In the 1960s, the American Football League and the American Basketball Association mounted enough of a challenge to the NFL and the NBA that the elder leagues absorbed their upstart competition. In the late 1970s, the NHL swallowed the surviving teams of the World Hockey Association. Those mergers vaulted the Kansas City Chiefs, the Indiana Pacers, two different teams of Oilers, and many more now-familiar teams up to the highest levels of their respective sports.
Since then, no newly-formed league — not the USFL, not the XFL, not the Women’s United Soccer Association, nobody — has pulled off a successful challenge of an existing sports institution. But a rival to the half-century-old PGA Tour is making the strongest charge in decades.
LIV Golf, a Saudi Arabia-backed, eight-tournament venture with Greg Norman as its public face, tees off Thursday at Centurion Golf Club outside London. The tour promises to spread the gospel of golf and offer players free agency and control of their careers, but the real draw is obvious: cash. Vast, phenomenal, life-changing piles of cash.
The purse for this weekend’s tournament — a 54-hole, no-cut event, which means everyone gets paid — is $25 million. The winner will take home $4 million himself. For comparison, Scottie Scheffler earned a $2.7 million check for winning the Masters in April.
Unlike most other upstart leagues, which quickly run out of money when investors don’t see immediate returns on an unfamiliar product, LIV Golf has a for-all-practical-purposes limitless reserve of funding. Backed by more than $2 billion from the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf has plans to expand over the next three years, with plans to ramp up to a full schedule in 2024. And it has the financial resources to weather years in the red.
‘Sportswashing’: Using sports to sanitize ugly truths
Critics of LIV Golf — and they are many, and loud — accuse the endeavor of being an orchestrated example of “sportswashing,” where an oppressive regime uses sports as a front to cover for its human rights violations within its borders. Russia and the 2014 Olympics/2018 World Cup, China and the 2008/2022 Olympics, Qatar and the 2022 World Cup, multiple petrochemical states with investments in elite soccer clubs — they’re all examples of the way that autocratic societies attempt to buy either silence or a veneer of respectability.
LIV Golf’s Saudi foundations fit right into this pattern. Despite the nation’s abominable record on human rights, from the treatment of marginalized groups to a March mass execution to involvement in the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Saudi Arabia is using its vast wealth to position itself as a major player on the world stage — a power not answerable to any other nation’s expectations.
Sportswashing depends entirely on a stick-to-sports mentality among both players and fans. If both sides focus only on what happens between the lines (or, in golf’s case, inside the ropes), there’s no questioning of where the money came from, or what was done to accumulate it.
In at least two instances, people associated with LIV have — intentionally or unintentionally — minimized Saudi Arabia’s grim human rights record, with immediate and devastating blowback. Phil Mickelson conceded that the Saudis were “scary motherf—s” but indicated he was still going into business with them so that he could damage the PGA Tour, a line of thinking so callous that it cost him sponsorships and forced him into an exile that kept him out of the year’s first two majors.
A few weeks later, while speaking to reporters at an LIV Golf promotional event, Norman responded to a direct question about the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying “We’ve all made mistakes” — a crass minimization so tone-deaf it threatened to bury LIV under a mountain of terrible publicity.
Critics predicted doom for LIV. Rory McIlroy, who spurned LIV’s advances, wrote it off as “dead in the water.” But LIV continued onward without missing a beat, announcing new entertainment performers and commentators and on-course amenities weekly.
The money was always there to pave over any bumps in the road.
The players: paycheck vs. responsibility
No matter how many parties the hosts throw on the course, or how many zeroes are in the paychecks, a golf tournament still needs players — recognizable players, star players — to survive and thrive. The PGA Tour has had a play-for-pay structure in place since inception; no one — not even Tiger Woods — gets a nickel if he misses a cut. While the Tour offers generous side benefits such as pensions and health insurance, the fundamental fact remains that players can be at a tournament five of seven days and still come away with nothing. That’s a structure that doesn’t sit well with many players, particularly the stars who drive ticket sales.
The initial names committing to the LIV tour were a parade of Remember Those Guys — Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, players of some acclaim whose finest achievements were years in the past. The perception of LIV was that it would be an ATM for old-timers and little else.
That all changed last week, when Dustin Johnson, 2020 Masters champion and 13th-ranked player in the world, announced he would be joining LIV. He later renounced his PGA Tour membership, fully committing to LIV come hell or high water.
Johnson was the whale, the player who broke from the Tour’s top ranks and leaped over to LIV. His presence helps normalize LIV and paints it as a serious league, surely part of the reason he claimed a reported $125 million just to join the league. Just days afterward, reports broke that Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed would be joining the LIV tour when it comes stateside in July.
The players who committed to LIV drew withering criticism from media and the public on Twitter due to the league’s financial origins. In a series of awkward Tuesday press conferences, the players attempted to sidestep — or dodge entirely — hard questions about their decision to take Saudi money, with little success.
The LIV situation raises important questions about what responsibilities players have to speak up on behalf of those less fortunate than themselves. It’s easy enough for players to stick to sports when they just happen to be playing at the same time as social or political issues are rising to the top of public consciousness; it’s not such a simple proposition when the players are collecting money directly from a government perpetrating crimes and abuses.
Most players — like most people — don’t view the world in purely political terms. Their primary drivers are 1. money and 2. legacy, and not necessarily in that order. For players purely interested in a paycheck — and players with little hope of competing for major titles — LIV represents a windfall opportunity.
For all others, though, LIV isn’t enough on its own. All the Saudi money in the world can’t buy a green jacket.
The role of the majors
One fascinating question for all those who jumped from the PGA Tour to the LIV tour: If playing for LIV meant never playing in majors again, would you still go?
Both Mickelson and Johnson spoke in their initial LIV press conferences of their intention to play in the majors, golf’s true arbiter of immortality. The organizing bodies of the four majors — the Masters, the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship — had remained largely silent through the run-up to the primary LIV event, with only the PGA of America suggesting that qualification for future tournaments would be based on participation in a recognized tour.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Open cleared the air somewhat, at least for this year. Based on qualifications, USGA officials said, there was no compelling reason to keep players who had already qualified to play for this year’s tournament out of the field.
"Should a player who had earned his way into the 2022 U.S. Open, via our published field criteria, be pulled out of the field as a result of his decision to play in another event?" the USGA said in its statement. "And we ultimately decided that they should not."
The USGA left the door open to slam the door closed on players in future years, but for now, Johnson, Mickelson and others will be playing in the U.S. Open.
That’s significant because it leaves open the possibility that players can chase both history and riches. Playing on the PGA Tour up until this point was a (mostly) necessary but not sufficient motivation for chasing golf immortality; there’s not much glory in being a three-time winner of the Anonymous Midwestern Insurance Company Open. The final arbiter of a player’s career is the number of majors he’s won, and LIV riches won’t change that.
“I believe in legacies,” Tiger Woods said just before the PGA Championship, planting his stake with the PGA Tour. “I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There's plenty of money out here.”
LIV vs. the PGA Tour
After years of saber-rattling, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf formally came to (bureaucratic) blows in May, when the Tour denied players’ requests for a release to play in the inaugural LIV event.
“We have notified those who have applied that their request has been declined in accordance with the PGA Tour Tournament regulations,’’ Tyler Dennis, PGA Tour executive VP and president, wrote in a memo to players. “As such, Tour members are not authorized to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event under our Regulations. As a membership organization, we believe this decision is in the best interest of the PGA Tour and its players.’’
Norman fired off a statement of his own shortly after the Tour’s verdict came down. “Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it’s exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament,” he said, later calling the Tour an “illegal monopoly.”
"The Tour’s action is anti-golfer, anti-fan, and anti-competitive,” Norman said. “But no matter what obstacles the PGA Tour puts in our way, we will not be stopped. We will continue to give players options that promote the great game of golf globally."
Several players, including Johnson, Garcia and Kevin Na, renounced their PGA Tour membership. Others, like Mickelson, held onto their Tour membership, even though Tour officials have threatened lifetime bans for those members who defied its order.
But how firm is the ground beneath the PGA Tour? Does it have the right to restrict players’ movements, or ban them from future PGA Tour events?
The Tour’s bylaws leave no gray area: “no PGA Tour member shall participate in any other golf tournament or event on a date when a PGA Tour event for which such member is exempt is scheduled,” with some exceptions: obtaining a written release, for example, or, for foreign players, playing in a tournament in the player’s home region.
Tour members who play in 15 events each season can apply for three releases, which is how many Tour players competed in the Saudi Invitational earlier this year. Even so, the Tour gives itself plenty of latitude in determining whether to approve those requests. The commissioner of the Tour can deny any request that would “significantly and unreasonably harm PGA Tour” and its sponsors.
However, the PGA Tour protects its corner without exception: “No conflicting event releases will be approved for tournaments held in North America.” This is a significant provision, because the first three events of the LIV Golf Invitational Series’ 2022 schedule conflict with existing PGA Tour dates, with two of the LIV tournaments taking place in North America:
June 9-11: Centurion Golf Club, London (PGA Tour event: RBC Canadian Open)
July 1-3: Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, Portland, Ore. (PGA Tour event: John Deere Classic)
July 29-31: Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, Bedminster, N.J. (PGA Tour event: Rocket Mortgage Classic)
The remainder of the LIV Golf tour schedule will run during the 2022-23 PGA Tour season, which has not yet been announced:
Sept. 2-4: The International, Boston
Sept. 16-18: Rich Harvest Farms, Chicago
Oct. 7-9: Stonehill Golf Club, Bangkok
Oct. 14-16: Royal Greens Golf Club, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Oct. 28-30: LIV team championship, Trump National Doral, Miami
It’s clear that the PGA Tour’s rules don’t permit players to jump ship, or even test the waters of rival tours. The question that LIV Golf players who remain on Tour will want answered, and that the Tour must defend against, is this: are those rules actually legal? Or is the Tour, as Norman contends, perpetuating an “illegal monopoly”?
The PGA Tour has a strong historical track record of defending itself against antitrust charges. The Tour succeeded against challenges from Morris Communications Corporation over limitations on real-time scoring, as well as from former player Harry Toscano regarding the Senior PGA Tour (now the Champions Tour). More recently, the Tour prevailed in a class-action suit brought by caddies over intellectual property claims.
The Federal Trade Commission did determine in the early 1990s that the Tour violated antitrust laws in a case that partially involved that selfsame conflicting-event release, but the Tour eluded federal punishment through the lobbying efforts of then-commissioner Tim Finchem.
What does the future hold for LIV and the PGA Tour?
The Saudi Public Investment Fund has allocated $2 billion for the growth of LIV, which has announced plans to scale up to 10 events in 2023 and a full 14-event schedule in 2024 and 2025. If awareness is the goal, rather than return on financial investment, using some of that money to lure players is the way to go. But once those players begin teeing it up for LIV, what then?
LIV will need to secure a broadcast partner; at the moment, it’s only streaming the tournaments over social media and its own website. Broadcasters aligned with the PGA Tour aren’t going to want to jeopardize that relationship … but broadcasters who signed up to televise golf featuring big names aren’t going to be pleased to see an entire season without those big names, either.
As for players, leaving the PGA Tour would set in motion a whole range of consequences beyond the world of golf. How would LIV Golf tournaments be judged for ranking purposes, and in turn, for major qualification? The Masters, for instance, invites every PGA Tour winner from the previous season; would it extend that courtesy to LIV Golf winners?
Already, sponsors connected with the PGA Tour have dropped players who have jumped to LIV, like Dustin Johnson (RBC) and Lee Westwood (UPS). Will that continue as further high-profile names make the leap to LIV?
And what about future players, who play LIV events before even joining the PGA Tour? Would that prohibit them from joining the Tour, and if so, would that be an illegal restriction on the Tour’s part?
However, for those who decide to make the jump to LIV Golf, Norman has indicated that he’s willing to stand up for players who align with him.
“They can fine you, they can ban you for life or they can suspend you,” Norman said of those players. “It’s going to be your choice, but if you decide to come here, we’ve got your back. We’ll defend you, we’ll reimburse you and we’ll represent you if you want to go down the legal route.”
LIV Golf is the most serious challenge to an established pro league in a generation. With the star power it’s amassed and the financial backing of an oil-wealthy nation behind it, LIV stands ready to change professional golf’s entire structure. Whether that’s a benefit will depend on who’s getting paid.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.