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Why the Saudi-backed LIV Tour Has the PGA Banning Golfers

In case you’re not up on your golf news (or Google Trends), Saudi Arabia’s $400 million LIV Golf International Series is causing some serious waves across the sport.

The Professional Golfer’s Association banned players who joined the new tour from PGA Tour events. This followed the recent news that golf’s third-highest on-course earner, Dustin Johnson, joined Phil Mickelson (the PGA’s second-highest earner) in committing to the new golf series.

Fans watch golfers play in the Master's Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club
Augusta National Golf Club

As the tour tees off, 17 PGA pros have turned in their PGA cards to join the controversial LIV tour. The eight-stop endeavor is contentious from multiple angles — it’s backed by Saudi financing and has scheduled stops at two Donald Trump-owned courses. When money talks, these pros apparently walk. Faced with this existential threat, the PGA isn’t going down without a fight.

Johnson, who has made $74 million in his PGA career earnings, reportedly earned $125 million just to sign with LIV. Mickelson receives even more for his more recognizable name, a reported $200 million. In addition to signing bonuses, the purse for each of LIV’s eight 2022 tour events is $25 million. The Masters, the most famed golf tournament in the world, pays out $15 million for its champ.

They’ll be paid by the same Saudi Arabian government accused of numerous human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Golfers who’ve joined LIV have had to dodge difficult questions regarding “sportswashing” a Saudi regime that curtails women’s, LGBTQ+, migrant workers, and many more human rights.

This was enough to convince the decidedly Tiger Woods to turn down what Greg Norman, former PGA star, told The Washington Post was a “mind-blowingly enormous (offer); we’re talking about high nine digits.”

As a spokesperson for the LIV tour, Norman has not been quiet about his perspective regarding the new competition.

“Every country has got a cross to bear. I’m not in this thing for Khashoggi or anything like that,” Norman said to The Post. “I’m in here because of the game of golf. That’s what I care about. If I focus on the game of golf and don’t get dragged into this other stuff, that’s my priority.”

Norman’s former tour friend, Jack Nicklaus, however, adopted a different point of view, reportedly backing out of a $100 million offer in support of the PGA Tour, as noted by the same Post article.

“I turned it down,” Nicklaus said. “Once verbally, once in writing. I said, “Guys, I have to stay with the PGA Tour. I helped start the PGA Tour.'”

The PGA suspended those players now participating in the LIV tour. The memo said players who compete in LIV events are ineligible to participate on the PGA Tour or any other tours it sanctions, including the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA Tour Champions, PGA Tour Canada, and PGA Tour Latinoamerica. What’s missing, though, is any indication of inherent individual protection and freedom from oppression. The PGA appears to be more concerned with its own league.

“I am certain our fans and partners — who are surely tired of all this talk of money, money, and more money — will continue to be entertained and compelled by the world-class competition you display each and every week, where there are true consequences for every shot you take and your rightful place in history whenever you reach that elusive winner’s circle,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan wrote in a June 9 press release.

PGA Tour suspends current and future LIV players. pic.twitter.com/lKhxo27Ida

— Eamon Lynch (@eamonlynch) June 9, 2022

Protecting its proprietary level of competition seems an odd stance to take when one, the tour already has competition throughout the world, and two, is a much more arguable position than championing civil liberties. For its part, LIV is happy to retort.

“It’s troubling that the Tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing,” LIV Golf tweeted back. “This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”

Official statement from LIV Golf pic.twitter.com/UBt4DpRdS4

— LIV Golf (@LIVGolfInv) June 9, 2022

The PGA’s messaging doesn’t seem to be resonating as the exodus of the tour’s stars continued Wednesday. Two additional past major winners, 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, also reached agreements with LIV Golf. Ongoing discussions with other PGA golfers include serious talks with Rickie Fowler and Jason Kokrak.

The PGA likely hopes that this ban will inspire other golf organizations to follow suit, specifically those groups running golf’s major tournaments. Instead of the PGA, Augusta National runs the Masters, the USGA oversees the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship belongs to the PGA of America, and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club operates the Open Championship (aka, the British Open). None of these organizations have disallowed golfers who went to the Saudi league. The USGA, in fact, already came out and said that LIV players would all be welcome at this year’s U.S. Open.

These events have left the sport in sudden disarray. Will banned players be welcomed back if they leave the LIV? Will suspended golfers play in this year’s Majors? Will this ban convince other PGA golfers not to defect? Will LIV money continue to draw the PGA’s best players away? Is the PGA powerless to stop the migration? Is the added competition good enough for the sport to ignore Saudi’s repressive social policies?

None of these questions have easy answers. Once again, its fans are reminded that golf’s simplicity belies an intense complexity. Apparently, this applies off the course as much as it does on.

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