Jun 9, 2022 - Sports

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

Phil Mickelson looks on during a LIV Golf press conference in London.

Phil Mickelson looks on during a LIV Golf press conference in London. Photo: Chris Trotman/LIV Golf/Getty Images

The inaugural LIV season runs from June 9 through Oct. 30 and doesn't conflict with any current majors. Five events are based in the U.S. and two are at courses owned by former President Trump.

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").

How it works: LIV Golf, explained

Data: PGA Tour. Table: Thomas Oide/Axios Visuals

Each regular-season event will be three rounds (54 holes) and will feature 48 players. PGA Tour events are four rounds (72 holes) and regularly feature 100+ players.

  • Format: There will be no cuts, so everyone plays all three rounds and gets paid. Tournaments will use shotgun starts, meaning groups tee off simultaneously from all 18 holes.
  • Teams: Players will be divided into 12 four-person teams based on a draft conducted the week of each event. Each team will have a LIV-appointed captain who picks their teammates that week.
  • Scoring: The individual event will be scored as usual (stroke play). The team score will be the sum of the best two scores from the first two rounds, plus the best three scores in the final round.
  • Payouts: $25 million purse per event ($20 million for individual prizes; $5 million for the top three teams). The top three individuals after the seven regular-season events will share an additional $30 million.
  • Finale: The team championship will be a seeded four-day, four-round, match-play knockout event, with teams competing for $50 million.

How to watch: This week's event (9am ET) will be broadcast on LIVGolf.com, Facebook and YouTube. Arlo White, NBC's longtime Premier League play-by-play voice, will be the lead commentator.

P.S. ... LIV is the Roman numeral for 54, the number of holes in each tournament. Hence the name.

What to watch: The big unknowns

An illustration of a golf hole with a question drawn into the green
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Here's one big thing we know: LIV has virtually unlimited resources to make this work. Here are four big things we don't:

1. Can golfers play on both tours? The PGA Tour has threatened to ban LIV golfers, but they can play in next week's U.S. Open, which is run by the USGA. If players can join LIV without forgoing majors and/or Tour membership, it's a much easier decision.

2. When will networks get involved? Media rights are the lifeblood of pro sports. LIV doesn't currently have any network deals, but that's bound to change. The question is when, who, and for how much?

3. Why should fans care? LIV has talent and an intriguing format, but it's still competing against the established PGA Tour. Huge prize money can lure top players, but fans care more about legacy and tradition, which money can't buy. Once the launch buzz fades, will they stick around?

4. Who else will join? Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed (and likely Rickie Fowler) will join LIV later this month, giving the upstart league nine major champions. If more jump ship and start cashing huge checks, it could have a domino effect.

The field: 12 teams, 48 players

An illustration showing the logos of the 12 LIV teams
Graphic: Axios Visuals

The 48-player field is set for this week's event, with captains drafting their rosters on Tuesday. Here are the 12 teams, with captains listed first.

  • 4 Aces: Dustin Johnson (world No. 15), Shaun Norris (68), Oliver Bekker (96), Kevin Yuan (1,050)
  • Hy Flyers: Phil Mickelson (72), Justin Harding (109), Ratchanon Chantananuwat (269), Chase Koepka (1,562)
  • Punch: Wade Ormsby (265), Matt Jones (69), Ryosuke Kinoshita (89), Blake Windred (259)
  • Cleeks: Martin Kaymer (215), Pablo Larrazábal (70), JC Ritchie (156), Ian Snyman (367)
  • Iron Heads: Kevin Na (34), Sadom Kaewkanjana (118), Hideto Tanihara (180), Viraj Madappa (493)
  • Smash: Sihwan Kim (139), Scott Vincent (91), Jinichiro Kozuma (106), Itthipat Buranatanyarat (591)
  • Crushers: Peter Uihlein (327), Richard Bland (67), Phachara Khongwatmai (136), Travis Smyth (395)
  • Majesticks: Ian Poulter (92), Lee Westwood (78), Sam Horsfield (74), Laurie Canter (119)
  • Stinger: Louis Oosthuizen (21), Hennie Du Plessis (133), Charl Schwartzel (126), Branden Grace (123)
  • Fireballs: Sergio Garcia (57), David Puig (1,751), James Piot (1,751), Jediah Morgan (239)
  • Niblicks: Graeme McDowell (374), Bernd Wiesberger (94), Turk Pettit (600), Oliver Fisher (1,034)
  • Torque: Talor Gooch (35), Hudson Swafford (95), Adrián Otaegui (165), Andy Ogletree (1,371)

By the numbers: As you can see, the PGA Tour still boasts a vast majority of the world's best golfers. Two-thirds of the London field is ranked lower than No. 100 in the world, including six players below 1,000.

The money: Massive pay bump

Top 10 PGA Tour players, by career earnings
Data: PGA Tour; Table: Thomas Oide/Axios Visuals

Three of the PGA Tour's top 10 career money leaders have taken their talents to LIV.

Why it matters: Even for the richest golfers of all time, LIV represents a massive pay bump.

Wild stat: Phil Mickelson ($200 million) and Dustin Johnson ($125 million) will reportedly be paid more to join LIV than Tiger Woods has earned on the course in his career ($120.9 million). Again, that's just to join — it doesn't even include the huge prize money.

What they're saying: "Please, for the love of God, guys, embrace what you're doing. Own it. Be it. Lean all the way into it," writes The Athletic's Brendan Quinn. "Guys, just say it's the money."

The controversy: When sports aren't just sports

Illustration of a billboard covering up Jamal Khashoggi's face
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The controversy surrounding LIV hinges largely on its backers, with critics suggesting Saudi Arabia is engaging in "sportswashing."

Why it matters: Sports are universally beloved and seen as mostly apolitical, so countries often use them "to promote a welcoming picture on the international stage" per Amnesty International.

  • "When the media circus rolls out of town," Amnesty says, "things go back to being as bad as they ever were."
  • Saudi Arabia's record on human rights is among the worst in the world, and its use of sportswashing is among the most prevalent.

Context: The Saudis have spent at least $1.5 billion on sportswashing efforts not including LIV, per The Guardian, hosting boxing bouts, an F1 Grand Prix and buying Premier League club Newcastle United.

What they're saying: Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell explained his decision to join LIV on Tuesday, saying "it would be crazy to walk away from" this much money. He then basically summed up sportswashing:"

If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be, and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we're proud to help them on that journey."

The big picture: The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

  • "Look, we all make mistakes," Norman said last month in reference to Khashoggi's gruesome murder.
  • To which Khashoggi's fiancee Hatice Cengiz responded: "How can we go forward when those who ordered the murder are still unpunished, and continue to try to buy back their legitimacy?"

The bottom line: The Saudi Arabian government plans to pour billions into an upstart golf tour. Perhaps it's all part of their plan to generate "non-oil GDP growth." Or maybe it's deeper than that.

The divergence: Phil and Tiger

Mickelson and Woods during the 2018 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
Mickelson and Woods during the 2018 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will forever be linked. But recent events have altered their legacies in immeasurable ways.

  • Mickelson spent months away from golf after his controversial comments about Jamal Khashoggi caused intense backlash and cost him longtime sponsors. Now he's one of the faces of LIV, adding fuel to the belief that he's always been a money-first guy.
  • Woods, once a machine, is more human than ever these days, playing the role of proud father, aging athlete and hobbled underdog. He reportedly turned down "high nine digits" to join LIV, a decision that could come to define this chapter of his career.
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