Fight on the fairways: How a Saudi-backed venture and breakaway tour are upending golf’s established order

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The PGA Tour along with the DP World Tour (formerly known as the European Tour) have been the predominant golf tours in the world for several decades. Both, especially the American league, are considered the holy grail for golfers around the world.

But now their monopoly is about to be challenged and it is Saudi money that is causing the potential upheaval.

What is happening?

Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF), who funded the takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United last year offered a much bigger Asian tour, at least in monetary terms. The investment of more than $300 million in the company will include 10 events, larger guaranteed sums for players, limited courts, 54-hole tournaments without cuts and a team competition.

Former world number one Greg Norman has been named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, the Saudi-backed company trying to lure the hottest golfers on the two biggest tours with eye-watering sums. Many of them have joined the company and have even signed non-disclosure agreements.

Why is this development important?

It threatens the hegemony of the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour. Both offer the biggest prize money and boast the biggest names in the game competing on the world’s holiest golf courses, but they can’t match the seemingly limitless Saudi coffers. The new venture, which is due to start next month in Thailand, is still lacking in details, but there is already an event planned in England, at the proverbial heart of the old order, that too in the week before the US Open, a of golf’s four Majors. Going beyond Asian geographic boundaries shows that the fight is for control of the game and challenging the status quo. Norman, meanwhile, insists the main motivation is to “grow the game of golf”. He adds that “this is just the beginning” and “we are here for the good of the game”.

What’s in it for elite players?

According to six-time Major winner Phil Mickelson, “virtually every player in the world’s top 100 has been contacted”.

With the amounts of money that would have been offered to join the new venture, it’s no surprise that many golfers are ready. The PGA Tour does not offer appearance money (other tours do, to attract big names), and missing the cut deprives them of a share of the prize money. But here there is a promise of guaranteed payments. Many of the players approached may be in their late 40s or even early 50s and may not have too many years left at the top. They would be tempted to make the most of any big payday.

Although they may be affiliated with one or more tours, professional golfers do not see themselves as employees but as “independent contractors”, and are therefore free to play where the returns are highest.

Phil Mickelson walks onto the fourth hole green of the Torrey Pines South Course during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in San Diego. (AP Photo/File)

Mickelson, one of the game’s greats, has several complaints about how the PGA Tour treats its players, regardless of the impressive prize money.

“Players don’t have access to their own media. If the Tour wanted to end any threat, they could simply return the media rights to the players. But they’d rather throw $25 million here and $40 million there than return the roughly $20 billion worth of digital assets they control. Or give up access to the more than $50 million they earn every year on their own media channel,” he told Golf Digest.

“There are a lot of issues, but this is one of the biggest ones. It’s not enough that they’re sitting on hundreds of millions of digital moments. They also have access to my snaps – access that I don’t They also charge companies to use the shots I hit.

The disruptive market world of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and sports collectibles, which now include “video highlights”, also adds intrigue to the ownership of these TV footage rights. Bryson DeChambeau has sold his own NFTs, but a market for golf holds huge potential.

PGA Tour players are also required to seek permission to appear at concurrent events, and Mickelson says all of those stipulations reek of “greed beyond odious.”

How have established tours reacted?

Not much in the form of an official reaction, but there is talk of player bans and keeping those who join the new venture out of the Ryder Cup, one of the game’s biggest and most watched events, in as players and future captains.

Additionally, both major tours attempted to raise prize money to keep their herd together. The PGA Tour has launched the Player Impact program, which rewards golfers for positively influencing fans and social media followers. It’s seen as an attempt to prevent their most prominent assets from looking elsewhere.

What was the response from the upstarts?

LIV Golf Investments talks about a good fight. Although there isn’t much clarity on their plans, Norman insists “of course there will be things announced in the future. Our mission is to make sure this platform is firmly rooted in the world of golf… We want to get the message out that it is not specifically for the Asian region, and it is extremely important that everyone understands .

The Australian, a two-time Open champion, also faced those who attacked the intentions of the promoters of the new league.

“It is disappointing to see some of the attacks that have taken place without justification. If you prejudge someone without knowing the facts, then shame on you,” he shot back.

What were the biggest concerns about the new venture?

The Saudi government has recently invested a lot of money in sports – football, motorsports, boxing and even WWE – to restore its image. Critics who tarnish the kingdom’s allegedly poor human rights record and blame the ruling family for the death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, call the phenomenon “sportswashing”. The proposed golf league is seen as another such attempt.

Players keen to join the new venture are quick to point out that they are “not a politician” and are free to earn big checks for their sporting prowess.

We saw something similar in the world of cricket in the 1970s in the form of Kerry Packer’s World Series. He staged rebel matches alongside official matches before being co-opted into the fold.

It remains to be seen how the fight to control the fairways and greens will play out.

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