A fight for pro golf’s future is being waged in courtrooms, in the media and even on the golf course. Could the day come when the two parties agree to co-exist?
The songs thundering through the course were indistinguishable, each pop track sounding like the one that came before. The only disruption was a voice. It was unclear to whom the voice belonged or where he was, although judging by the cadence and spirit it was more deejay than public announcer. The voice said a lot of things during the LIV Golf Invitational at Trump Bedminster in mid-July, most of which – like “Get on your feet!” and “Make some noise!” and “Who wants a free shirt?!” – was forgotten as soon as it was said. Yet how the voice ended each message was indelible, for it was both welcoming while serving as a warning.
“Thanks again for joining us at LIV Golf!” crooned the voice. “The future of golf… is here!”
The idea of a fledgling competitor to the PGA Tour has lurked in the shadows for years, discussed as a provocative hypothetical but one whose reality and viability were routinely dismissed. Only LIV Golf has proved in very little time how real and formidable it can be, siphoning talent from the PGA and DP World tours and threatening a schism that could tear the collective tissue of professional golf into pieces.
The emergence of the Saudi-backed circuit has resulted in break-ups and alliances, and caused suspensions and lawsuits. It has made a game known for its civility become uncivil and brought politics and human-rights issues into a space supposedly reserved for sport. It has spurred reactions that span the emotional spectrum, from intrigue and excitement to existential angst and dread and everything in between.
While all that is true, they are mostly trappings of the present. What really matters is where this is going. Is the voice correct, that the novelty of LIV Golf is not just a curiosity but indeed the future? Or does the new venture share the destiny of so many other rogue professional leagues that similarly proposed disruption only to end in a graveyard? How secure is the PGA Tour and how does an entity shackled by finite resources do battle against not a company but a country with seemingly unlimited assets at its disposal? Is there room for co-operation? Co-existence? And if not, what are the ramifications the longer this war wages?
In pursuit of an answer Golf Digest spoke to more than 30 sources entrenched on both sides, along with a number of authorities outside the walls of the PGA Tour and LIV Golf who provided insight on how this could shake out. A look into LIV’s origins and its masterplans, and the PGA Tour’s response to the threat, suggests professional golf is in the early stages of a dramatic overhaul.
Provided it doesn’t implode first.
A Saudi long game
The man behind professional golf’s reckoning is not a golfer. He doesn’t care for sports, fullstop. To understand where the schism is going you need to understand how it started, and with who.
Mohammed bin Salman, 37, is the crown prince, deputy prime minister, and minister of defence of Saudi Arabia. His father, Salman bin Abdulaziz, is the country’s king, but bin Salman is considered the de facto ruler. His rise to power over the past decade has transformed social and commercial life in the kingdom while strengthening the country’s position on the international stage as a geopolitical force.
“Saudi Arabia for the past 30 years was like watching a silent movie: one elderly king after another flickered across the screen saying nothing and doing nothing,” says Karen House, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former Wall Street Journal publisher who has covered Saudi Arabia extensively for four decades. “Saudi Arabia since 2016 is an IMAX movie on fast forward. Everything MBS does is big, bold, fast, loud, riveting.”
Bin Salman introduced Vision 2030, a blueprint to diminish Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil by diversifying the economy and modernising its public services. Some of its initiatives are not dissimilar from efforts of other countries, like combating unemployment and expanding e-commerce and technology. Others are high-profile projects like the development of ultra-luxury resorts and the construction of a megaproject city called Neom, which recently made news for its proposal of erecting two buildings each as tall as 500 metres that run parallel for 120 kilometres across coastal, mountain and desert terrain.
One of Vision 2030’s tenets is a “vibrant society”, and a means to reach this ambition is sports. It’s been a relatively successful venture, bringing in boxing, wrestling and tennis exhibitions, along with Formula 1 races to the kingdom. The country recently announced its bid to host the soccer AFC Women’s Asian Cup, and in 2021 the Public Investment Fund – which is the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund – purchased an 80-percent stake in Newcastle United, a professional soccer club in the English Premier League.
Part of the sports campaign is Golf Saudi, led by Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who is part of bin Salman’s inner circle and serves as governor of the PIF. Al-Rumayyan is considered a passionate golfer, and his imagination for what the sport could do for Saudi Arabia is fertile. There are aspects that begin at the grassroots level, such as growing golf participation in Saudi Arabia and developing a national team and elite players, along with big-picture items, such as developing courses to aid tourism and hosting professional competitions. It is this last point that sparked the Saudi International into existence in 2019, a tournament that was initially sanctioned by the European Tour.
From an investment standpoint, LIV Golf is a small enterprise compared to other Vision 2030 projects. LIV Golf has somewhere in the neighbourhood of $US3 billion in funding; for context, Neom has a starting budget of $US500 billion and the aforementioned 120-kilometre buildings are expected to cost $US1 trillion and take 50 years to construct. However, the golf endeavour has heightened importance in the kingdom’s push for what it sees as a better tomorrow, multiple sources say. For one, Al-Rumayyan views LIV as his darling, and his voice carries particular weight in bin Salman’s circle. Another benefit is the conduit it can be to business and government leaders; it is not an accident LIV Golf has teamed with former US president Donald Trump amid expectation Trump will begin his third campaign for the presidency this northern autumn.
But a point that cannot be stressed enough, and arguably fuels the desire to make LIV Golf ultimately succeed, is bin Salman’s quest for total and absolute power, House says. They are sentiments at the heart of bin Salman’s reign.
“Despite sweeping social and economic changes that have liberated society, political life has moved in reverse,” House explains.
Bin Salman has continually and sometimes ruthlessly silenced dissidents. Human rights are oppressed. The Saudis have led a military invention in Yemen – out of fear that Yemen could be a satellite for Iran – and the resulting civil war has become a humanitarian crisis. A 2017 purge of nearly 400 princes, businessmen and religious leaders consolidated authority over every branch of the government. Saudis began calling bin Salman “Mr Everything”. He does what he wants; the only person bin Salman answers to is his father, and House says bin Salman has his father’s total support.
Saudi Golf and, as an extension, Vision 2030 and bin Salman were rebuffed in their attempts to become part of golf’s political matrix with the PGA Tour and European Tour. The PGA Tour has been adamant it never held dialogue with LIV Golf or Golf Saudi, while the European Tour did listen to overtures before eventually coming to a “strategic alliance” with the PGA Tour. Theoretically, getting rejected from golf’s ecosystem should have scrapped the Golf Saudi project. That is not what bin Salman does.
“He doubles down. He is not accustomed to losing,” House explains. “When he fails at something, his inclination is to try harder.”
If golf’s current framework wouldn’t let the Saudis in, they would create their own. It sounds ambitious, and it is. But to those who dispute the formidable nature of LIV Golf, Golf Saudi and bin Salman, who hear grand ambitions of megacities in the desert and 120-kilometre buildings and laugh, it’s worth noting bin Salman’s true passion: video games. According to House, it explains both bin Salman’s fantastical aspirations and serves as a warning to his doubters.
“The reason he believes he can do anything is that, in the world of video games, anything is possible,” House says. “He’s in love with video games where all things are possible and believes that if you put your mind to it, that’s what real life is like too.”
A startup unlike any other
The question borders on offensive: are you, a Northwestern University MBA, former chief operating officer of an MLS franchise and chief corporate development and brand officer for an NFL team, running a glorified PR exercise that will continue to haemorrhage money?
Atul Khosla, 43, left his job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to become the chief operating officer of LIV Golf in January 2022. Khosla is a sports-business veteran, and he wants to make one thing clear: this, too, is a business. A business that fully plans to turn a profit.
“If you look at the investment portfolio of our primary investor, PIF, they have invested all over the world in incredibly large businesses that they believe will be profitable,” Khosla says. “Their view of this is no different. That’s the expectation that we have from our board.
“Like any other startup, do we have upfront costs to get the product off the ground? Yes, we do. And it is no different than a burn rate that an Uber may have or any other startup tech might have to get the product off the ground with a vision of disrupting the space. We are fortunate, of course, to have an institution that has the patience to be able to go through this methodically and in the right fashion.”
LIV executives constantly refer to their enterprise as a startup. It’s a touch humorous, given they’re going toe-to-toe with an established American sports institution; this is hardly four guys in a garage with a dream. Still, they will tell you that this entire inaugural year is essentially a beta test of their product, that they’ll make changes on the fly and react to what’s working and what isn’t. The vast majority of startups lose money before they make money – burn rate, to use one of Khosla’s MBA terms – and LIV certainly qualifies. It’s not just the hundreds of millions going to the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. It’s the rumoured $US40 million going to the Ian Poulter types. LIV is spending so much money to launch a professional sports league. It’s paying players guaranteed money; the PGA Tour does not. It’s paying for players’ travel and accommodation; the PGA Tour does not. It’s paying for caddies’ travel and accommodation; the PGA Tour does not. The same is true for managers, coaches and player families. It’s paying each host venue a healthy fee to take over the property for a week. It’s paying a full staff of executives. It’s paying musicians to play concerts. It’s paying for the grandstands, the hospitality tents, the signage. It’s paying for the production of the broadcast.
And LIV is doing all this with virtually no revenue to offset the costs. Tickets for the first two US events could be had for a few dollars. The broadcast airs free on YouTube, with no commercials. There was not a single corporate logo (other than LIV’s) present at either the Pumpkin Ridge or Trump Bedminster events. When asked about their surely warped balance sheet, LIV executives begin talking about the future. The vision. LIV Golf, they say, hasn’t even properly started.
That’ll happen next year, when LIV transitions from a series of invitational tournaments to a 14-event “league schedule”. The first five events this year, with three more to come, have been a bit scrambled – different fields, different teams. That will not be the case in 2023; the plan is for 48 contracted players to play in all 14 events, and for 12 four-man teams to be set at the beginning of the year and stay consistent throughout the season.
“The way I would look at it,” says Ron Cross, who worked at both Augusta National and the PGA Tour before becoming LIV’s chief events officer, “we’ve compared ourselves to, and others have compared ourselves to, the Formula 1 model. When you go to an F1 race, it’s a consistent look and feel. But Austin has some uniqueness. And Monaco is a little different from Spain, and other markets. You’ll find us doing the same thing.”
And, according to multiple managers from across different management agencies, the vast majority of those league spots are spoken for – so much so that LIV has turned away multiple players in the top 50 of the world ranking who have expressed interest in negotiating a contract.
“One of my players sort of nudged me towards seeing if there might be an offer on the table,” says one manager, “and we were told, basically, ‘Sorry. We’re full for next year.’”
Formula 1 does seem to be the guiding light for LIV’s future vision – particularly as it pertains to the team component. There are 10 teams in Formula 1, each owned by a corporation: Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Alpine, McLaren, Alfa Romeo, Haas F1, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin, Williams. Each team has two drivers under contract. The driver’s deals are with each specific team, not with Formula 1. That, eventually, seems to be the vision for LIV Golf: to have 12 distinct teams, each with its own ownership group, each with the power to sign its own players, cut them and trade them. In an ideal scenario, and this is far down the line, each team would function more like a traditional sports franchise with its own merchandise, C-level suites and corporate sponsorships.
All 12 teams are owned by LIV now, and some players – think the more high-profile names: Mickelson, DeChambeau, Koepka – have an equity stake in the teams they captain. LIV’s goal is to develop these franchises into brands with identities and fans, and then sell them either to corporations or wealthy individuals who essentially want the latest and greatest plaything. There is no shortage of billionaires who love golf and, theoretically, would be willing to write a cheque to be closer to the action. To play in the pro-am with Bryson. To host Brooks for dinner. Who knows – maybe even join Dustin and Paulina on the boat.
“Sports ownership is a high-demand space, where much of the value is derived from scarcity,” says one manager for a top-20 player. “Obviously you have to build a league with real revenues, but these are sellable commodities even without that. It’s just supply and demand. The value is driven purely by demand. This is like a real-life fantasy league.”
‘If you can’t see it, you can’t sell it’
They are billed as fancy new toys for the mega-rich. But to achieve their full brightness, LIV Golf’s franchises need a place to shine.
To players and potential sponsors and owners, the number LIV Golf has pitched has stayed consistent, sources tell Golf Digest: a $US1 billion potential valuation for a four-man club. If that sounds fantastical it’s because it’s based on something that hasn’t happened yet.
“Until significant media deals are done to cover LIV Golf,” says Patrick Rishe, the founding director of the sports business program at Washington University, “LIV team values will be stunted.”
The first few LIV Golf events have been broadcast free on YouTube, Facebook and LIV Golf’s website, and the audience numbers have been modest. The LIV Golf Invitational at Bedminster drew an average of 74,000 viewers to its final-round YouTube broadcast while the PGA Tour’s simultaneous broadcast of the Rocket Mortgage Classic on CBS drew an average of 2.5 million. To a person, those around LIV Golf assert a larger broadcast agreement is near, and even its detractors acknowledge some sort of distribution deal will likely be in place before 2023. Where it is distributed, or more specifically on what platform, may have a bigger impact on LIV Golf’s sustainability than any mega-star player it signs.
To this point, all of the major television subsidiaries in the US have shown little to no interest in LIV Golf, sources tell Golf Digest. NBC, CBS and ESPN just began a $US7 billion, nine-year deal with the PGA Tour. The wild card is the FOX Corporation, which has multiple ties with LIV Golf. FOX founder and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch has a personal relationship with LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman; the two attempted to create a “World Golf Tour” in the mid-1990s, with Murdoch’s FOX Sports securing the rights. In January 2022, LIV Golf hired former FOX Sports president David Hill to help with production, and the right-leaning FOX News had a heavy presence at LIV Golf’s third event held at former president Trump’s Bedminster property. However, FOX abandoned its USGA agreement halfway through a 12-year deal, and even with the Trump connection sources say FOX Sports has not held serious discussions.
Sources say LIV Golf officials are aware immediate victory may not be had on the traditional television front in the United States and have pivoted to a streaming option. Some around LIV Golf insist streaming was the plan from the start, although multiple sources combat this notion. Nevertheless, be it orchestrated messaging or conviction that the league truly is close to a media deal, the importance of streaming was at the forefront of conversations at Trump Bedminster, with Mickelson making a case for why this is the best route to go.
“We, as a game and sport, the viewership has gone up five years to the average age, I believe, of 64, and we have to target the younger generation,” the six-time Major winner said after the Friday round at Bedminster. “I think that the way that’s going to happen is two things. One, it’s not a 12-hour day, having to watch golf all day. You’ve got a four-and-a-half-hour window. Second, when I think a streaming partner comes about, I think it’s going to revolutionise the way golf is viewed, because you’ll have no commercials and you’ll have shot after shot after shot, and it will capture that younger generation’s attention span. We’ll open up a lot of opportunities to get the younger generation, which for 30 years we’ve tried to do and it’s gone the other way.”
Streaming destinations are limited. Netflix has yet to dive into live sports. Hulu’s Disney/ESPN ties to the tour likely knock it out. Same with HBO Max and Discovery+ (Warner Bros. Discovery, which also owns US Golf Digest) and Paramount Plus (CBS). Amazon Prime is getting into the sports space, but founder Jeff Bezos’ strained relationship with Saudi Arabia diminishes the prospect of a deal. Essentially, there is one home that has any subscription base to speak of, industry insiders tell Golf Digest: AppleTV.
The Apple, Inc. OTT service has not made the splash it hoped since launching in 2019, boasting only a little more than 33 million customers. (For context, Disney+ launched a week after AppleTV and claims 138 million subscribers.) To build its humble numbers, Apple has turned to live sports, signing deals with Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer in 2022, and LIV Golf could fit into that portfolio, sources say. Unlike the MLS, which signed a 10-year agreement, any LIV deal would likely be in the two to three-year range, according to one source – enough time for LIV to prove it is a viable commodity. The buy-in would be relatively economical compared to other live sporting-event rights, both sources said, and nowhere near the neighbourhood of the tour’s $US7 billion, nine-year deal with NBC, ESPN and CBS. But LIV Golf isn’t necessarily looking for an infusion of cash in the same vein that other sporting leagues do with media rights. LIV is merely looking for publicity on a platform that adds validity to what it’s trying to do. (AppleTV did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Sponsor value for any team or league is driven by eyeballs, because one main purpose of any sponsor deal is generating awareness and exposure for your product. If you can’t see it, you can’t sell it,” Rishe says. “[It’s] incredibly hard to achieve awareness and exposure without a solid TV or streaming deal.”
But Rishe adds a caveat: “Until LIV attains a solid media-rights deal with a legacy network, this will place a de facto ceiling on the value of sponsor deals.”
Other experts agree that though media consumption is drastically evolving with more platforms and choices than ever before, a streaming-only deal will hamper LIV Golf. Most sports and especially golf are still watched in traditional, linear fashion. It’s one of the reasons sports rights are so expensive: they are one of the few programs watched as scheduled. Moreover, while LIV’s focus may be on a younger crowd, the type of companies that are involved in the golf business tend to target the older, affluent audience. Even with bringing in new sponsors that haven’t been in the space before, LIV Golf will need to tap into those existing advertisers.
“You need the high-earner male in his mid-50s. People don’t want to hear that, but that’s who buys the expensive products that are advertised on professional golf,” says Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports. “That’s what drives the golf ship. That’s the important sponsor support golf brings and makes it a commodity.”
LIV Golf has positioned itself as a global entity, to grab regions that the game has historically ignored. But that creates an issue in establishing a TV deal that Pilson and others in tour circles assert about the LIV Golf model.
“This won’t be the World Cup. This won’t be the British Open. People aren’t going to get up at 3am to watch in a different country,” Pilson says. “[This] could explain why [none of the traditional channels] want it. So it goes to streaming so customers can watch it on their time. Well, millennials will check their phones or computers to see the results of something that happened 12 hours ago, and once you see the results there’s a good chance you won’t watch. There are a lot of drawbacks with the streaming idea.”
Though it’s far from the affluent and older consumer that makes golf advertising so valuable despite its niche reach, the 18 to 35-year-old demographic has value to marketers because if they capture that demographic’s business early they can make a lifetime customer to maximise their return on marketing investment. And younger audiences do tend to gravitate towards streamers and cord-cutting services over legacy networks.
But, as Rishe points out, the young audiences pose their own problem – specifically towards LIV. “Studies have shown that Gen Z and Alpha Gen consumers are more socially aware and care more about what the companies they buy from stand for,” Rishe says. “So as long as the ‘sportswashing’ undercurrent dogging LIV exists, LIV may have very little success courting corporate America.”
Of course, there’s a way around the TV issues in the US, Pilson explains, and it’s a thought that a number of tour officials mention as a worst-case scenario. Given the resources behind it, there’s the chance LIV Golf buys airtime with a channel, especially with many struggling to find new revenue streams in the cord-cutting era. Or maybe LIV buys an entire channel.
“I think if they do get it, it’ll probably be on a cable channel that is comfortable with some negative responses [being associated with LIV Golf],” Pilson says. “That could use the money because LIV could buy its way onto a cable channel, just the way it buys the golfers to go play.”
With its own channel, LIV Golf wouldn’t have to worry about alternating its condensed, shotgun-start format and could keep it commercial-free. One person associated with LIV’s franchise efforts made the case that ad-free presentations bring value to the sponsors of each club. “Golf fans have made it known they hate the growing amount of dead time in golf broadcasts,” the source said. “By showing them more golf, our sponsors get more direct time with a consumer that is more native and agreeable to the viewing experience instead of banging them over the head with a commercial.”
It’s far from what LIV Golf wants to do. But it is a card they could play if realising the streaming reach is not enough.
Nevertheless, in a scenario where LIV Golf has both streaming and traditional distribution behind it, the operation can start wooing legitimate sponsors, knowing their endorsements will be seen by far more than 74,000 viewers. In that scenario, the $1 billion franchise valuation, while still fantastical, doesn’t seem quite as outrageous. In that scenario, LIV Golf goes from tour nuisance to a full-on competitor.
‘We’re not interested in exhibition golf’
The PGA Tour has taken the hardest of hard-line stances against LIV Golf. The message from Ponte Vedra headquarters has been clear since rumours of the “Saudi Golf League” – the name that Monahan and the tour insist on using – began percolating in early 2020, and it underlined the unwillingness to listen to LIV’s initial proposal. The tour’s stance, to put it simply, was: this is not good for golf, and you’re either with us or you’re with them.
The PGA Tour wasted little time this year drawing its line in the sand by informing its membership on May 10 that no releases would be granted for the first LIV event in London, and that players who participated anyway would be in violation of the PGA Tour handbook and subject to discipline. Once the first tee shots were hit at Centurion Golf Club at the same time on June 8 – shotgun start and all – the PGA Tour announced immediate suspensions for all its members in the LIV field. This stance was immediately and very publicly lambasted by Norman, who called the move “anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive”. Norman and his associates have lobbed insults and taunts at the PGA Tour throughout the past couple of months; the PGA Tour has been more careful in its communications and word choice, but Monahan has not wavered in his opposition to LIV’s existence.
Despite the combativeness, LIV officials insist they’d love a meeting with PGA Tour executives.
“That has been our desire from the get-go,” Khosla says. “We want to be, and we believe we are, additive to the ecosystem. We are very willing and want to continue to work with all the tours… I would love to [talk to the PGA Tour]. I would absolutely love to. And even if it’s just to build the relationship, I very much welcome the opportunity to do that.”
Some PGA Tour players want peace accords to take place. At the Open Championship, Jon Rahm responded to a question about the future of the Ryder Cup by expressing a desire for the bickering parties to come to the negotiation table. There was also Rory McIlroy, the de facto spokesman for the PGA Tour throughout this schism, saying at the J.P. McManus Pro-Am in July that he believed it was time for both sides to talk.
“If these people are serious about investing billions of dollars into golf, I think ultimately that’s a good thing,” McIlroy said. “But it has to be done the right way and I think if they were to invest, having it be invested inside the existing structures.”
Tour executives, however, seem to have no interest in such discussions or any parcelling of the calendar. The PGA Tour declined to speak with Golf Digest for this story, but a spokesman did convey their ultimate position: “What exactly would we be discussing? The tour isn’t for sale, and we’re not interested in exhibition golf.”
Which, of course, makes sense. The PGA Tour’s rigid stance is no doubt a strategic play, but one drawback of that approach is that it makes later co-operation that much less feasible. Instead, Monahan has vowed both privately and publicly to focus on improving his own tour. It started well before the first LIV event, when the tour devised the Player Impact Program as a way to reward its most famous players for something not directly related to their on-course performance. Despite the tour’s insistence that such a program was in the works long before, the PIP is widely seen on tour as a pre-emptive response to LIV – ironic, then, that five of the initial 10 winners have since left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf – though the inaugural PIP winner, Tiger Woods, reportedly turned down a $US700 million to $US800 million offer from LIV. And in a June press conference, Monahan outlined a number of rather significant changes to the PGA Tour’s structure, which again seemed heavily influenced by the existential challenge he faces. The general theme: more money going to the best players, a return to a calendar-year schedule
and doubling down on its signature heritage events.
Starting with the 2023 FedEx Cup Playoffs, only 70 PGA Tour players – down from 125 – will make it to the postseason and keep full status for the next season. The top 50 in the final FedEx Cup standings also will qualify for lucrative, no-cut “international series” events that will be held outside the US in the northern autumn. And purses for eight invitational events throughout the season are increasing to an average of $US20 million per event. Rather than negotiate with LIV, the PGA Tour is banking that its proven business model, continued added investment in its own product, and the willingness to adapt – including veering away from its 72-hole format more often – will continue to make the circuit the best place to play professional golf. And that talented new prospects will fill the void left by others who might have left for LIV.
New and current stars will be paid handsomely. The PGA Tour has begun circulating a document to players that projects how much money they would’ve earned had their careers begun during the new 2022-2023 season based on a four percent year-on-year growth in the tour’s total comprehensive earnings. The projected figures are staggering: if Jim Furyk, who is now 52 years old, began his rookie season in 2022-2023 and had the same 28-year career – including 17 wins – his total compensation from the PGA Tour would exceed $US620 million. (Furyk’s current actual earnings are $US71.5 million.) To sample a few others: Rory McIlroy would be at $373 million; Jordan Spieth at $240 million; Brandt Snedeker at $180 million; Ryan Palmer at $100 million; Keegan Bradley at $97 million; Jason Gore at $21 million.
But those projections do not include any guaranteed money – instead, they are calculated by applying future payment structures to past earnings.
“All of this money we’re projecting will be earned on a competitive basis,” the PGA Tour executive said, “and that’s a hallmark of the PGA Tour. Even with the PIP program, there are different components, but you’ve earned those based on how you’ve competed.”
Of course, this is a projection of a tomorrow that is under tour control. It also must reckon with a future it doesn’t fully control.
The next battlefront
On August 3, Mickelson, DeChambeau and nine other LIV Golf members filed a lawsuit against the tour, believing the suspensions they received for defecting constituted antitrust actions (several players later dropped out of the lawsuit). It is a lawsuit the PGA Tour has expected and feels confident about being in the right. History is on the tour’s side. It has successfully defended itself against antitrust claims from Morris Communications Corporation regarding the tour’s limitations on real-time scoring, and it prevailed in former tour player Harry Toscano’s Clayton Act antitrust lawsuit against the Senior PGA Tour. It also won a class-action lawsuit brought by caddies against the tour using antitrust and intellectual property claims.
This is a different battle, and the tour is also staring down an antitrust probe from the US Department of Justice. It’s worth noting the Federal Trade Commission concluded after a four-year investigation in the early 1990s that the tour had violated antitrust laws – partially due to the rule stipulating permission for a conflicting-event release – and recommended federal action. But no action was ultimately taken, a circumstance credited to the work of then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem (a lawyer himself who worked in President Jimmy Carter’s administration) and the tour’s lobbying mastery. Coincidentally, this clashed with Norman’s first try to challenge the PGA Tour through his attempt to launch the World Tour. This time, the tour is facing an entity that can match, if not usurp, its lobbying efforts. This time, the tour could lose.
The battle will be fought on multiple fronts. There are players who have not jumped but will, after the Presidents Cup, along with those who defect after 2023 or 2024. While the first wave of LIV members mostly constituted injury-prone players, rank-and-file names, those past 40 and maligned personalities, LIV will probably sign those who are young, transcendent and marketable.
There are multiple sponsors, sources tell Golf Digest, that aren’t exactly thrilled with the tour’s handling of the LIV situation. Though the new media-rights deal accounts for most of the added money in bonuses and purses, the tour has gone to companies looking to aid its new ‘fall’ series, and the reception has thus far been cold, sources say. Existing partners, upset at sponsoring tournaments with depleted fields, are not crazy about giving the tour more money. There is a fear in tour circles that if the circuit pushes too hard, these companies could eventually go to the other side.
Then there are the tour’s own media rights. Its new agreement started in 2022 and runs to 2030. Concerns that CBS, NBC or ESPN would want to renegotiate or invalidate its deal if the tour continues to lose a number of its marquee attractions are fair, although multiple sources with these stakeholders say, at this point, they are not worried about a diluted product and are in lockstep with the tour. Of greater worry for the tour are potential deals down the road. These media agreements are worked out years in advance, and sources tell Golf Digest the current deal was mostly finished by the middle of 2019. A LIV Golf circuit that is fully operational in 2025 – and one that has a defined future – could wreak havoc on anything the tour hopes for in its new media framework.
The tour’s position against LIV is not just public posturing; those around the tour insist Monahan and his staff believe what he says to be true. But players, managers and others in the industry see how the tour is under siege and envision that peace – or at least a détente – will have to be struck to stave off a watered-down tour. So what would co-operation between LIV and the PGA Tour look like?
Make no mistake, there are reasons why co-operation might work for both sides. LIV Golf, which seemingly holds momentum, gets what it initially wanted: acceptance into the current framework. Saudi Arabia and Vision 2030 receive a blessing from a globally recognised institution that pushes them closer to the perception of a modernised culture. LIV Golf members get to keep the enormous sums they made and get the freedom they once had on the tour to pick their schedules. Not for nothing, it keeps the door open to play in Major championships and the Ryder Cup – a path that seemingly is starting to close and one that could be shut completely if LIV doesn’t receive OWGR accreditation. (As one Augusta National source relayed after the filing of the Mickelson lawsuit: “Know a good way to get curbed by ANGC? Bring ANGC into a lawsuit.”)
For the tour, things are messier. Yes, the LIV Golf financial resources would help subsidise the tour and its purses, the membership would be made whole again and a potential PGA Tour-LIV agreement would be perceived less of a merger and more of an acquisition. But there is the reality of weakening a previously strong stance and the optics that come with it. Would player suspensions – assuming the tour hasn’t lost the lawsuit – be dropped? How would it handle blowback from its existing members, who watched LIV members cash huge paydays and ultimately be allowed back while they missed out on similar opportunities out of loyalty? Even in a treaty there will be casualties.
In the days after the LIV golfers filed their suit, the tone from PGA Tour players towards their peers who jumped to LIV changed. While once respectful of the decision made to move on, there was more venom towards them as they went ahead with a legal challenge.
“Their vision is cherry-picking what events they want to play on the PGA Tour,” Billy Horschel, a former PGA Tour Policy Board member, said. “Obviously, that would be the higher world ranking events and bigger purses. It’s frustrating. They made a decision to leave, and they should go follow their employer. I know there are guys a lot more angry and frustrated about it than me.”
Another victim in this fight could be the postseason race on the DP World Tour (formerly European Tour). While LIV Golf’s 2023 season will be spread across the calendar, multiple sources lay out a scenario in which the PGA Tour ultimately allows space for LIV Golf to operate during the northern autumn, effectively taking the place of the yet-to-be-announced international series. LIV has already telegraphed it’s not opposed to this timeframe: five of its eight events this year occur after the FedEx Cup Playoffs concluded. The tour would still use autumn to provide for those outside the top 50 to wrestle for next-year status, conceding its stars would play elsewhere in September, October and November. It’s a tough swallow for the tour, yet better to lose them during the football portion of the American sports calendar than for the entire year. Unfortunately, the DP World Tour’s Race to Dubai takes place in November, and while it could survive the PGA Tour’s three-event international series, a LIV Golf autumn itinerary probably involves a minimum of five to six events. Moving the Race to Dubai to the end of the northern summer would coincide with the PGA Tour playoffs. The DP World Tour already faces the knock of being a feeder circuit; a potential retrofitting would compound that stigma.
Although it’s a bit more far-fetched, there’s also the chance for LIV Golf competitions to be held during the PGA Tour’s season. There are a handful of tournaments that have struggled with sponsorship for years that could be vulnerable, and the fact that the WGCs have gone from four to one raises the question of: could LIV take over the Match Play? There would be matters to sort out – who qualifies for the LIV events, how TV/streaming deals would work, and would the events be co-sanctioned.
The alternative is this: a professional golf landscape that looks a lot like professional boxing – a realm with multiple organisations and almost zero unification that has turned a once-popular sport into a niche entertainment. The game’s attention could be divided between a league that has popular figures but tournaments that border on exhibition, up against a traditional power that has real competition but has lost some of its most high-profile competitors. As one Major championship official opined, “The PGA Tour could become what the Euro Tour is now, and LIV Golf would be like the Pro Bowl – big names, horrible watch.”
In regard to Majors, there’s the theory that the Masters, PGA Championship, US Open and Open Championship could be strengthened in a divided game, the already heightened weeks gaining importance if they’re the only four occasions when the entire sport gathers. But if the Majors back the PGA Tour and restrict LIV Golf members from participating, they too will lose weight.
Should the DP World Tour and PGA of America stay true to their LIV threats, the Ryder Cup could be lost. Fair or not, the onus is on the PGA Tour to keep it together. Most of LIV’s members have already shown they don’t care about consequences, at least enough to prevent them from padding their bank accounts. The tour didn’t start the schism, yet it may be the only thing standing in the way of preventing the sport from ripping in two.
After the beta test
They see what you see. The misspellings of player names, getting their members’ nationalities wrong, the press-conference disasters. For an organisation trying its best to rid itself of sportswashing accusations, LIV Golf was unable to put its best foot forward without tripping over the other through its first three events.
But it’s worth remembering this inaugural season is a trial run of sorts, and not just for those inside the ropes. Prior to the weekend at Trump Bedminster in late July, one LIV liaison said the first few months had been “revealing”. This person put the LIV workers into two groups: the adults and the children. The children are the ones making mistake after mistake, or they took a LIV offer as an early retirement package thinking little would be involved. The adults… they see what LIV has already done and what it could be once the children are sent packing. “If everyone would stop ragging on [LIV], you could see how good it can be,” the consultant said. Eventually, this person maintained, LIV would get things right.
The event at Bedminster was eventually won by Henrik Stenson. To grab the millions at LIV, the Swede had to surrender the Ryder Cup captaincy, a role and responsibility that was once viewed as priceless. For him to win millions, Europe had to lose its Ryder Cup captain. His decision to join was a zero-sum game. You didn’t have to squint to see the symmetry.
Empire Strikes Back: PGA Tour pivots (and finds more cash)
he top players on the PGA Tour have made a commitment to compete against each other more often in 2023 in concert with an innovative slate of changes announced by commissioner Jay Monahan at the Tour Championship in late August.
The cornerstone of the new initiatives is the creation of a “Top Player” category, which draws from the top 20 in the current and revised Player Impact Program criteria. Those players will play in 20 events in 2023 – which is five more than required to maintain tour membership.
“Our top players are firmly behind the tour, helping us deliver an unmatched product to our fans, who will be all but guaranteed to see the best players competing against each other in 20 events or more throughout the season,” Monahan said. “This is an extraordinary and unprecedented commitment, a testament to who these guys are and what they believe in.”
A key component is a strengthened tour schedule that will now include 12 elevated events, an increase of four from the announcement Monahan made in June. The four additional events, which will be announced in the coming months, will feature purses of at least $US20 million.
The “Top Players” will compete in those 12 elevated events, as well as the Players Championship, the four Majors and three additional tour events of their choosing. The first elevated event is January’s Sentry Tournament of Champions.
“This is a remarkable time for the tour,” Monahan said. “We have and always will be the ultimate platform for a player who wants to compete for the trophies and the titles that matter most.
“To now have our top players rally around this organisation and commit to a portfolio of tournaments like never before, I think our fans, our partners, our players are going to love it. I promise you, there’s more to come.”
The PIP program, which seeks to identify awareness from core and casual fans, has also been expanded and revamped. It will offer a bonus pool that has doubled to $US100 million effective at the end of this season. The criteria will take into account internet searches, media mentions and broadcast exposure but will no longer rely on q-ratings and social media components.
The tour is also instituting an “Earnings Assurance Program” for fully exempt players from the Korn Ferry Tour category and above. The program guarantees a minimum league earnings total of $US500,000 with the tour funding any shortfall. To be eligible, a player must compete in 15 tournaments. The money will be paid to rookies and returning members up-front.
“I think what we’re trying to do here is that as you start a season and you plan for a season knowing the monies that you have to invest to compete on the greatest tour in the world at the highest level, there’s significant costs,” Monahan said.
“So, if you’re not able to play for whatever reason, you have that as a backstop. You know that that’s there for you. For rookies, again, coming out here and knowing that that’s payable on day one we think will help put those rookies in a better position to compete because they can invest in the infrastructure they need to succeed.”
In addition, the tour has developed a “Travel Stipend Program” for non-exempt players ranked 125th to 150th on the FedEx Cup list and below. Those players will receive $5,000 for every missed cut to help defray travel and other tournament-related costs.
Embracing other new initiatives, the tour has also become a partner in “TGL”, a tech-fuelled series of Monday night team competitions created by TMRW, a new company formed by Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Mike McCarley.
The 18-hole competition will launch in January 2024 and will feature six teams of three PGA Tour pros playing 15 matches, as well as a semi-final and finals series. Both Woods and McIlroy are committed to play in the events, which will feature a live audience.
Here is a closer look:
1. Top players will commit to at least a 20-event PGA Tour schedule (assuming they qualify), which includes:
a) 12 Elevated Events
1. FedEx Cup Playoffs
• FedEx St Jude Championship – $20 million
• BMW Championship – $20 million
• Tour Championship/FedEx Cup bonus pool – $75 million
2. Genesis Invitational – $20 million
3. Arnold Palmer Invitational – $20 million
4. Memorial Tournament – $20 million
5. WGC–Dell Match Play – $20 million
6. Sentry Tournament of Champions – $15 million
7. To be announced: four additional Elevated Events – purses of at least $20 million each
b) Players Championship – $25 million
c) Masters Tournament, PGA Championship, US Open, the Open Championship
d) Three additional FedEx Cup events (of the player’s choosing)
2. For the 2022-2023 season, a “top player” will be defined as players who finish in the top 20 under the current Player Impact Program and players who finish in the top 20 under the revised PIP criteria.
3. Expansion of the Player Impact Program (PIP)
a) Reward 20 players a total (up from 10) for 2022 and 2023
b) Total bonus pool of $100 million (previously announced as $50 million) in 2022 and 2023
c) For 2022, any player on the revised criteria list who is not on the current criteria list will receive a payout equal to 20th position (most likely two or three players)
d) Players will receive their PIP bonus at the end of the season after competing in the 12 Elevated Events and three non-elevated events, as outlined above
4. Launch of “Earnings Assurance Program”
a) For fully exempt members (Korn Ferry Tour category and above)
b) Guaranteed league minimum of $500,000 per player (tour funds any gaps in earnings)
c) Rookies and returning members will receive money up front
d) Must participate in 15 events
e) Replaces “Play15” Program
5. Travel Stipend Program
a) For non-exempt members (126-150 category and below)
b) Receive $5,000 for every missed cut
c) Subsidises travel and tournament-related expenses
d) Does not impact tournament purses