At the Centurion Club tomorrow, the LIV Golf Invitational Series gets underway. In PGA Tour circles, it is known, disparagingly, as the Saudi Golf League. You will doubtless have heard of it. It is fronted by Greg Norman and it involves an awful lot of money, sourced in Saudi Arabia. The players competing in the 54-hole event which starts tomorrow will share a purse of $25 million. Dustin Johnson, two-time major champion and a former world No. 1 (although now 15th), is the star attraction, reportedly being paid a guarantee of $125 million – more prize-money than Tiger Woods has earned in his career – to back the venture for the next five years. He has resigned his membership of the PGA Tour to do this. Others have, too.
When I say DJ is the star attraction, that should read that he was until Monday, when Phil Mickelson was formally added to the field. The six-time major champion has not played a competitive round since February, when he disappeared from view after making some highly critical remarks – “reckless”, he called them – about Saudi society in general and its government in particular. That takes us back to a cringeworthy press conference last month when Norman dealt with criticisms of the regime’s involvement in the murder of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, by saying: “Look, we’ve all made mistakes”, seeming to equate the ordering of a killing with a sad Sunday at Augusta in 1996.
It seems certain that legal proceedings will ensue once the PGA Tour takes action sometime after this week to ban LIV participants from playing in its tournaments. Norman has assured ‘rebel’ players that their lawyers’ fees will be covered. (I’m not sure that the DP World Tour, formerly European Tour, is in position to sanction the likes of Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood for their appearance at Centurion.) That’s one for the future, perhaps the very near future, but meanwhile I’ll just put the following points out there.
First, Norman has said one of the virtues of this project is that it helps to “grow the game”. No. It’s about making wealthy golfers even wealthier and – albeit I’m not entirely sure how this bit is supposed to work in practice – it’s about trying to burnish the reputation of Saudi Arabia. There are eight tournaments in the series, including this one in England and five in the States. Last time I checked, the UK and the US were not virgin golf territory.
Second, two of the events in America will be played at Donald Trump courses. I mention this because, as you will know, Trump might be back as the US president in 2025. Trump’s course in New Jersey (which will host the LIV next month) had this year’s USPGA Championship taken away from it after the Capitol riot in January 2021. Previously, the PGA Tour had removed a World Golf Championship event from his course in Miami (which will host the LIV in October). Trump likes the Saudis and I am sure it is in the forefront of Norman’s mind to suggest that should Trump indeed return to the White House he should strip the PGA Tour of its tax-exempt charitable status – force Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, to worry about the collapse of his business model rather than what Greg & Co are up to.
Third, notwithstanding the previous paragraph, for how long will the Saudis keep funding the project if it continues to evade the interest of the world’s best players? Norman recently told the Washington Postthat Tiger Woods had been offered a “mind-blowingly enormous [deal]; we’re talking high nine digits” to take part. Tiger’s game ain’t what it was but he remains by far the biggest draw in the sport. If not him, what about Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa? Absent all of those and the LIV league looks a little like, say…perhaps say if Saudi money had been pumped into Newcastle United and the club had been relegated rather than maintained its place in the Premier League. In old parlance, it would look second division. No one pumps billions into something in order to be considered second division.
Finally, there is a vague kind of symmetry here. The nearest place of any size to the Centurion Club is St Albans, which was the home of Samuel Ryder. In 1927 the international golf competition which bears his name got underway. Only time will tell how the LIV/GIS will fare in comparative longevity, or indeed what impact this development may have on the Ryder Cup.
One thing is for sure, though: the four major championships, none of which are run by the main professional tours, look more important than ever.
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