respond to the new competition. 

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has threatened lifetime bans for defectors. He told agents last week that golfers who play for LIV risk “disciplinary action” and will not be allowed to play on both tours at the same time. However, the USGA announced Tuesday that it will allow Mickelson, Johnson and other eligible LIV golfers to compete in the upcoming major championships — the U.S. Open next week and the British Open in July. 

“I realize people have strong points of view and think perhaps there should be some morality clause,” U.S. Golf Association CEO Mike Whan told ESPN. “We don’t track personal beliefs and who funds them. It doesn’t mean we don’t care.”

The way this week is playing out has been a central part of Norman’s plan to compete with the PGA Tour. The 67-year-old former golf star nicknamed “The Shark” believes that signing big checks and offering large purses — the opening tournament at the Centurion Club has a $25 million purse with $4 million to the winner and all 48 players taking home money — gives LIV Golf a chance to compete. 

One hiccup was the backlash created by Mickelson’s comments earlier this year about the new league and Saudi Arabia’s rulers. Mickelson, who hasn’t competed in a golf tournament since early February, said he wanted to use the new tour and its wealthy financiers as “leverage” over the PGA Tour

“[The PGA Tour] has been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse,” said Mickelson, 51. “As nice a guy as [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.”

But not everyone is taking Norman’s money, or rather money from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The fact that the money is coming from the Saudis — the government provided $400 million for the 2022 season — disturbed many members of the golf establishment and has stirred controversy about the new league since its inception.

The two biggest names in golf turned down huge sums of money to remain loyal to the PGA Tour. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus said he rejected more than $100 million to spearhead the Saudi-backed league before Norman was picked for the job. And Tiger Woods, according to Norman, turned down a “mind-blowingly enormous” deal — upward of “high nine digits” — to join the LIV Golf tour. 

Woods might not be playing on either tour for the foreseeable future. The superstar announced Tuesday he had withdrawn from next week’s U.S. Open because his injured leg “needs more time to get stronger for major championship golf.”

The 15-time major champion broke bones in his right leg and ankle in a car accident last February, but he made his surprise return to the Masters two months ago. He made the cut at Augusta National, just as he did at the PGA Championship last month, but he withered at the end of both tournaments. He was visibly limping at Southern Hills and withdrew after the third round. 

However, Mickelson and Johnson didn’t have Woods’ stomach for turning down life-changing money. Neither golfer is hurting in the finance department, but Mickelson’s $200 million deal — reported by the Golf Channel — is more than double his career earnings of $95 million on the PGA Tour. The same goes for Johnson, who earned $74 million in winnings during his PGA career but is getting $125 million to change teams, according to The Telegraph.

Johnson, the No. 13-ranked player in the world, is one of a handful of golfers who this week resigned from the PGA Tour after joining LIV Golf. 

“I don’t want to play golf the rest of my life, which I felt like I was probably going to have to do,” Johnson, 37, told reporters Tuesday. “This gives me the opportunity to spend more time with my family, doing the things that I love to do and it’s an exciting time.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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