The golfing world has been upended by a maha-yudh between the venerable PGA and an upstart league called LIV—funded by Saudi Arabia. You may not care much about golf, but it offers an eye-opening look at the sport—how it’s played and who makes the big bucks. FYI: There are no real villains in this story.
Researched by: Sara Varghese & Anagha Srinivasan
The basic deets: Professional golf tournaments all follow the same format. There are 120 players who compete over 72 holes in four rounds—typically spread across four days. You get points based on how many strokes you played to get the ball into the hole. Lower the points the better.
The big tournaments: The Grand Slam in golf consists of four tournaments: the Masters, the US Open, the British Open, and the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Championship. Gaining in popularity: the Players Championship out of Florida.
The rankings: World rankings are based on a player’s performance in the six major pro tours—plus a number of smaller ones like the South American, Korean and European Challenge tours. You get the most points—100—for winning one of the Grand Slam events. Your ranking also determines whether you qualify for the most prestigious tournaments. For example, the top 50 automatically get into the British Open and The Players.
Meet the PGA: First thing to know is that this is not some official body like the BCCI or Cricket Australia. The Professional Golfers’ Association of America is a non-profit based in Florida—and was founded back in 1916 to promote the sport. Today, it dominates the sport in the US—holding 33 events a year. The PGA championship is one of the big four—and it co-sponsors the yearlong itinerary of tournaments called the PGA Tour. Projected revenues for 2022: $1.52 billion.
A virtual monopoly: The players who participate in its tournaments have to become members—and abide by the rules in its handbook. The most important one:
“[T]he obligation to obtain ‘exemptions’ to participate in non-PGA events. If a golfer bolts to join a tournament run by a rival tour, the PGA has the right to ‘fine,’ ‘suspend,’ or ‘disbar’ the rebel player.”
The PGA has long opposed the creation of any rival league—and used its clout to eliminate competition:
“The Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR) are a major factor in determining eligibility for the majors, and performance at PGA events is crucial to the players’ OWGR ratings. The likelihood of the OWGR excluding a startup tour from its rankings helped the PGA maintain its tight grip on the stars, since by defecting they would scotch their right to enter the US Open or Masters. The PGA Tour’s close ties to the Professional Golfers Association of America practically ensures that the PGA major event would be off limits to golfers at a rival league.”
FYI: In 1994, the US government investigated the PGA for antitrust practices—but it went nowhere.
The basic deets: It is a new tour of golf tournaments backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund. Its CEO Greg Norman is a former champion golfer. It plans to host eight tournaments this year—of which two, one in London and New Jersey, took place in June and July, respectively. Of the other six, four will take place in the United States, one in Thailand and one in Saudi Arabia. The plan is to increase the number of tournaments to 14, starting next year.
Point to note: Donald Trump is one of LIV’s biggest supporters. This is likely because his US golf courses have been kicked off the PGA tour—and boycotted in Scotland by the British Open—ever since the Capitol Hill riots in 2021.
The name: LIV is ‘54’ in roman numerals—the number of holes played in each tournament.
The format: The primary aim of the tournament is to make the sport faster and more exciting. Hence, the move to reduce the number of holes from 72 to 54—and the number of days from four to three. Other changes include the following:
Shotgun starts: This is when all players start at the same time, but from different parts of the course. In the present format, players have ‘tee times’—and each starts at the same opening hole but at a different time slot. And the PGA Tour gives more desirable tee times to higher-ranked players.
Team events: Every tournament has an individual and team competition. The teams consist of four players—with 12 captains selecting three players in a draft-style format. And they have funky names like Fireballs and Majesticks.
The big money: But the biggest difference is the eye-popping amount of money paid out to players. Each tournament on the LIV tour has a $25 million prize fund—“meaning every leg of the series is more lucrative than the richest tournament on the PGA Tour.” The individual winner takes home $4 million—compared to the $2.5 million paid to the winner of the British Open. Even the person who ends up last gets $120,000. The top three teams split $3 million in a tournament. More importantly, teams also compete in a four-day 'Team Championship' with a big prize-winning booty of $16 million.
The big plan: is to make golf more attractive to young people, according to COO Atul Khosla:
“If you look at golf over the years, it’s aged. I think the average viewership is 65 and older. And I think from our perspective, when we looked at launching a new product, we’ve always viewed it from the lens of, ‘What are we trying to solve for?’ And what we’re trying to solve for is get younger people playing golf, watching golf, becoming fans of golf. And we think we can do that by changing how the product is packaged.”
Hence, the Top 40 music blaring across the Trump golf course in New Jersey—even as golfers teed up for their shots.
Golf IPL? The next avatar of LIV includes plans to build 12 franchise teams—which they plan to sell at a future date. That would be revolutionary in what has long been a highly individual sport.
The PGA offensive: Back in May, the PGA announced that it will not give its members permission to play on the LIV tour—and it will suspend anyone who does so. Soon after the inaugural tournament took place in June, it suspended 17 players who defected to LIV. Of the 17, nine had already given up their PGA membership. The biggest names among them: Phil Mickelson who won the PGA championship in 2021 and Dustin Johnson (18). Their crime: the players "decided to turn their backs on the PGA TOUR by willfully violating a regulation."
The PGA argument: against LIV is fuzzy at best. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said after the suspensions: “It's my job to protect, defend and celebrate our loyal PGA Tour members, our partners and our fans, and that's exactly what I did.” But when pressed about why the PGA may need protection, Monahan didn’t have much to offer—other than accusing the players of choosing greed over the glory of the sport:
"Those players have chosen to sign multi-year, lucrative contracts to play in a series of exhibition matches against the same players over and over again. You look at that versus what we see here today and that's why they need us so badly… In this game, it's true and pure competition that creates the profile and the presence of the world's greatest players. And that's why they need us, that's what we do.”
Point to note: None of the other major tournaments have followed suit—though they have made noises in support of the PGA. The most loyal to the PGA: all the TV channels who have refused to air the LIV tournaments—which streamed on YouTube instead.
Also benefiting the PGA: The Saudi money. While Monahan has never directly called it out, many players who chose to stick by the PGA cited Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as a reason to stay away from LIV. The Saudis have essentially been accused of ‘sportswashing’—using high-profile sports teams and tournaments to remake their PR image. Not helping matters: CEO Greg Norman has made a total hash of dealing with the Saudi angle:
“In a series of tense exchanges with reporters, Norman played down Khashoggi’s murder (‘Look, we’ve all made mistakes’); attempted to distance himself from Saudi Arabia’s recent execution of 81 individuals in a single day (‘I don’t look into the politics of things’); and sidestepped a question about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the LGBT community by implying it does not affect him. ‘I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you,’ he said.”
Quote to note: While the PGA has never directly called out the Saudis, Monahan deploys his own version of the Arab dog whistle:
“If this is an arms race and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can’t compete. The PGA Tour, an American institution, can’t compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in [an] attempt to buy the game of golf.”
The LIV defence: The league essentially accuses PGA of acting like a monopoly—selfishly denying players the opportunity to fully profit from their talent. As Norman said:
“Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it’s exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament… Instead, the tour is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market. The tour’s action is anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive.”
The lawsuit: Eleven players have now filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour—challenging their suspensions. The argument is exactly the same as that of Norman—PGA is a bullying monopoly:
“The Tour has ventured to harm the careers and livelihoods of any golfers...who have the temerity to defy the Tour and play in tournaments sponsored by the new entrant. The Tour has done so in an intentional and relentless effort to crush nascent competition before it threatens the Tour's monopoly."
To be fair: The players do have a point. For example, LIV rewards its high-profile players in a way that PGA does not:
“The PGA pays its members almost exclusively in prize money. With a recent exception, it doesn’t compensate them for their star power in attracting TV dollars and sponsor dollars, either for the tour overall or for specific events… Nor does it offer ‘appearance’ fees for specific tournaments, even though a golfer may be a big draw at the tournament, no matter how he performs.”
In contrast, the biggest names competing in LIV have received enormous signing bonuses—including $200 million for Mickelson who has won $94 million in total prize money over his two-decade PGA career. Also: since there are fewer tournaments in LIV, they are getting paid way more for playing a lot less.
Adding to the antitrust threat: The Justice Department is once again investigating the PGA for anti-competitive behaviour. And as we noted in the case of Uncle Sam’s lawsuit against Penguin Random House, the Biden White House is in the midst of an antitrust crusade. And the PGA may not get off lightly this time, legal experts say:
“It’s a much more serious threat to the PGA than any previous challenges, because the plaintiffs will have the powerful combination of strong arguments and an unlimited budget to spend in the courthouse.”
Biggest point to note: Only four of the top 50 players have defected to LIV. It has mostly attracted ageing players looking to cash out at the twilight of their careers. But that could change if a courtroom decision opens the door to all players—and the oodles of sponsorship moolah that would follow.
The bottomline: Golf has long been viewed as a sport of, for and by the wealthy (fairly or not). So it isn’t surprising—or even wrong—that its players are asking for a bigger slice of the pie. Isn’t that what good old-fashioned capitalism is all about? Almost every other major sport today is all about the big bucks, so why should golf or the PGA be exempt?
BBC News has a good guide to LIV. ESPN has the most detailed breakdown of the players’ lawsuit. Bloomberg News looks at why LIV has mostly proved to be a damp squib so far. Business Insider looks at the phenomenon of sportswashing—while The Guardian has more on the Saudi angle. Sports Illustrated shows how both leagues can easily coexist.
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