In a perfect world, we could always keep sports and politics separate. Of course, the world isn’t perfect, so we’re always going to see those two worlds intersect. Seismic events like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 are inherently political and demonstrate how the world of sports is invariably ahead of the real world when it comes to social progress.
Therefore, I am in favor of blurring the athletic-political lines. Keep coming.
Now, to the matter at hand. We are in an LIV Golf Series tournament and there have been more players announcing plans to leave the PGA Tour and take part in the first US-based event in Portland, Oregon later this month. As I’ve been saying repeatedly since the official news broke about players like Dustin Johnson opting into this new “tour”, this is NOT going away anytime soon. The fields will only get better. And the PGA Tour should be very proactive in how it responds to this existential threat.
LIV Golf is a series of big money tournaments played on three continents with the next seven being spread over a 4 month period. The next tournament is scheduled for June 30-July 2, followed by another in late July in New Jersey. In total, five of the remaining seven tournaments will be held in the United States. One will be in Thailand and one in Saudi Arabia.
Oh yes, Saudi Arabia. This is where I will mention the funding source once, and once only, and hit the third rail of this issue. The Saudi Royal Family’s public investment fund, worth $620 billion, has financed this series. How much of that total will be dedicated to LIV is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to say the total is in the $4-5 billion range.
Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau have already been guaranteed a combined $300 million to $400 million just for agreeing to play, according to published reports. CEO Greg Norman told the world that Tiger Woods was also offered a “high nine figures,” but Woods turned the offer down.
Wait, Tiger Woods turned down $500 million? Could you turn down half a billion?
Fields are 48 players deep, no one comes free, so it’s a safe guess that start-up costs are in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion for entrants.
As for the prize money, Charl Schwartzel won and took home $4.75 million from a $25 million jackpot during last week’s inaugural event in England. That total represents more than 20% of what he earned in 11 seasons on the PGA Tour. It was the biggest payday in sports history. In contrast, $17.5 million was the total purse at this weekend’s US Open, an increase of $5 million from last year. And, Matt Fitzpatrick’s $3.15 million winner’s stake marks the largest payout in major tournament history.
LIV’s $25 million is divided among 48 players. The USGA fund, $7.5 million less, was divided among 64 players who qualified for the weekend. The 92 who did not make the cut received nothing. LIV has no court, so if you’re in the field, you get a check, plus the show-up guarantee.
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 in parts of 3 PGA Tour seasons. He played in the first LIV match, finished 48th, with a total of 24 over par, and “won” $120,000.
LIV Golf financing is bottomless. The total purse is $255 million for 8 events compared to the PGA Tour’s $427 million at stake across 47 tournaments and that total is up more than 15% from last year. That the money comes directly from the Saudi government, recognized as one of the world’s leading human rights violators, is part of the conversation and everyone who chooses to participate is free to consider that fact.
For the purpose of this story, we will leave this part of the conversation aside. I am not interested in doing away with all the whatabouts and false equivalences used to justify the funding source. Just say you give a fuck. Enough with the “well, they did” defense. You are no longer 4 years old. Also, that’s for someone else to write. We’re going to limit this to sports, as some of you snowflakes would prefer.
Norman, a 20-time PGA Tour winner, 2-time Open champion and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, is the leader of this new tour. From the moment he was announced as CEO, he spoke of LIV as an “additive” to the golf schedule. He gushed about “growing the game” and providing opportunities for the thousands of golf professionals on tour.
First, there is no entity more dedicated to providing opportunities for golf professionals than the PGA Tour. There are 42 official PGA Tour tournaments during the entire season of a year. There are also an additional 50 events spread across the three developmental circuits the Tour owns and manages: Korn Ferry, PGATour LatinAmerica and PGATour Canada.
In addition to that, there are well-known tours in Europe (DP World Tour), Australia, South Africa, Japan and Asia, which provide opportunities for players.
One thing professional golfers don’t lack 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 hosting 8 entertaining tournaments. Well, 7 if you count the first snoring fest that took place 10 days ago. It is 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 of doing that beyond playing. Which, again, is fine.
As for LIV being an “add-on” to the current professional calendar. The initial program was supposed to be for 15 events. That was narrowed down to eight when it became clear 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 schedule for 2024 and 2025.
That’s not “additive”. That’s a full schedule. LIV is not the icing on the cake, it is a 7 layer double chocolate cake, covered with hot chocolate, on top of the cake.
The average best player on the PGA Tour plays around 20-25 events per year. You need to play 15 to maintain your status. All four majors (The Masters, PGA Championship, US Open and Open Championship) count, as do the three season-ending playoff events. Thus, in theory, a player could enter as few as 8 “normal” Tour events, play all four majors, and while advancing to the 30-player Tour Championship, maintain his Tour membership.
Norman’s nose is growing like Pinocchio when he calls LIV “additive”. Many of the players have signed contracts to play the full schedule. I’m pretty sure they didn’t give Mickelson $200 million to show up a handful of times. So, as an “additive,” Norman must think these guys are going to like playing 30 weeks a year.
There goes the “this will give me more time to spend with my family” excuse.
The seeds of rage…
This is where we remind you that Norman, the public face of LIV Golf, has had an ax against the PGA Tour for nearly 3 decades. Even then, it’s not necessarily against The Tour, per se, let alone its latest commissioner, Tim Finchem. And, I 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 Tour, limited field and big money. It was signed by a non-traditional source and the commissioner was furious.
Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Norman had a deal with FOX Sports, which had never aired 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 angry 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 together the world’s best players in four high-value, no-cut events with limited fields. There would be only four tournaments, included in the PGA Tour schedule, with three events in the United States and one abroad.
Norman has been on the boil ever since. And, his scheme, aided by an unlimited amount of money — think amounts of sand in the Sahara — is the perfect storm to do serious damage to the PGA Tour. Make no mistake, Norman is not interested in being an additive. The Shark is thirsty for blood. He wants his pound of meat from the Tour and it turns out Jay Monahan is the man in charge right now.
Norman’s belief is that if you throw enough money at pro golfers, they won’t care where the money comes from, just that the checks get paid. And he will be proven to be more right than wrong as more and more players start defecting to the LIV series. Right now, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau represent the biggest hits on the Tour.
Johnson was the No. 1 player in the world just a year ago. He is a two-time Grand Slam champion (2016 US Open, 2020 Masters) and has earned over $100 million in his career on the PGA Tour. DeChambeau won the 2020 US Open, is the longest driver in the game, and has been a lightning rod for rules issues (he once tried to get a free fall due to fire ants near his golf ball) and youth squabbles. with other players (who can forget “Brooksie”).
Everyone else in the LIV stable, including ringleader Phil Mickelson, isn’t really a loss to the PGA Tour. Sergio Garcia?/Lee Westwood? Graeme McDowell? patrick cane? None of those guys move the needle and all but Reed are clearly in the last 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 biting the Saudi apple. Money is too tempting. The cake too rich to resist. And, with each defection, it becomes a little easier for the next player to say, “well, (fill in the blank) he did, so…”.
Publicly, LIV, through Norman, claims to be interested in growing the game. Actually, they are fracturing it. In the long run, the PGA Tour, its players and, more importantly, its sponsors will suffer. In the meantime, LIV events will remain little more than displays of success and laughter, albeit with oceans of money to swim in after 54 holes that you can only see online.
However, because the money faucet is wide open, Norman is betting that enough players will be drawn to the channel. And he probably has enough reason to cause enough damage to the sport that it helped him make hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. Everything to settle accounts.
Justified or not.