Upstart League May Have Solved A Key (Major Championship) Question, But Saudi Ties Remain
If players can earn world ranking points, Greg Norman's Saudi-funded disruptor Tour approaches viability. Plus, a report says several Trump courses are in the mix. Because of course they are.
Existential disruption to the pro golf model officially arrived with Greg Norman’s introduction as CEO of Liv Golf Investments. The outfit isn’t confirming key details yet, but they seem destined to become the Super-Saudi-Not-The-Premier Golf League, League.
The Guardian first reported on a select press gathering to discuss Norman’s hiring, with more detailed stories about that session now appearing at ESPN, Global Golf Post, the New York Post and Golf.com.
In the reporting, you’ll have to scroll past the windbaggery from Norman about sacrificing his business empire for this new venture (while retaining his role in golf course design projects, including one in Saudi Arabia). The stories all confirm the most inconvenient truth: despite Norman’s effort to suggest multiple investors are in play, he’s reporting to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
The fund once held a financial stake in the Premier Golf League, a concept very much alive offering a refined approach based on feedback and encouragement from several top players. But if the early leaked details of a limited field league structure prove accurate, the Saudis have stolen the PGL’s original operational blueprint as the vision for a star-driven golf league backed by the Kingdom’s investment arm.
So why would Norman give up his role running companies he started and risk tainting the “living brand” for the closest thing to evil we have in the rapidly expanding authoritarian dictator sector?
Whatever the vain vintner’s motives—revenge, money, ego, boredom, attention, all of the above x 8—his full-time presence is not likely to convince reluctant star golfers to come aboard. Yes, he provides cover by discussing his favorite topic—himself. And Norman can push back at the PGA Tour by saying, you messed up the WGC concept that I instigated back in the early 90s, so move over because there’s a new Shirtless Sheriff in town!
Yet the success of any well-financed upstart asking players to make a bold, career-defining move will come down to money and some wonky golf details. Golf Saudi’s team—there I go again, Liv Golf Investments—has seemingly paved over one of their Death Star’s most vulnerable thermal exhaust ports.
Thanks to a lightly-reported Ryder Cup-week announcement, the Saudi’s joined up with the Asian Tour to sanction the former European Tour stop at Saudi Arabia’s Royal Greens G&CC. The latest reporting says they’ve since expanded the agreement into a $200 million, 10-event, 10-year deal with the Asian Tour to offer a rankings point-eligible feeder circuit. With that in place, golf league viability becomes clearer to potential fence-sitters. ESPN.com’s Bob Harig writes:
The investment in the Asian Tour will see a commitment of at least $200 million in prize money over a 10-year period to help fund a series of 10 annual marquee events. The series of tournaments will be added to the Asian Tour schedule in 2022.
In turn, the new league likely would be sanctioned by the Asian Tour, which means players could earn World Ranking points, a big issue as news of rival tours surfaced over the past two years.
The New York Post’s Mark Cannizzaro was even more blunt:
This appears to be a brilliantly deft move on the part of LIV Golf Investors, because its affiliation with the Asian Tour would provide a gateway for its team series events to be sanctioned tournaments that dole out world ranking points, which are the most prominent determinant for players qualifying for major championships.
The points deliver legitimacy and bonuses while getting top players into majors (at least barring an emergency move during next week’s Asia Pacific Amateur when several Official World Golf Ranking board members are typically on hand). But the OWGR will have a hard time suggesting the co-sanctioned Asian/Saudi events are no longer an “Eligible Golf Tour” operation. Particularly when the OWGR recognizes biggies like the Abema TV Tour, All Thailand Golf Tour, EuroPro Tour, Alps Tour, Asian Development Tour, Nordic Golf League, Big Easy Tour, ProGolf Tour and the Thursday Night Men’s League. Disqualifying the Asian Tour would create instant legal and anti-trust concerns.
(Oh I was kidding on the Thursday Night Men’s League. The rest are all OWGR “Eligible Golf Tours”.)
Making it all sting that much more for those operations under threat: the European Tour just ended a similar-but-far-less lucrative co-sanctioning agreement with the Asian Tour that set a clear precedent the Saudis will use. Oops.
The OWGR governing board includes several who may ask for emergency action to save the PGA Tour and European Tour from losing stars. Here is the current board, as of their most recent announcement regarding points system changes set to take effect in August, 2022:
Chairman – Peter Dawson
Augusta National Golf Club – Buzzy Johnson
European Tour – Keith Pelley
International Federation of PGA Tours – Keith Waters
PGA of America – Seth Waugh
PGA TOUR – Jay Monahan
The R&A – Martin Slumbers
USGA – Mike Whan
Waugh’s the most intriguing figure since he makes clear the PGA Of America will fight for the PGA Tour. Waugh has long been close with Monahan and to show his organization’s support, has already declared an end to Ryder Cup eligibility for American and (probably) European defectors.
Is that any way to treat an independent contractor?
Waugh presumes today’s players will care two-hoots about the Ryder Cup when a life-changing advance is wired into their accounts, even if it’s blood and oil-covered money. To his credit, Waugh also sensed this situation was inevitable long before Greg Norman signed on and a rankings loophole was located.
“I think, look, I come from a world of disruption, and I think it's inevitable,” Waugh said of upstart leagues when asked during May’s PGA Championship.
“I actually think it's healthy. You either disrupt or you get disrupted. That's what this is.”