ST. ALBANS, England — It was only after they hit their first shots on Thursday that the professional golfers taking part in the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf Invitational Series would have learned how high the stakes they were playing for really were.
Moments after the players set off down the fairways for the first time at the exclusive Centurion Club just outside London, the PGA Tour suspended 17 of them and declared they were “no longer eligible to participate” in events on the American-based tour or any of its affiliates.
The punishment had been expected, but it also served as a warning: Any player that joins the nascent league in the future, the PGA Tour’s commissioner said in a letter to the competition’s members, could expect the same sort of banishment.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” the commissioner, Jay Monahan, wrote in a two-page letter to tour players that oozed contempt for the rebel tour and its players. “But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. That expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”
Before the event at the Centurion Club, a majority of players who had signed on with LIV Golf, including the PGA Tour veterans Dustin Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Kevin Na and Sergio García, said they had resigned from the PGA Tour, perhaps to avoid a suspension or lifetime ban. But Monahan’s letter said they faced excommunication anyway.
LIV Golf organizers, who are expecting another wave of players to sign on to what is now the richest golf tour in history before the next stop of the eight-event series in Oregon later this month, quickly fired back with a statement of their own.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive, and it deepens the divide between the Tour and its members,” the LIV Golf statement said. “It’s troubling that the Tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing. This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”
Some of the LIV Golf players, still completing their rounds after the event’s shotgun start sent every competitor off at the same time, only found out about the suspensions as they headed back toward the clubhouse.
Britain’s Ian Poulter insisted that he and the others in the field had not done anything wrong, despite participating without the PGA Tour’s waiver. “Of course I’m going to appeal,” Poulter told reporters. “It makes no sense how I’ve played the game of golf for all this time, I’ve had two tour cards and the ability to play all over the world. What’s wrong with that?”
Phil Mickelson, whose participation has aroused the most interest, and much controversy, refused to comment, saying he was not ready to discuss the PGA’s actions. Others, though, were more forthright, convinced that their banishment was related to golf’s established powers’ fearing competition. Graeme McDowell, who resigned from the PGA Tour 30 minutes before striking his first ball in the new tournament, said he had begun consulting lawyers in anticipation of what was to come.
“We’ve spoken to the lawyers. We have the LIV legal team which are fantastic. We have our own legal team. Some players have decided out of an abundance of caution they were going to resign and just stay away from any litigation,” McDowell said.
The PGA Tour memo did not make clear how it would deal in the future with the players who have been lured to commit to playing on the LIV Golf circuit or those tempted to join them by the new tour’s huge appearance fees and a format that guarantees every entrant six-figure payouts at each event.
The event itself, a curious mix of team and individual competitions, drew a crowd not dissimilar to other golf events, with many spectators dressed in golf attire and largely middle-aged or retirees. A significant portion of the crowd took advantage of hundreds of free tickets that were given away by organizers.
“Look at your audience here; it’s pale, male and stale like most sporting events in the U.K. So how is that growing the game of golf?” Robert O’Siochain, a sports marketing executive, said, questioning the claims made by the LIV Golf Commissioner Greg Norman and others about how the new tour would revolutionize the sport.
The buildup to the event has been overshadowed by questions over Saudi Arabia’s motives for investing $2 billion in the series, with players forced to defend themselves from accusations they have traded their reputations to burnish the image of Saudi Arabia in exchange for the biggest payday in their careers. Those issues were being volubly discussed by fans around the first tee, where the event’s two star attractions — Johnson and Mickelson — were preparing to find out just what they had gotten themselves into.
Mickelson’s involvement has proved to be the most controversial. He provoked outrage in February when it was reported that he had praised the series as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” even as he called Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights “horrible” and used an expletive to describe the country’s leaders as “scary.” Mickelson took himself out of the firing line, saying he would be taking a break from golf, before confirming his participation days before the start of the first LIV event. The impact of his behavior could most clearly be seen in his course attire. His trademark black outfit was missing the usual sponsor patches after most ended their agreements with him.
Also stalking the first tee was Norman, the former world number one player who is LIV’s chief executive. Norman, accompanied by Majed Al Sorour, chief executive of the Saudi Golf Federation, embraced players after they had struck their first shots.
For all of the discussions about Saudi Arabia’s involvement, there were very few signs of the kingdom’s relationship with the event. Instead, organizers, perhaps in an attempt to shift the attention away from the backers of the tournament, had dressed Centurion Club with British symbols. A military band dressed to resemble the red-coated guards stationed outside Buckingham Palace played popular standards, while a fleet of London’s famous black taxi cabs was hired to ferry players to and from the course.
“We pick ’em up, drop ’em off and go home,” said John Davis, who has been driving cabs for 25 years. He said they had been recruited by a public relations company.
The novelty of the event was apparent, with staff on site stressing they had just eight weeks to prepare. On the first hole, security staff and course volunteers were required to usher scores of spectators off the fairway as they trooped behind Mickelson after he had played his first shot. Others had difficulty following on-course developments because of a shortage of scoreboards, while even some of the most well-known names, including Lee Westwood of Britain, struggled to draw much of a crowd. Fewer than 50 people ringed the green as Westwood prepared to putt on the first hole.
Despite the obvious growing pains and the opposition, the scale of Saudi Arabia’s investment suggests the established order is unlikely to see the back of the upstart anytime soon.
“Eventually it will all go this way, the Saudi way,” said Tony Campbell, a retiree and a regular at international golf tournaments. “Why? Because they’re richer. Whoever is richer usually gets whatever they want.”