Jun 9, 2022 - Sports

Golf descends into chaos

A golf ball in the shape of a mind blown emoji

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

After months of speculation, LIV Golf finally tees off Thursday in London. Across the Atlantic, the PGA Tour continues its season in Ontario.

Why it matters: We may be witnessing the dawn of a new era, or maybe just the early days of a well-funded startup doomed to fail. Either way, men's professional golf has changed forever, and there's no going back.

State of play: LIV is highly controversial, partly due to conflicts with the PGA Tour and partly because of where the money is coming from: the Saudi Arabian government.

  • The PGA Tour has suspended the 17 players who are taking part in this week's inaugural LIV event, and any players who take part in future events will face the same punishment.
  • LIV is funded by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, and critics allege the country is using golf to boost its global image (aka "sportswashing").

By the numbers: A huge part of LIV's appeal is money. The Saudis have pledged $400 million for this season, with $255 million going toward prize money. They're also giving top players guaranteed money just to join.

  • Each LIV golf event has a $25 million purse, and the winner gets $4 million. There are no cuts, so even last place earns $120,000. The season finale has a $50 million purse.
  • By comparison, the 2022 Masters had a record $15 million purse, and winner Scottie Scheffler pocketed $2.7 million. The 39 players who missed the cut went home with nothing.

What they're saying: In February, Dustin Johnson said he was "fully committed to the PGA Tour." Three months later, he's one of the faces of LIV and has resigned from the Tour completely.

"I'm very thankful for the PGA Tour ... I've done pretty well out there for the last 15 years. But this is something that was best for me and my family. It's something exciting and something new."

— Johnson

The other side: "You know, it's a bummer," reigning PGA champion Justin Thomas said Wednesday ahead of the Canadian Open. "I think a lot of us are — I don't know if annoyed or tired is the right word."

  • "My stance on it has been pretty clear from the start," added Rory McIlroy, who has pledged allegiance to the Tour. "It's not something that I want to participate in."
  • "I certainly understand the guys that went," he added. "I think for me ... any decision that you make in your life that's purely for money usually doesn't end up going the right way."

The big picture: As a nonprofit, member-run organization, the PGA Tour can't play favorites. Its mandate is to provide Tour pros, operating as independent contractors, with opportunities to play competitive golf.

  • The end result is a bloated schedule and an economic structure in which the needle-movers (think: Tiger Woods) are subsidizing their lesser-known peers. The Tour has found new ways to reward elite players, but there's still a sense from some that they're underpaid.
  • LIV Golf, fronted by Hall of Famer Greg Norman, can play favorites, and is promising life-changing money. Norman tried something similar in 1994 with the World Golf Tour, but the PGA Tour shot it down (then basically stole the idea). How will it play out this time?

The bottom line: LIV is here, and it will likely be here for a while. The question is what it ultimately becomes: A PGA Tour competitor that demands attention, or a glitzy sideshow that never truly breaks through?

Go deeper: Everything you need to know about the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the total prize money is $255 million, not $225 million.

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