When Greg Norman joined LIV Golf Investments as CEO and commissioner of the Super Golf League in October, it seemed as if the landscape of men’s professional golf was changing right before our eyes. LIV Golf Investments is backed by the Public Investment Fund, which works on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government.
Rory McIlroy labeled the league that hoped to rival the PGA Tour “dead in the water” last week after inflammatory comments made by Phil Mickelson, as well as prized targets Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau backing the PGA Tour.
Here’s a timeline of the Super Golf League’s rise (and likely fall), from $100 million proposals to Donald Trump’s Bedminster and Doral courses hosting matches as soon as this summer.
In Saudi Arabia, professional golf is played.
The Saudi International, the inaugural professional golf event in Saudi Arabia, was held as a European Tour event in 2019, just months after the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The tournament has been condemned from its inception as a deliberate attempt by the Saudi government to “sportswash” its tumultuous human rights record and improve its image. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Public Investment Fund became the event’s title sponsor in 2022.
Over the years, a few famous names have made the trip to compete, including Johnson, who is a two-time champion in 2019 and 2021. Major champions such as Mickelson, DeChambeau, and Brooks Koepka have also been compensated to compete in the tournament. The Saudi International switched from the European Tour to the Asian Tour in 2021 after the 2020 tournament. LIV Golf Investments has contributed $300 million to the Asian Tour over the last year.
You're better than taking the money grab from a corrupt regime. Come on, Phil.
— Brian Flaherty (@brianmflaherty) December 3, 2019
As a result, Golfweek reported in July that the PGA Tour will not allow players to compete in the contentious tournament in 2022. Tour members must get a waiver to compete on other circuits, and the PGA Tour informed managers that authorization would no longer be provided because the Saudi event is no longer sanctioned by the European Tour.
The Tour shifted gears in December, allowing 30 of its members, including Mickelson, Johnson, and DeChambeau, to compete in the 2022 Saudi International, which took place earlier this month at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City.
Who’s in on it?
That is the question of the $100 million. Although no names have been made public, a few players have previously played golf in Saudi Arabia.
Mickelson’s participation in a rival, Saudi-backed league dates back to the 2020 Saudi International pro-am, where he was said to have played with league representatives.
According to the Guardian, the league submitted formal offer letters worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” to Mickelson, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Paul Casey, and Koepka in July 2020. On May 4, 2021, a story in the Telegraph indicated that multi-million dollar proposals were given to Mickelson, Johnson, Scott, Koepka, DeChambeau, Fowler, and Rose, with some ranging from $30-50 million. On the Tuesday night before the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah, which was won by Mickelson, player managers and agents met with the league’s backers.
DeChambeau denied being offered $135 million to join the Super Golf League earlier this month.
Reactions from the players and the tour
Rory McIlroy was the first big star to criticize other leagues, saying in February 2020, “For me, I’m out.” Jon Rahm and Koepka would echo him a month later. The players were all ranked in the top three in the world at the time.
“I don’t see why anyone would be for (the new league),” McIlroy said in May 2021, after learning of the $30-50 million offers. The PGA Tour has remained staunch in its approach, forming a “strategic alliance” with the European Tour to resist any competing leagues. Commissioner Jay Monahan drew a line in the sand in a meeting with players that same month, with various sources informing Golfweek’s Eamon Lynch that leaving the PGA Tour for the new league would result in an automatic suspension and perhaps a lifetime ban.
PGA Tour defectors will also be forbidden from competing in the annual Ryder Cup against Europe, according to PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh.
“If someone wants to play in a Ryder Cup for the United States, they have to be a member of the PGA of America, which they obtain by being a member of the Tour,” Waugh remarked in May. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and I’m not sure we can be more clearer than that.” We don’t expect it to change.”
The PGA Tour also launched the Player Impact Program, a $40 million bonus pool designed to reward players who encourage fan and sponsor engagement, as a direct response to competing golf leagues. The pool was increased to $50 million in 2022. The prize pool for the Comcast Business Tour Exceptional 10—which rewards top performers at the end of the regular season and before the FedEx Cup playoffs—will be doubled to $20 million. The Tour has also devised a new bonus plan that will benefit the majority of participants. Every player who makes at least 15 starts will get $50,000 as part of the Play15 initiative.
Following Mickelson’s contentious comments that the Saudis are “dangerous motherf—–s to get involved with,” Tiger Woods, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas, Rahm, McIlroy, and others have all publicly defended the Tour, with Johnson and DeChambeau following suit.
What’s the deal with Greg Norman?
This isn’t the Shark’s first foray into a rival golf league’s waters.
Norman, a two-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer who won 20 times on the PGA Tour and 14 times on the European Tour, tried unsuccessfully in 1994 to establish the World Golf Tour. Tim Finchem, then-Tour commissioner, turned down the two-time British Open champion’s bid, but three years later, in 1997, he announced the World Golf Championships.
In November, Golfweek reported on the PGA Tour’s plans to develop a series of lucrative foreign tournaments with guaranteed prize money for the world’s best players.
What comes next?
“Who’s left?” McIlroy posed the question we’re all thinking. “Who’s the last one to leave?”
With the support of the game’s greatest names, the SGL has little to no momentum and will have to sway mid-tier to older Tour players, or recruit from the Korn Ferry, Asian, and DP World circuits.
No Laying Up revealed in October that the 12-event league was looking into a few Donald Trump courses, including Doral and Bedminster, for a spring 2022 debut. “At least two of Trump’s courses in Bedminster, N.J., and Doral, Fla., might be named as destinations for the nascent tour,” according to sources involved with the conversations, who, like others, asked anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Officials from LIV Golf Investments, the Saudi-funded organization that hosts the tour, have spoken with the Trump Organization, according to these sources.”
While McIlroy declared the league “dead in the water,” it may be a little early.
Norman went on the attack on Tuesday, claiming in a memo that the PGA Tour engaged in “egregious acts of bullying” and that the Tour is unable to legally prohibit players from competing in the Super Golf League.
To help get the league off the ground, LIV Golf has enlisted the support of a number of industry executives, as well as a longtime PGA Tour rules official. There may still be more to come with almost limitless riches at their disposal – even Koepka believes someone will “sell out” –