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In the Rough – PGA 'Tour Rebels' and the controversy of the LIV Series

Rumours of a competing Saudi-backed golf league have floated the air for the last couple of years, but that time is now up, as the LIV International Golf Series launched its inaugural event last month at the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire. The eight-part series is causing controversy in the sport, with the PGA Tour promising to ban any players who make a move over to LIV. The current list of suspended players includes the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Branden Grace and Lee Westwood, amongst others, with more expected to follow suit. But why is this such a hot topic for debate? Other than the fact that the PGA tour is propped up by sponsorships and media rights which will inevitably be diluted by those moving to LIV, it opens up a host of conversations to be had from political issues to the transparency of funds and player’s worth.

Last year, LIV Golf Investments announced its plans to invest more than $200 million into the sport. With a total of $255 million in prize money to be paid out across the eight tournaments and, with the first event promising a minimum of $120,000 to each player, the financial reward, and thus temptation to join is enormous, as illustrated by Bryson DeChambeau’s recent decision to join the LIV Series having initially stated he would remain with the PGA.

In addition, huge signing contracts are being offered to players with rumours reporting that Phil Mickelson received roughly $200 million and Dustin Johnson $125 million to join LIV. Dustin Johnson defends his decision to move, saying he had to factor in the best financial outcome for his time spent. Golf is an expensive sport to play, especially when aspiring to reach the top, and the cost of travel and spending long periods of time away from home can have a huge financial impact, especially if not rewarded at the end of it. For many, the move to LIV has tarnished their reputation, severed relationships with agents and resulted in lost endorsements. However, for players like Brooks Koepka, who have tirelessly tried to secure PGA membership over the last 6 years to no avail, his decision to join LIV seems like a no-brainer.

Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) has majority ownership of the aforementioned LIV Golf Investments. With circa £492 billion AUM it is among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is using to help diversify the country’s dependence on oil. With stakes in Uber, Disney, Facebook, Nintendo and last year's takeover of Newcastle United (to name a few), the PIF holds an impressive portfolio. However, the fund has been widely criticised due to its lack of transparency in investments and its close relationship to the government whose human rights record poses huge concern. When asked by Rob Harris (Associated Press) how their participation in the sport would “help the women oppressed in Saudi Arabia, the migrant groups whose rights are violated, the LGBTQ individuals who are criminalised, the families of the 81 men who were executed in March, and those being bombed in Yemen” Graeme McDowell was unable to comment.

Tiger Woods has openly criticised players for the move, saying that “they've turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position" and has questioned the impact on the quality of play when LIV golfers are rewarded no matter how they perform. The prospect of young golfers potentially unable to play in major championships and receive world ranking points seems incomprehensible to the four-time PGA Championship winner. Whether the PGA will accept the return of any suspended players in the future is also yet to be determined.

This is not the first time the sport’s status quo has been challenged. Greg Norman, former Australian world no 1 and now CEO of the LIV Series, has long had visions of a rival Golf Championship, having previously attempted to create a World Golf Tour in the 90s, which promised $3 million purses to the world’s top 30 players. The ill-fated idea received a tonne of backlash at the time with critics from the Washington Post stating “The World Golf Tour is an ugly idea, both crass and alien to golf”, but as Norman would argue, his idea was merely ahead of the time…

Despite imposed bans from the PGA, the R&A has allowed LIV golfers to compete at the 150th Open at St Andrews, which is underway as we speak, with Rory McIlroy amongst the leaders on day one. Huge roars of excitement were heard for the announcement of Tiger Woods on the first tee, whilst Ian Poulter (LIV member) was not so warmly welcomed, with spectators booing his opening tee-shot. With plenty of LIV events scheduled for the rest of the year, it will be interesting to see how this season plays out and the impact it has on the sport.


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