Saudi-backed LIV Golf’s bottomless billions terrify PGA Tour

Consider the surge facing the Saudi-backed LIV golf series.

No TV deal. The audience is tiny. The shotgun launches are a joke. The team concept is confusing and distracting. Apart from a few stars, the players are either former or never-before-seen players.

And yet the PGA Tour is scared.

Because LIV Golf has billions to burn. Unlike other startup leagues that will eventually face a financial decision on whether to continue, this one appears to be a mile deep well and reportedly paid $200 million to Phil Mickelson, $150 million to Dustin Johnson and $25 million in prize money split among the 48 players per tournament in the eight-event series – not to mention the winners, who each collect $4 million.

The US Open is all the rage this week as Mickelson plays his first competitive golf on American soil in more than four months. Boston sports fans have never been shy, and Mickelson — once loved by the galleries — is sure to be hassled as he tours the country club in Brookline, Mass.

Bad enough that he and the tour’s other defectors left the tour to take mountains of money from a Saudi government that has been accused of numerous human rights abuses over the years, but this week served as a reminder that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Year 2001 terrorists were attacks came from this country.

At his Monday press conference, the once-slippery Mickelson was as tense as a Titleist, interrupting a reporter with, “Is there a question in there?” and chiding others for not trying to sneak into a two-part question. He looked unkempt, tired, shabby, and unappeased from his bloated bank account.

That’s not a lot of headroom in such a mentally taxing game, where ear spacing makes the difference between good players and great players.

But with these things, the questions about Saudi money will eventually fade away. It’s a hot topic now, but eventually something else will take its place. However, LIV Golf has the financial backing to continue and the Tour must be petrified that the competitor, adding only water, has the resources to stay in the fight.

Perhaps that’s why this is a much bigger deal than a Saudi prince owning War Emblem, which won the Kentucky Derby in 2002, or a Saudi-led consortium that bought Premier League club Newcastle last year. Or that Formula 1 will make a stopover in Riyadh as part of a 10-year, $650 million deal with the Kingdom.

LIV Golf is not the USFL. It’s not the World Hockey Assn. It’s an existential threat to the PGA Tour, which has been the dream destination of millions of competitive players for nearly a century. And while the tour is far from perfect, it has enriched communities with $3 billion in charitable projects over the decades.

As more players move to the new league, especially some of the front runners, it could have a wobbly effect as even more players move not just for the money but for the best competition.

Again, it’s hard to compete with someone who has limitless billions.

Saudi Public Investment Fund Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan addresses the crowd during the awards ceremony.

Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, addresses the crowd during the awards ceremony for the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational in St Albans, England on Saturday. Charles Schwarzel of South Africa won the singles event.

(Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

The Tour is anything but defenseless. Effective immediately, LIV golf events will not be included in the official world golf rankings. So the smaller golfers in the new league will have trouble getting into any of the four major championships after a year or two without ranking points, even though the Tour doesn’t run them. (The Masters, for example, accepts the top 50 players from last year’s rankings, as well as the top 50 from the last ranking before the Masters.) Many LIV golfers will keep a close eye on this ranking situation.

We also don’t know if Augusta National will allow LIV Golf players to compete in the Masters, although it would be surprising if they were banned. After all, that means banning Mickelson, Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwarzel and who knows what other former champions could switch leagues. There would be a lot of empty seats at these green jacket dinners.

To hold on to its best players, the Tour will likely need to make changes. It could start paying its stars some sort of performance fee, potentially locking those amounts in line with a player’s placement in the previous year’s FedexCup leaderboard. Hey, Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy… whoever, if you win this season-long points contest, we’ll pay you a $1 million bonus for every tour event you attend next year. If you come second, we’ll pay you $750,000 per appearance and so on.

That would be a seismic change from the way the tour has done business for all these years, but we are entering an era of seismic change.

One of the cool things about golf is that there is money to be made. Golfers don’t just show up and get paid. Imagine that in other sports, LeBron James and Matthew Stafford start every season from $0 and get paid by winning. Well, that’s the tradition in golf.

As is tradition, this new league is LIV and lets die.

These 54 hole LIV golf events streaming online are beyond weird, especially with the shotgun starts – all starting at the same time on different holes. There is no flow or rhythm like a typical tournament broadcast. The viewer doesn’t get a sense of what’s going on. The first tournament was too much like the Red Zone Channel – bouncing from shot to shot – which works for soccer but not nearly as well for a cohesive golf narrative. And compared to a touring event, hardly anyone tuned in.

The scary thing about the tour is that maybe it doesn’t matter. Saudi-backed LIV Golf’s bottomless billions terrify PGA Tour

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