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PGA Tour vs LIV Golf: Who is winning the fight for golf’s future?

As a bitter power struggle continues between golf’s preeminent tour and the Saudi-backed breakaway series, SportsPro examines the blows landed by the pair so far and what is to come as they wrestle for control of the sport’s future.

16 September 2022 Ed Dixon

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Harmony is a commodity highly valued among sports stakeholders.

It should come as no surprise then that LIV Golf’s arrival has not only threatened the status quo, but caused a divide bigger than golf has seen in its recent history.

The first significant warning shot was fired last November when the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Investments outlined plans to invest more than US$200 million into the Asian Tour and overhaul the regional circuit with a new ten-event series. The PGA Tour and DP World Tour, golf’s two leading properties, were quick to denounce the move.

Since then, LIV Golf, brimming with money from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), has upset the golfing apple cart. Defections, lawsuits and verbal sparring have felt like daily occurrences in recent months.

With much to unpick as the situation unravels, SportsPro looks back over a tumultuous period to assess how the PGA Tour has responded to the threat and what may still be to come.

How did we get here?

Since making its intentions clear towards the end of 2021, LIV Golf’s controversial ‘super league’ took further shape this March when the UK’s Centurion Club was confirmed to host the breakaway circuit’s first event.

Initially announced as part of an eight-tournament schedule, featuring stops in the US, Bangkok and Jeddah, the LIV Golf Invitational boasted a total prize fund of US$250 million and blended 54-hole stroke play with a team concept.

In July, a 14-tournament league was unveiled, with 48 contracted players competing on 12 ‘established team franchises’ starting in 2023. The prize pot also swelled to US$405 million, with LIV players able to share in revenue and profits as their teams start selling corporate sponsorships and ownership stakes.

The developments belied the assessment from four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who considered the concept “dead in the water” back in February after the likes of Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau committed to the PGA Tour. Both later made the leap, with Johnson alone reportedly pocketing UK£100 million (US$116) million to join LIV Golf.

The likes of Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Cameron Smith also took the plunge. They have been joined by European Ryder Cup stars such as Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer.

“It’s actually extraordinary what’s happened,” Steve Martin, global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, tells SportsPro. “It shows that money talks; in fact, it talks an awful lot in this instance. It’s added chaos to the game.

“What I haven’t heard throughout this period is any language about what golf fans want. It’s always about what the players and rights holders want. I’ve always thought that’s been tone deaf from both sides.”

Phil Mickelson is among the players suing the PGA Tour over its decision to suspend them

What has the PGA Tour done?

The North American tour permitted players to compete in February’s Saudi International, an event previously staged by the DP World Tour and now sanctioned by the Asian Tour.

Additional leniency has not been forthcoming. Players were refused the releases needed to compete in the LIV Golf Invitational Series, with sanctions threatened for any rebels.

In June, the PGA Tour said it would suspend all those who defected. Players who had already resigned from the tour were removed from the points standings for the FedEx Cup, its season-ending competition, and no longer able to exploit a potential loophole to play PGA Tour events as a non-member via sponsor’s exemptions.

The same month also saw the PGA Tour and DP World Tour strike a new 13-year operational joint venture partnership, promising new player pathways and increased prize funds.

“We’re 100 per cent focused on creating the strongest competitive platform for the best players in the world,” said Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour. “If the PGA Tour is going to compete on dollars alone against a foreign monarchy that is trying to buy the game, that’s a very difficult spot for us to be in.

“However, we’re going to compete by creating the best schedule, with players having the ability to pick and choose their schedule, that’s where our focus is going to be. This partnership is an example.”

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has ruled out allowing LIV Players to return to the North American circuit

Monahan has come out swinging again since making those comments. Last month, a record US$428.6 million prize purse was announced for a 2022/23 season featuring 47 events, including 44 regular season tournaments and the three-stop FedEx Cup Playoff series.

A series of limited field, no-cut events mirroring the LIV Golf model and an enhanced player bonus pool were also confirmed, as was a return to a calendar-year schedule format in 2024.

“It’s been known that the PGA Tour have had so much money down the back of the sofa for an awful long time, which has suddenly just appeared,” notes Martin, whose company works with various tournaments and brands within golf.

As well as Monahan’s accusation that LIV Golf is trying to “buy the game”, allegations of ‘sportswashing’ and human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia have been used as sticks to beat players onboard with the rogue series.

While those are undoubtedly unsightly and rightly raised, Martin points to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour’s past co-sanctioning of the Saudi Invitational – both are no strangers to the Gulf state’s money.

“There are many contradictions around this,” says Martin when asked if the tours are right to feel betrayed by players. “You’re going to hear multiple different angles to it and that’s why it’s complete and utter turmoil.

“When you talk to some of the LIV players, you sort of understand why they have to take that obscene money. They have very short careers.

“Look at Brooks Koepka. He might have a bad run for two to three years. But if he’s offered US$100 million he has to take it.”

How has LIV Golf reacted?

Not one to hold back, LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman has branded the PGA Tour “anti-fan and anti-golfer”, arguing that the circuit “is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market.”

Norman, a two-time major champion, has also pledged to “defend, reimburse and represent” any players sanctioned.

“We are going to back up the players, we are going to be there for them, for whatever that is,” he continued. “We’re ready to go. We don’t want to go, but we’re ready to go.”

The 67-year-old’s surprise at the strength of opposition could be seen as naïve, yet his bullishness is no doubt fuelled by the financial security afforded by PIF, which boasts estimated assets of US$620 billion.

Norman also seems comfortable playing the victim. Speaking to Fox News in August, he reasserted his view that the PGA Tour is a “monopoly” that wants to “shut us down”.

LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman has heavily criticised the PGA Tour’s reaction to the Saudi-backed series

Still, amid the acrimony, Norman reckons LIV Golf can coexist with other tours.

“Our model is 100 per cent built around the golf ecosystem from the ground up,” he told Fox News. “We are not trying to destroy the PGA Tour or the European Tour. We are there to work within the ecosystem to show that it’s a big enough space. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry.”

As well as citing the size of the market, LIV Golf feels it can be an open one, believing the ‘era of free agency is beginning’. It is still taking to the courts, though, joining a handful of players in a lawsuit against the PGA Tour after Mickelson, Poulter and DeChambeau, among others, sued the organisation over its decision to suspend them.

According to the amended complaint filed last month in a California federal court, LIV Golf is seeking ‘punitive damages against the PGA Tour for its tortuous interference with LIV Golf’s prospective business relationships’.

Only adding to the squabbling was July’s news that the PGA Tour is being investigated by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) over potentially engaging in anticompetitive behaviour towards its Saudi-backed rival.

Are we through the worst of it?

More players jumping ship looks inevitable, at least according to Norman.

“[The PGA Tour is] not going to shut us down because the product is speaking for itself,” he said. “We get calls every day from players [saying] ‘I want in’. The list gets longer and longer for the players who want to come in – which, again, is a testament to the right white noise.”

More cream of the crop – McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler among them – are sticking with the PGA Tour. But who is to say some of them will not eventually be tempted?

“The PGA Tour has been pretty clear with what they’re doing,” says Martin. “They’ve elevated the events and put their money where their mouth is. They’ve got good sponsors and partners. Hopefully they’ll stay with them. That will be their biggest concern – that the wells dry up and the fan experience drops.”

The legal wrangling will continue, with the broad antitrust lawsuit not expected to go to trial until August 2023 at the earliest.

Steve Martin, global chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport, believes the arrival of LIV Golf has “added chaos to the game”

So far, neither side has blinked. That is unlikely to change, such are the stakes. As for what will become of the DP World Tour, the circuit’s alliance with its American contemporaries now means ten players will graduate to full status on the PGA Tour.

Westwood, who has played in ten Ryder Cups, asserts this makes the European tour a “feeder” for its former rival. DP World Tour chief executive Keith Pelley quickly dismissed the claim before this month’s BMW PGA Championship.

“I’ll ask you: Is this week a tournament that is on a feeder tour?” Pelley said. “A tournament that has sold-out crowds, television coverage around the world in 150 countries, five of the top 15 players in the world? A tournament with 150 accredited media?

“Our first co-sanctioned event with the PGA Tour in Scotland, where 14 of the top 15 players [in the world] played, would that appear on a feeder tour? I could go on and on.”

Meanwhile, the friction between players has intensified. Former world number one Rahm and 2021 BMW PGA Championship winner Billy Horschel criticised LIV golfers taking part in this year’s tournament at Wentworth.

Ahead of the event, McIlroy said it would be “hard to stomach” competing alongside LIV players, while Shane Lowry, the eventual winner, told Sky Sports: “There are certain guys that I just can’t stand them being here.”

What happens next?

Probably more of the same. Both the PGA Tour and LIV Golf have upped the financial ante and they may have to again.

New events could also spring up. Woods and McIlroy have launched their TMRW Sports venture, which includes plans for a new technology-infused golf league in partnership with the PGA Tour.

“When you put the forces of those two together, it should be powerful,” says Martin. “[Woods and McIlroy] are very good at understanding their audience. They’re aware who they’re talking to, who’s engaging with and following them.”

Next year’s Ryder Cup, meanwhile, looks set to be short of several stars. US players must be part of the PGA Tour to be eligible, ruling out a host of big fish. European LIV golfers have not been banned thus far and remain entitled to play amid ongoing legal appeals. However, Henrik Stenson’s removal as Team Europe captain after deciding to take the Saudi cash means it is unlikely other rebel players will be invited to compete.

Any compromise between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf also appears remote, with Monahan ruling out allowing defectors to return.

“They’ve joined the LIV Golf Series and they’ve made that commitment,” he said. “For most of them, they’ve made multi-year commitments.

“As I’ve been clear throughout, every player has a choice, and I respect their choice, but they’ve made it. We’ve made ours. We’re going to continue to focus on the things that we control and get stronger and stronger.”

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods launched their TMRW Sports venture in August

The two parties want a lot of the same thing, but are at very different development stages. The PGA Tour has a brand and tradition dating back almost 100 years to protect, while LIV Golf is still finding its feet. Despite the latter’s underwhelming viewing figures, its Saudi backing means it does not have to rely on standard business practices. The focus going into 2023 is on disruption, not profit – at least for now.

Yet, both should be mindful of the fallout or they could risk doing irreparable damage to golf.

“As soon as you split the sport, you’re splitting an audience,” says Martin. “People have a minimal amount of time to watch all this.”

Perhaps silence could be golden for the PGA Tour, then.

“I’d be doing what Coca-Cola did with Pepsi for years and not even mention [LIV Golf],” continues Martin. “Don’t even give them the time.

“I think they’ll be hoping it’s going to settle down and they’ll settle into the rhythm of living side by side. But there are way more twists and turns to happen.”

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