IT WAS ALMOST a year ago that author Alan Shipnuck published Phil Mickelson’s controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s history of human rights abuses and alleged involvement in the death of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi. Mickelson, who was allegedly recruiting players to LIV Golf, told Shipnuck that he was working with the Saudis only to gain leverage with the PGA Tour.
“They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
Mickelson, a six-time major champion, later apologized for his remarks. He lost several longtime sponsors, including KPMG, Workday and Amstel Light. Mickelson went into self-exile before returning to play at LIV Golf’s inaugural event outside London in June.
Once Mickelson’s comments were public, several PGA Tour members who had been talking to LIV Golf backed away from the circuit that is being funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. Major championship winners Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and others pledged their support to the PGA Tour. As Rory McIlroy famously said at the time, “It’s dead in the water, in my opinion. I just can’t see any reason why anyone would go.”
Not long after, however, Johnson, DeChambeau, Reed and others did an about-face after receiving guaranteed signing bonuses reportedly worth as much as $150 million, and made the jump to LIV Golf. More than 30 PGA Tour members would end up defecting, resulting in suspensions by tour commissioner Jay Monahan. LIV Golf and some of its players filed a federal antitrust lawsuit and accused the PGA Tour of being a monopoly; the tour countersuited and alleged LIV Golf interfered with its contracts with players.
Make no mistake: If LIV Golf’s motivation during its inaugural season was to be a disruptor in a sport that had largely remained unchanged for more than 50 years, then it succeeded. With the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which has dumped more than $2 billion into the venture, LIV Golf was able to stage eight events around the world with $25 million purses, the richest in the history of the sport. It even plucked reigning Open Championship winner Cameron Smith from the PGA Tour a few days after he competed in its Tour Championship.
While its team format and 54-hole tournaments with no cut and shotgun starts weren’t for everyone, especially golf traditionalists, LIV Golf players seemed to be having fun, especially the ones who were getting very rich. As Johnson and his 4Aces teammates celebrated with a champagne shower on the 18th hole of Trump Doral in Miami, after winning LIV Golf’s $50 million team championship in October, LIV Golf seemed to have momentum. It could be argued that the new circuit is the biggest story in men’s professional golf since Tiger Woods arrived on the PGA Tour in 1996.
THE DAY BEFORE LIV Golf’s inaugural season ended in October with the final round of its team championship, three LIV Golf executives met with several reporters to brief them on the new circuit’s goals for 2023.
Among their lofty aspirations: signing network television deals, both domestically and internationally, to expand LIV Golf’s exposure around the world; securing corporate and team sponsors; and developing a franchise model that they hoped would one day make LIV Golf’s 12 teams worth hundreds of millions of dollars — each.
“Our goals are to transition to the league, have 12 teams established and get them off the ground, and clearly build on the on-course and fan experience we are seeing and the engagement we are seeing,” then-LIV Golf COO and president Atul Khosla told reporters that day. “And yes, we have to start commercializing the product. Got to get on TV. Need to find corporate partners. Those are milestones we need to hit going into next year.”
LIV Golf announced it would expand to 14 tournaments and raise purses from $150 million to $405 million total this year. Behind the scenes, it was eyeing a handful of other PGA Tour stars, including past Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, two of the best players from the U.S.
A few days after the 2022 season ended, LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman, a two-time Open Championship winner, told reporters on a videoconference that his circuit was just getting started. He suggested that there had never been a new sports league accomplish what LIV Golf did in its first year.
“LIV has only just begun,” Norman said. “From my perspective, it was one heck of a year. It was one heck of a beta season. It was one heck of a launch.”
Then, over the next few months, LIV Golf’s momentum seemed to sputter. The league that promised to be “golf but louder” barely made a whimper during its offseason.
WITHIN SIX WEEKS of that meeting in Miami, Khosla and another one of the executives in the room, chief communications officer Jonathan Grella, were no longer working at LIV Golf. There were two other significant departures: Matt Goodman, the league’s president of franchises, and Kerry Taylor, its chief marketing officer. Sources told ESPN that the departures weren’t voluntary. Golf Saudi CEO Majed Al Sorour also stepped away from his role as LIV Golf’s managing director, although he remains on its board.
As the LIV Golf League begins its second season at El Camaleon Golf Course at Mayakoba in Mexico on Friday, decisions are now being made by a small number of executives surrounding Norman. Gary Davidson, Richard Marsh and Jed Moore, three executives from Performance 54, an England-based international golf marketing and consulting group, are now calling the shots at LIV Golf, along with Norman.
In recent weeks, LIV Golf team officials expressed concerns to ESPN about LIV Golf executives not regularly communicating with them and delaying important decisions. For instance, LIV Golf rolled out its 2023 schedule in three announcements — on Nov. 30, Dec. 14 and Jan. 23. One reason for the delay, according to sources, was that LIV Golf teams pushed back on having to return to Saudi Arabia for the second straight year. The investors won that fight; the LIV Golf team championship will be played in Jeddah on Nov. 3-5.
According to sources, moving the team championship away from Trump Doral didn’t sit well with former U.S. president Donald Trump, who owns the club. A LIV Golf tournament will still be played there on Oct. 20-22, as well as at country clubs Trump owns in Bedminster, New Jersey, and Sterling, Virginia.
Team officials also complained that rosters were unveiled over three days — and only about a week before the start of the season. The last announcement was delayed three days, after Belgium’s Thomas Pieters was a last-minute addition for Hudson Swafford, who is undergoing season-ending hip surgery.
The New York Times reported in December that a management consulting firm hired by the Saudis wrote a report in 2021, code-named Project Wedge, in which it suggested that a new league would have to sign the world’s top 12 golfers and land TV deals in a sport with declining audiences to make it. To get the biggest return on investment, the Saudi advisers projected that the new league would have to sign Mickelson, McIlroy and Woods. McIlroy and Woods have been two of the PGA Tour’s most vocal supporters and have helped reshape it in response to the LIV Golf threat.
Pieters, who won six times on the DP World Tour and is ranked No. 35 in the Official World Golf Ranking, was the highest-profile player signed by LIV Golf during the offseason. The other new players include Chile’s Mito Pereira, Colombia’s Sebastian Munoz, South Africa’s Dean Burmester, New Zealand’s Danny Lee and Brendan Steele. It was hardly the star power that Norman had hoped for.
ON JAN. 19, LIV Golf announced it had reached a multiyear U.S. broadcast television and streaming agreement with the CW network to air its live tournaments. Financial terms of the deal weren’t released. Sources told ESPN that it is a revenue-sharing arrangement and that LIV Golf won’t receive rights fees from the CW network and would continue to pay production costs, as it did during its inaugural season in 2022.
The opening rounds of LIV Golf tournaments will be streamed on the CW app; the second and third rounds of LIV weekend tournaments will air live on Saturdays and Sundays on the CW and the CW app. The league’s six international events will be broadcast on tape delay on the weekends in the U.S. Fans can watch the overseas events live on the CW app.
On Thursday, the circuit launched LIV Golf Plus and LIVGolfPlus.com, which it said would allow viewers in 180 global territories to watch its events live and for free.
The circuit is going all-in on promoting its team concept. While the inaugural season had a rotating cast of players, barring injuries, teams will have static rosters this year. Players wore matching uniforms on the driving range in Mexico on Wednesday. Their shirts, hats and custom golf bags were largely void of equipment manufacturer and other sponsor logos they proudly displayed while competing on the PGA Tour.
Reply ⬇️ with your team 🙌@4acesgc_ @cleeks_gc @crushers_gc @fireballsgc_ @hyflyers_gc @ironheadsgc_ @majesticksgc @rangegoatsgc @rippergc_ @smashgc @stingergc_ @torquegc_#LIVGolf pic.twitter.com/XHsEdNDd2O
— LIV Golf (@livgolf_league) February 14, 2023
While the equipment and apparel companies didn’t seem to choose a side in the battle between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour last year, their bottom lines are causing them to make difficult decisions now. Puma/Cobra didn’t renew its deal with DeChambeau. An Adidas spokesman confirmed to ESPN that it ended its longtime relationships with Johnson and Sergio Garcia. Adidas had sponsored Johnson since shortly after he turned pro in 2007.
“I was with them for 15 years,” Johnson told reporters in Mexico on Thursday. “We had a great relationship. It’s still really good. We mutually agreed on parting ways. It just wasn’t working. Obviously, playing for LIV and the way things kind of go, it was better for both of us to part ways. For me being the captain of the team, obviously being able to go out and find a clothing sponsor is more beneficial than waiting another year.
“Everything we do, especially from now going forward, is going to be about the team and what’s best for it. That’s definitely the goal and will be the goal from now going forward.”
According to representatives of a handful of apparel and equipment companies contacted by ESPN, their contracts with golfers include annual event minimums. For instance, if a player was competing on the PGA Tour when he signed, he might be required to compete in 20 tour events. There are other qualifiers, including those tournaments not being a team event like the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, in which players wear team uniforms, and the event being recognized by the OWGR.
Once players jumped to LIV Golf last year, according to representatives of the equipment and apparel companies, most didn’t meet the minimum event requirements and were paid only a fraction of what they would have been otherwise owed. One executive described last year as “Christmas” because his company was being promoted by a highly ranked player for “pennies on the dollar.” Another equipment representative said it was difficult to make accurate evaluations of players because there was so little data available in terms of marketing and TV metrics because LIV Golf’s events in 2022 were available only on YouTube, the tour’s official website and a streaming service.
With players wearing their team logos on their shirts this season, there’s little room left for potential sponsors this year.
“That’s what we were paying for typically,” an equipment company representative said.
WHEN MANY PLAYERS made the jump to LIV Golf, they were assured that the new circuit would be recognized by the OWGR. Sources told ESPN that LIV Golf players won’t receive OWGR points for their results in Mayakoba and that a resolution on the issue isn’t expected in the next couple of months. The OWGR notified LIV Golf that it will have to address a few issues before it can be included in the rankings, which the four major championships and other tournaments use to determine exemptions and qualifying. LIV Golf’s 54-hole format and smaller fields aren’t expected to be insurmountable obstacles, but it might have to add a 36-hole cut or adjust in other ways to meet the required criteria.
LIV Golf players didn’t receive points during the first season, either, causing many of them to plummet in the rankings. While Smith is No. 5 in the world, other LIV Golf stars haven’t sustained their lofty rankings. Johnson, a two-time major champion, is ranked No. 54 in the world, the first time in 13 years he hasn’t been in the top 50. Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion who was ranked No. 1 for 47 straight weeks, has fallen to 85th. DeChambeau, once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, is 114th. Bubba Watson is 189th and Mickelson is 298th. It is the first time Mickelson has been ranked outside the top 200 since 1992, the year he turned pro.
“If [we] don’t receive world ranking points, then the world ranking system is flawed,” Watson told ESPN. “It’s broken. You know, when you think about the golfers that are here, if you’re going to play against the best in the world, you have to rank us too, because we’re some of the best in the world. It’s a flawed system if you say no.”
Six LIV Golf players, Smith, Mickelson, Johnson, DeChambeau, Reed and Koepka, have exemptions into each of the four majors this season for being a past champion of at least one of them in the previous five years. Other past Masters champions, Garcia, Watson and Charl Schwartzel, have lifetime invitations to Augusta National. Henrik Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen are eligible to play in The Open until they’re 60, and Martin Kaymer has exemptions into the PGA Championship and U.S. Open.
Abraham Ancer, Pereira and Steele are eligible for the PGA Championship after finishing in the top 15 at Southern Hills last season. Joaquin Niemann is eligible after reaching the Tour Championship last year; he is also ranked No. 23 in the world and would otherwise qualify. Other LIV Golf players, including Harold Varner III, Jason Kokrak and Kevin Na, are eligible by finishing in the top 50 in the world last year.
“It’s always great to go play in the majors, especially at The Open,” Reed told reporters in Mexico on Thursday. “We’re just happy they did the right thing, so just go out and play well in those events again, because at the end of the day you go out and you win major championships, it all takes care of itself.”
While LIV Golf alleged in its federal antitrust lawsuit that the PGA Tour was colluding with the majors’ governing bodies to keep LIV Golf players out of the majors, none of them imposed bans. In fact, even the PGA Championship didn’t put restrictions on LIV Golf players. The PGA Championship requires players to be members of the PGA of America to compete in the tournament. Most players meet that requirement by being members of the PGA Tour. In the past, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh had indicated that players who had been suspended and weren’t in good standing with the PGA Tour wouldn’t be allowed to play.
“Our decisions are always based on what’s in the best interest of the PGA of America and conducting the best championship possible,” Waugh said in a news release on Wednesday. “Sadly, the current division in the professional game is not good for the sport or the future of the game. We hope there might be some resolution soon. In the meantime, as always, our focus will be on our mission to grow the game and improve the lives of our members, who work so hard to impact millions of lives every day.”
In an interview with Sports Illustrated last month, Mickelson suggested that the OWGR had lost all credibility by not including LIV players.
“There will probably be another ranking system that is a more credible system as it includes all golfers in the world,” Mickelson said. “This one has lost any credibility. I wouldn’t be surprised if tournaments stopped using it as a criteria for qualifying. I think it is ultimately hurting the tournaments more than the players. If you’re a major championship and you’re using it as a qualifying factor and you’re taking a system that is not getting all the best players in the field, it hurts the tournament more. That’s why you might see tournaments go away from it as qualifying criteria or have a new ranking system.”
ALTHOUGH LIV GOLF claimed a victory in terms of the majors, it has been dealt a couple of big blows in its ongoing legal battle with the PGA Tour. On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman ruled that the tour can add the Public Investment Fund and the fund’s governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, as defendants in its countersuit. U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen had earlier rejected arguments from PIF lawyers that the fund and Al-Rumayyan were shielded from the tour’s subpoenas on the grounds of sovereign immunity because they were agents of a foreign government.
A case management conference is scheduled for Friday. Freeman could choose to delay the start of the trial, which was supposed to begin in January 2024.
The U.S. Department of Justice also opened an antitrust investigation into the PGA Tour’s alleged monopolistic activities and it remains active, sources told ESPN. An arbitration panel in London is expected to announce soon whether LIV Golf players can also compete on the DP World Tour.
Clearly, a year after Mickelson’s comments were published and put the golf world into turmoil like never before, the situation remains a mess.
On Thursday, when LIV Golf’s Pat Perez was asked by a reporter for his thoughts on starting the season at Mayakoba, where the PGA Tour used to hold an annual event, his answer was succinct.
“I love it because we’re here and the tour is not,” Perez said. “End quote.”