In a perfect world we would always be able to keep sports and politics separate. Of course, the world is not perfect so we are always going to see those two worlds intersect. Seismic events like Jackie Robinson breaking Major League baseball’s color barrier in 1947 are inherently political, and demonstrates how the sports world is invariably ahead of the real world when it comes to social progress.
So, I’m all for the blurring of athletic-political lines. Keep ’em coming.
Now, to the matter at hand. We’re one tournament into the LIV Golf Series and there have been more players announcing plans to leave the PGA Tour and enter the first US-based event in Portland, Oregon at the end of this month. As I’ve been saying repeatedly since official news broke about players like Dustin Johnson opting for this new “tour”, this is NOT going away any time soon. The fields will only get better. And, the PGA Tour should be very proactive in how they respond to this existential threat.
LIV Golf is a series of big-money tournaments played on three continents with the next seven stretching out over a 4-month period. The next tournament is scheduled for June 30-July 2 followed by another at the end of July in New Jersey. In all, five of the remaining seven tournaments are set to be held in the United States. One will be in Thailand and another in Saudi Arabia.
Ah yes, Saudi Arabia. Here’s where I will mention the funding source once – and only once – and touch the third rail of this issue. The Saudi Royal Family’s public investment fund, worth $620 billion, has bankrolled this series. How much of that total will be devoted towards LIV is anyone’s guess, but safe to say the total is in the $4-5 billion range.
They’ve already guaranteed Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau between $300-$400 million combined just for agreeing to play according to published reports. CEO Greg Norman told the world that they also offered Tiger Woods “high nine figures” but Woods declined the offer.
Wait, Tiger Woods turned down half a billion dollars? Could you turn down half a billion?
The fields are 48-players deep, no one is coming for free, so it is a safe guess that the initial start-up costs are in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion for participants.
As for the prize money, Charl Schwartzel won and took home $4.75 million of a $25 million pot during last week’s inaugural event in England. That total represents more than 20% of what he’d earned in 11 seasons on the PGA Tour. It was the single largest payday in the history of the sport. In contrast, $17.5 million was the total purse at this weekend’s US Open – a $5 million jump from last year. And, Matt Fitzpatrick’s $3.15 million winner’s share marks the largest payout in major tournament history.
LIV’s $25 million is divided between 48 players. The USGA pool, $7.5 million less, was split among 64 players who qualified for the weekend. The 92 who failed to make the cut received nothing. LIV has no cut, so if you’re in the field you get a check – above the guarantee for showing up.
Andy Ogeltree, who won the US Amateur championship in 2019, graduated from Georgia Tech and turned pro the following year, has earned less than $40,000 over parts of 3 PGA Tour seasons. He played in LIV’s opener, finished 48th – with a total of 24-over par – and “earned” $120,000.
LIV Golf’s funding is bottomless. The total purse is $255 million for 8 events compared with the PGA Tour’s $427 million up for grabs across 47 tournaments and that total jumped by more than 15% over last year. That the money comes directly from the Saudi government, recognized as one of the world’s foremost offender of human rights, is part of the conversation and everyone who chooses to take part is free to consider that fact.
For the purpose of this story, we’re going to leave this part of the conversation to the side. I’m not interested in swatting away all of the whatabouts and false equivalencies used to justify the source of the funding. Just say you don’t give a damn. Stop with the “well, they did it” defense. You’re not 4 years old anymore. Plus, that’s for someone else to write. We’re going to keep this to sports, like some of you snowflakes would prefer.
Norman, a 20-time PGA Tour winner, 2-time Open Champion and World Golf Hall of Fame member, is the front man for this new tour. From the time he was announced as the CEO he talked about LIV being an “additive” to golf’s schedule. He gushed about “growing the game” and providing opportunity for the thousands of touring golf professionals.
First, there is no entity more dedicated to providing the opportunity for golf professionals than the PGA Tour. There are 42 official PGA Tour tournaments during the year-long, wrap-around season. There are also an additional 50 events spread out over the three developmental circuits that the Tour owns and manages – Korn Ferry, PGATour LatinoAmerica and PGATour Canada.
On top of that, there are recognized tours in Europe (DP World Tour), Australia, South Africa, Japan and Asia all providing opportunity for players.
One thing professional golfers aren’t lacking for is opportunity.
No one has yet explained how LIV is growing the game. To be fair, they don’t have to do anything for the sport beyond staging 8 entertaining tournaments. Well, 7 if you count the first snore-fest that took place 10 days ago. It’s not their job to create more golfers or golf fans or to give back. But, when Norman used “grow the game”, well, that’s what that would mean and they have no intention to do that beyond playing. Which, again, is fine.
As for LIV being an “additive” to the current pro schedule. The initial schedule was supposed to be for 15 events. That was whittled to eight as it became obvious that finding enough players that the general public would recognize was going to be more of a challenge than originally thought. But, next year’s schedule is for 10 events with 14 already on the calendar for 2024 and 2025.
That isnt “additive”. That’s a full schedule. LIV isn’t icing on the cake, it’s 7-layer, double chocolate cake – smothered in hot fudge – on top of the cake.
The average top PGA Tour player plays in the neighborhood of 20-25 events per year. You need to play 15 to keep your status. The four majors (The Masters, PGA Championship, US Open and Open Championship) count, as do the three season-ending playoff events. So, theoretically, a player could enter as few as 8 “regular” Tour events, play all four majors and as long as they advance to the 30-player Tour Championship maintain their Tour membership.
Norman’s nose is growing like Pinocchio when he calls LIV “additive”. Many of the players have signed contracts to play the entire schedule. I’m fairly certain they didn’t give Mickelson $200 million to show up a handful of times. So, as an “additive”, Norman must think that these guys are going to suddenly fancy playing 30 weeks per year.
There goes the “this will give me more time to spend with my family” excuse.
The seeds of rage…
Here’s where we remind you that Norman, the public face of LIV Golf, has had an ax to grind against the PGA Tour for nearly 3 decades. Even then, it isn’t necessarily against The Tour, per se, moreso its last commissioner, Tim Finchem. And, I will admit, The Shark (Norman’s nickname) is justified in his long-simmering anger.
In 1994 Norman – then the number one draw on the PGA Tour, think Tiger Woods before there was a Tiger Woods – had plans for an 8-event, limited field, big money Tour. It was underwritten by a non-traditional source and the commissioner was livid.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Norman had an agreement with FOX Sports, who had never broadcast golf, to pay $112 million in broadcast rights to the series. Each event would carry a $3 million purse, $1 million more than the Masters offered. Finchem was so mad at the idea that he threatened to suspend any player who agreed to play in the series. Because the Tour was already a golden goose for these guys, and Norman’s gambit wasn’t grotesquely high, the players balked and the idea was dead.
Until it wasn’t.
In 1996 Finchem announced plans for the World Golf Championships that would bring the best players in the world together for four high dollar events with no cut and limited fields. There would be just four tournaments, encased within the PGA Tour schedule, with three events in the United States and one abroad.
Norman has been in a slow boil ever since. And, his scheme – with the help of an unlimited amount of money – think sand in the Sahara amounts – is the perfect storm to do serious damage to the PGA Tour. Make no mistake, Norman isn’t interested in being an additive. The Shark is out for blood. He wants his pound of flesh from The Tour and Jay Monahan just happens to be the man in charge right now.
Norman’s belief is that if you throw enough money at pro golfers they won’t care what the source of the money is, only that the checks clear. And, he’s going to be proven more right than wrong as more and more players start defecting to the LIV series. As of right now, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau represent the biggest hits to the Tour.
Johnson was the number 1 player in the world as recently as a year ago. He’s a 2-time major champion (2016 US Open, 2020 Masters), and has earned more than $100 million in his PGA Tour career. DeChambeau won the 2020 US Open, is the game’s longest driver and has been a lightning rod for rules issues (he once tried to get a free drop due to fire ants near his golf ball) and juvenile spats with fellow players (who can forget” Brooksie”).
Everyone else in the LIV stable, including ring leader Phil Mickelson, isn’t really a loss to the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia?/ Lee Westwood? Graeme McDowell? Patrick Reed? None of those guys move the needle and all but Reed are clearly well onto the back nine of their competitive careers.
In fact, the best thing about LIV is that DeChambeau and Reed won’t be on the PGA Tour anytime soon. Silver linings are everywhere.
So that’s where we are today. There will be more players that will bite at the Saudi apple. The money is too enticing. The cake is too rich to resist. And, with each defection it becomes just a little easier for the next player to say, “well, (fill in the blank) did it, so…”.
Publicly, LIV – through Norman – claims to be interested in growing the game. In reality, they’re fracturing it. In the long run, the PGA Tour, their players and more importantly their sponsors will suffer. Meanwhile, LIV events will continue to be little more than hit and giggle exhibitions, albeit ones with oceans of money in which to swim after 54 holes that you can only stream on the internet.
However, because the money spigot is wide open, Norman is betting that enough players will be drawn to the trough. And, he’s probably right enough to do enough damage to the sport that helped him make hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. All to settle a score.
Justified or not.