[PHOTO: Joe Scarnici/LIV Golf]

With its attempted backdoor channel to world-ranking points cut off, at least for now, the LIV Golf series soldiers on with this week’s LIV Golf Invitational Bangkok, which starts today. The 48 players in the field at Stonehill are playing for another $US25 million and, seemingly, with a growing chip on their shoulders.

In a move that appeared to be an attempt to circumvent the review process for eligibility, the upstart Saudi-backed group announced on Wednesday a partnership with the MENA Tour, a developmental tour founded in 2011 and based in Dubai that already had OWGR accreditation. LIV officials touted the move as a way for its LIV Golf Invitational events, which don’t currently receive points, to immediately begin doing so starting with no-cut 54-hole tournaments.

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“I think from a player standpoint, it feels great to have everyone at LIV fighting so hard for the players and their best interests,” Phil Mickelson said from Bangkok. “I think for the World Golf Ranking, this is a great way to keep its credibility, while not bringing in politics into the decision-making process. I think it’s good for all parties.”

The OWGR didn’t see it that way. Overnight, the organisation released a statement acknowledging it had received communication from MENA outlining changes to its membership structure and that it was beginning the review process on its changes. However, the ranking organisation said LIV is still not eligible for points in Thailand or in its event in Saudi Arabia next week.

“Notice of these changes given by the MENA Tour is insufficient to allow OWGR to conduct the customary necessary review ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational Bangkok (7-9 October) and LIV Golf Invitational Jeddah (14-16 October),” the OWGR statement read. “Only after the review is complete will a decision be made on awarding points to the MENA Tour’s new ‘Limited Field Tournaments’, defined by the MENA Tour in its Regulations as ‘any MENA Tour-approved tournament, which comprises of a player field of less than 80 players’.”

Begun in 2011 and approved for world tanking points in 2016, the MENA Tour, with events primarily in the Middle East and North Africa, has not conducted a tournament since before the pandemic in 2019. It now appears to have the ability to go forward with financial help from LIV Golf while absorbing LIV events into its schedule – and thereby ostensibly helping LIV meet OWGR criteria.

Yesterday, the MENA Tour sent a letter to its membership – which now includes LIV golfers – with an updated schedule through to June 2023 and revisions to its player categories. Those categories include recent participants in the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup in the past five years, Major winners since 2010 not otherwise exempt, and players ranked in the top 150 in the world as of week 23 of this year, which corresponds to the first LIV event in early June in London. The events listed offer purses of $US20 million or $US75,000 and the letter states that “all events shall be open to MENA Tour members to enter”.

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LIV Golf already has a partnership with the Asian Tour, which submitted an application to OWGR on behalf of LIV on July 6. However, because the Asian Tour has an established set of membership guidelines, LIV had to reach down to the MENA Tour, which has access to the Asian Developmental Tour and then by extension to the Asian Tour and LIV Golf.

The process for OWGR inclusion can take one or two years to complete – and after that there is a standard three-year probationary period. Furthermore, the OWGR bylaws state that a prospective tour must adhere to the OWGR guidelines for at least one year immediately prior to inclusion. That would seemingly keep LIV Golf outside the OWGR universe until at least 2024.

Dustin Johnson is among the LIV golfers who have spoken out about the need for the OWGR to allow LIV events to award world ranking points, citing the quality of the players competing in the no-cut, 54-hole events. [Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf]

LIV Golf’s latest chess move with MENA’s assistance indicates the growing urgency within the LIV membership to somehow fast-track accreditation as their respective rankings on the OWGR continue to fall. Last month, 50 LIV players signed a letter that lobbied OWGR chairman Peter Dawson to act immediately on LIV Golf’s application as well as award points retroactively for previous LIV events.

“I think with the quality of players we have out here, with the events we are playing, we should have [ranking points],’’ Dustin Johnson, who has slipped to 23rd in the world, said in a press conference yesterday. “I don’t see how they don’t award us points. I think it’s supposed to be a non-biased organisation. We are playing golf, competing with some of the best golfers in the world, so yes, we should be awarded points.”

“For me it’s fairly obvious that the world rankings don’t make sense without recognising this tour,’’ Graeme McDowell told SI.com. “I understand there are boxes you have to tick. I understand that the guy making those decisions from the world ranking are very conflicted in this situation. Common sense has to prevail at some point.”

The OWGR added in its statement overnight that official MENA Tour events played over 54 or 72 holes with a 36-hole cut remain eligible for OWGR inclusion. MENA’s letter to players indicates 15 upcoming tournaments. However, a source familiar with OWGR criteria told Golf Digest that MENA risks decertification if it appears that it might be changing its competition format to align with LIV. As of now, there is no indication that is being considered. Of course, MENA’s decertification would represent another blow to LIV Golf’s goal of joining the OWGR.