PGA Tour suspension dampens LIV Golf’s big day

Phil Mickelson on the first tee at the Centurion Club
Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson drew the biggest crowds on the opening day of the LIV Golf London event

The golf world is changing. And quickly.

Proof of that came 30 minutes into the most lucrative event in the sport’s history at the Centurion Club near London.

An already tumultuous week, in which players resigned from the PGA Tour when asked if they were “Saudi puppets” at uncomfortable press conferences, took a significant turn at 14:45 BST.

The PGA Tour announced that it was suspending 17 rebel members who chose to play in this Saudi Arabia-funded $25 million inaugural LIV Golf Invitational event.

Within seconds, LIV, led by former world number one Greg Norman, retaliated, calling the PGA Tour “vindictive”.

All the while, the golf tournament that is rocking the game at its core was in progress.

A fleet of London black taxis transported the 48 players to their respective holes as they all played simultaneously across the course at 2:15 pm, 17 of them oblivious to the PGA Tour’s decision that it would be waiting in their email inbox.

Six-time champion Phil Mickelson and former world number one Dustin Johnson are among the biggest names in the sport to be seduced by the Saudi millions – with rumors circulating that Bryson DeChambeau will play at the second event in Portland, Oregon, in late June.

Mickelson has not denied speculation that he is being paid $200m (£160m), with Johnson receiving $150m in guest appearance fees to join the series, which is being funded to the tune of £1.6bn by the Fund. of Public Investment in Saudi Arabia (PIF). .

The Americans teamed up on Thursday with Mickelson, who is ending a four-month self-imposed exile from the game after calling the Saudis “creepy”, flashing his trademark cheesy smile as he received a rapturous reception on the first tee.

A flyover of vintage planes and buglers dressed as Beefeaters heralded the start of the tournament, with Johnson hitting the tee shot in front of hundreds of fans who lined the fairway to watch the marquee double, who signed for one under par 69s.

Ticket sales have been undeniably sluggish.

The tournament is capped at 8,000 fans per day, but players like Lee Westwood have been posting promo codes for free tickets on their social media channels.

And most of the fans I spoke to took advantage, looking forward to seeing the likes of Westwood and his European Ryder Cup teammates Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell, while also trying to understand the team element that the organizers are so looking forward to. to push.

In addition to an individual competition, there are 12 teams of four players, with names like Majesticks, Fireballs and Iron Heads. LIV Golf wants fans to choose teams they can root for throughout the entire eight-event series – although that could be tricky in this first year, with players likely to shift from event to event.

By having a quick start, where all players stroke simultaneously, they hope to provide a television-compatible product, but no broadcasters have signed up.

Instead, LIV is streaming coverage through its own website and on YouTube, which drew a simultaneous audience of around 100,000 at the end of the day.

And despite the promising innovation, LIV failed to do anything about the scourge of modern golf, slow play. The 48 players came out in 16 groups of three and took about four hours and 45 minutes to get around.

South African Charl Schwartzel leads by five and his Stinger Golf Club tops the team’s standings.

Once the game was over, the focus shifted back to the music in the fanzone with James Morrison as the headline. “Wow, there’s a crowd, I was getting a little worried before,” he said in front of an audience of a few hundred people.

However, there was an agitated atmosphere in the hours leading up to the start of the ‘shotgun’. The gates opened three hours before the start of the game, with a fanzone offering plenty of golf distractions, set to the background of loud music from a DJ.

Fans also seemed unfazed by the vast sums of money on offer this week, or where that money came from.

But the source of the money is controversial, with the Saudis being accused of ‘sport laundering’ – using the PIF’s deep pockets to sponsor sporting events and divert attention from their questionable human rights record.

The matter dominated the player’s press conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday. No doubt expecting the barrage of questions, LIV Golf called in former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer – who worked with President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003 – to brief players.

For one man, everyone said they “do not condone human rights violations”, with Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell calling the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul “reprehensible”.

Perhaps Fleischer was brought up behind Norman’s “we all make mistakes” comment when answering similar questions about the Saudi regime and Khashoggi at last month’s event to promote this tournament. Norman is being kept out of the press this week.

But the 67-year-old has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to compete with the established PGA Tour, or the Europe-based DP World Tour, and sees a world where players are free to choose which tournaments they want to play in.

As players went off course, they weren’t surprised to learn of the PGA Tour suspension issued by an American circuit struggling to maintain its dominance in the game.

McDowell said he resigned from the PGA Tour 30 minutes before putting himself in “a less litigious situation”.

He added: “I didn’t want to resign, the PGA Tour was great. I hope Keith [Pelley, DP World Tour chief] doesn’t follow suit, but they have a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour and may have to follow suit.”

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy, who is defending the Canadian Open on the PGA Tour this week and has made the moral decision to turn down the Saudi money, supported the PGA Tour’s decision to suspend the Rebels but is intrigued enough to watch the LIV event. golf. .

“I’ll see what all the fuss is about,” he said, though he joked that “he won’t be buying any team merchandise anytime soon.”

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