Arguably the all-time greatest modern golfer, Tiger Woods, in action. Source: AP Photo/Matt Scolum
Arguably the all-time greatest modern golfer, Tiger Woods, in action. Source: AP Photo/Matt Scolum

How golf tackled a modern problem

Golf OlyBet 07.08.2023

Ask any sports fan, and their favourite pastime has probably had at least a threat of a breakaway league at some point in history. With the best of the best performing on a global stage, it is sometimes inevitable.

People get unhappy, that is just the way it is. There is never enough exposure or money for everyone, some may think they are bigger than the sport or at least consider themselves to be outside of the established order. Usually, the stand-off ends with some kind of settlement suitable for all parties or just fizzles out.

One of the more recent examples comes from the world of football, where the European Super League was proposed in 2021 … and was pretty much dead just 24 hours later. In cycling and swimming respectively, The Hammer Series and the International Swimming League started strong but are currently on (forced) pause. In F1, a breakaway was on the cards for decades but never happened.

But sometimes the upstart takes over. In tennis, women were not happy with their share of the prize money and, led by Billie Jean King, broke away from the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in 1970. In 1973, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was established, while men did the same in 1988 with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). These days, the ITF is just a sidenote to the WTA and the ATP.

In basketball, FIBA – the international basketball federation – is still relevant via national teams, but lost the rights to European club basketball in 1999, when nine clubs created their own league and set the emergence of EuroLeague Basketball in motion. On the other side of the Atlantic, the National Basketball Association (NBA) only became the go-to basketball league after merging with the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1976.

Stirring the pot of golf

The established order in golf was quite straightforward for more than 50 years. The PGA Tour dates back to 1916 and was officially founded in 1929, but reshaped to its current state in 1968; under the PGA flag, the PGA Tour Champions (for players aged 50 or older), the Korn Ferry Tour (a lower-level championship), and several international tours are also run.

In November 2020, PGA Tour entered a strategic alliance with the European professional tour as well; the competition was fierce, but for top players, being on the PGA Tour was always the dream. Even if you are not too keen on the world of golf, names like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, or Arnold Palmer tend to ring a bell. All masters of golf, all PGA legends.

Another rival was slowly building up in the Far East. First, there was a threat from the Premier Golf League, announced in 2019, which contributed to the connecting of the PGA and the Euro tour. But the PGL was then swiftly cast aside after talks with Saudi investors led them to establish a league of their own – LIV Golf, registered in October 2021.

It did not take long to get going, with their first event launching on June 9th, 2022. The list of players included several PGA Tour champions and former world number ones while James Piot, the reigning amateur champion of the USA at the time, decided to pursue a career in LIV instead of joining PGA. A serious competitor emerged.

Understanding LIV

So what exactly is LIV Golf? The name refers to the Roman numerals for 54 (L for 50, IV for 4), which is the score of a perfect round on the most common (par-72) golf course. It is also the number of holes played at LIV Golf tournaments.

The league consists of 14 events in 2023 and has a prize fond of around 365 million euros, but that is nothing more than pocket change for the organizers. LIV is led by Golf Saudi, a division of the Public Investment Fund – the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia with total estimated assets nearing 650 billion euros.

The tournaments consist of 48 contracted players who are divided into 12 teams. Dustin Johnson, two-time major championship winner – comparable to the Grand Slam tournaments in tennis – and a former number one in the world, was probably the headliner but several notable golfers also jumped ship from the PGA. Johnson was supposedly paid 135 million euros to join LIV.

They did try to catch the biggest (commercial) fish as well, but Tiger Woods declined – even though the offer was in “high nine digits”, as declared by LIV Golf CEO and former pro Greg Norman. Just to spell it out, high nine digits imply that the offer was just short of a billion. In comparison, Woods’s career earnings so far amount to just 121 million …

The feud

The PGA did not take betrayal lightly. They suspended the seventeen players who first joined the LIV franchise while promising further punishments for those that follow, ranging from fines to bans. There were court cases against both organizations. A truce never seemed to be on the cards.

Woods not only declined LIV’s offer but publicly took PGA’s side by bashing the players who left. “I think that what they’ve done is they’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position,” Woods said in July 2022. “I know what the PGA Tour stands for and what we have done and what the tour has given us.”

Just a year later, and as a surprise to most, the fight ended. On June 6th, 2023, LIV Golf, the PGA Tour, and the PGA European Tour announced a collaboration plan to “unify the game of golf on a global basis”. The Saudis will be the “exclusive investor” while the PGA will appoint a CEO and most of the board. It was a shock as most players only learned about the deal when it was announced.

The future CEO – PGA Tour head Jay Monahan – has been called a betrayer, a manipulator, and a hypocrite by players who either jumped ship and were sanctioned or those who publicly went against LIV. Fair to him, he has owned it. “I accept those criticisms. But circumstances do change,” Monahan admitted.

How will it all work out remains to be seen as further details are yet to reach the public at this point. But for the fans, uniting the best players in the world once again promises a brighter future. This is the new reality of golf – the best league in the world is going to be backed by Saudi money. They were not allowed to take over, but they got a seat at the table.


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