The biggest controversy to hit professional golf since the separation of the PGA Tour and the PGA of America in 1968 is here. And it involves superstar players, legal challenges, bans and suspensions, and plenty of geo-political intrigue.
Oh, and money. Gobs and piles and tons and nearly-incomprehensible amounts of money.
Welcome to the LIV Golf Series, a worldwide tour of eight events and a total of $225 million in prize money available. The players include some of the superstars in the sport, as well as plenty of more lightly-regarded professional golfers. And that $225 million is far, far less than has been doled out as guarantees to players for choosing to leave the PGA and DP World Tours, but participate in the new startup guaranteed by the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Wealth Fund.
Let’s get into it here.
Who is playing?
Plenty of names you know, but even more any casual golf fan would not. Phil Mickelson ($200 million guaranteed) and Dustin Johnson ($125 million) are the two big fish going across the pond to London for the first event and many more, with Rickie Fowler rumored to be joining very soon.
The reason for the guaranteed money is both the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have threatened players with bans for participating in any LIV event.
If you drill down on the player list, it’s not exactly a who’s who of tee-to-green royalty. Chase Koepka, younger brother of four-time major winner Brooks Koepka, went thru the Challenger Tour to earn his DP World Tour card in 2017. He then finished 182nd in the Order of Merit that season, with just one top-10 result. From there he’s missed nine cuts in 12 attempts back on the Challenger Tour, and failed to qualify for the Korn Ferry Tour in both 2020 and 2021.
Yet he and all his fellow competitors are guaranteed a minimum of $120,000 just for showing up at any LIV Golf event and finishing dead last.
The 20th-place golfer at the RBC Canadian Open, held the same weekend as LIV’s first tournament in London, will earn $115,275. That player will have to compete against a field of 156 participants, as well as survive a cut on Friday that ensures only the Top 70 players and ties will make any money.
Wait, how much money?
More than any pro golf event besides the PGA Tour Championship to end the FedEx Cup Playoffs. By a mile.
The first seven LIV tour stops will pay $25 million to the field: $20 million as part of the regular stroke-play format you know, and another $5 million as part of their “team” format.
The winning golfer takes home $4 million in each of the first seven events, and last place gets the aforementioned $120,000.
The last stop will be Team Championship, a team-match play format at the legendary Blue Monster of Doral in Miami. $50 million will be on offer there, with the winning team splitting $16 million, and the last-place team receiving $1 million.
Also the top three individual players all season long will split an additional $30 million: $18 million for first, $8 million for second, and $4 million for third.
What’s the team format?
Before each of the first seven events, 12 players will be designated as captains, and will draft three teammates.
The lowest total score amongst those 12 teams split an additional $3 million on top of the stroke play $20 million, second place shares $1.5 million, and third place takes home $500,000.
Only the best two scores from each team count for the first two rounds, and the best three scores for the final round.
For the Team Championship, the last event of the season at Doral, the purse doubles to $50 million for the 12 four-man teams in a match play format, but prize money instead of a draft will determine teammates. Only the top 48 players during the season will qualify, and all must play at least four events.
Anything else we need to know?
All events except the Team Championship will be in a shotgun format, with players starting all at the same time on different holes.
This sounds great for the players! So what’s the problem?
There are two major issues for players that sign up to participate. The first is the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Wealth Fund is the sole backer of LIV Golf. Fully owned and directed by the Saudi Royal Family and the nation’s government, the human rights record of the nation is one of the worst in the world.
Incidents such as the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which Phil Mickelson referenced in the interview that caused him to temporarily step back from the spotlight, means that a successful LIV Golf Tour brings both money and the distraction of sportswashing to an oppressive regime.
The less moral but more pragmatic issue for the players is that both the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have threatened to suspend or ban players that participate — though the legality of this at least in the U.S. is certainly up for debate. PGA Tour players are designated as independent contractors for employment purposes, and the ability of the Tour to regulate where those under their auspices choose to ply their trade is a question that has yet to be challenged in court.
Attorneys on both sides will make plenty determining this, and LIV President Greg Norman has guaranteed his Tour will pay for any player legal challenges, win or lose. “I’ll break it down to three very simple things: we’ll defend, we’ll reimburse, and we’ll represent,” he told media outlets in May.
So is this going to work and stay a thing?
There’s only one way to find out. Right now the LIV Tour has no broadcast contract in the US, and sponsors are limited. But if they can continue to shower top players in piles of cash, they might just overwhelm the PGA Tour and steal their best players. It all remains to be seen.