LOS ANGELES, Calif. — One by one, the dominoes fell like so many whispers.
Everything Greg Norman, LIV Golf, and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund had wanted to achieve in just four winter-shortened days came crashing down. No, it’s not officially over, owing to the fact that it never really began. Norman and LIV Golf never revealed golf’s worst-kept secret: a Saudi-backed super league aimed at luring the sport’s top players away from the PGA Tour.
Last November, the information were revealed to a small number of journalists under severe embargo. Following an extraordinary week at Riviera Country Club, there’s no need for the details or the embargo.
The deconstruction began on Thursday with the release of an angry interview with Phil Mickelson, after other elite players declared their allegiances to the PGA Tour, including Jon Rahm and Tiger Woods. The 51-year-old six-time major champion appeared to burn both the startup league and his PGA Tour future in a single phrase.
“[The Saudis] are terrible motherf—-ers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Alan Shipnuck of The Fire Pit Collective in an interview for Shipnuck’s Mickelson book last November. “We know they assassinated [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a dismal human rights record. People are executed for being gay in that country. Why would I ever consider it knowing all of this? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the way the PGA Tour works. Because we, the players, had no recourse, they were able to get away with manipulative, coercive, and strong-arm techniques. Even if [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] appears to be a good guy, unless you have leverage, he will not do what is right. And it is thanks to Saudi money that we now have that leverage. I’m not sure I want [the SGL] to thrive, but the fact that it exists allows us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
Mickelson’s admission that the super league concept was nothing more than “sportswashing” was the line that could not be passed for those who may have been considering a move to the super league. Lefty made everyone else second-guess their selections by stating the thing.
“Over the past several months, there has been a great deal of speculation about an alternative tour; much of which appears to have included me and my future in professional golf,” Dustin Johnson, who had remained noticeably quiet about the super league, sent a second shockwave across the professional landscape on Sunday morning, saying in a statement released by the Tour: ” I believe it is past time to put such rumors to bed. “I am completely dedicated to the PGA Tour.”
Although no players had openly committed to the super league, the line had begun to blur in recent weeks, and Johnson, along with Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, were the most high-profile and recognizable names on the list of those considering it. Those who appeared to be interested in the super league money usually spoke in code, referring to the game’s growth and a widespread consensus that competition is always a good thing.
In recent weeks, wild rumors and speculation circulated that LIV Golf was about to declare that anywhere from 17 to 20 players had joined the rival league, setting the stage for an epic confrontation.
Commissioner Jay Monahan drew a harsh line for any players considering a switch to a competing league during the 2019 Players Championship, only three days before the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Tour down, promising to “vigilantly safeguard our business model.” For many, vigilantly protecting meant being barred from participating in the Tour, and it looked that some were eager to put the commissioner’s resolve to the test.
That all changed just before noon in Los Angeles, when the final star-studded shoe dropped: DeChambeau joined Johnson and a slew of other PGA Tour players on Team PGA Tour.
“While there has been a lot of conjecture about my support for another tour, I want to be clear that I will continue to play the PGA Tour as long as the greatest players in the world do,” DeChambeau said on Twitter. “Right now, my focus is on getting fit and competing again as quickly as possible.”
The Tour de France culminated years of debate and possibly the greatest challenge the circuit has ever faced in what felt like an organized and precise assault.
However, the Super League is not yet complete. As one of the best players indicated in 2019, there is still a huge sum of money available to anyone who is interested – and where there is money, there is hope. There’s still a potential that players may be enticed by the prospect of large purses, guaranteed payouts, and a tight schedule, but without DeChambeau, Johnson, and (supposedly) Mickelson, the desire to take risks has waned.
The drumbeat of a rival league will almost certainly continue, but it will not dominate the debate as it has in recent months. Instead, the focus will shift to the Tour and its continued efforts to improve, including the Player Impact Program and a proposed fall series for the game’s best players.
“While there will always be areas where our Tour can develop and evolve,” Johnson said in a statement, “I am grateful for our leadership and the many sponsors that make the PGA Tour golf golf’s premier tour.”
Many have pointed out that the prospect of a rival league has already transformed professional golf for the better, and Mickelson has used the phrase “leverage” to explain his apparent interest in the super league.
That threat is no longer present. Not wholly, and certainly not irreversibly, but sufficiently for Monahan, the PGA Tour, and the rest of professional golf to exhale.