Inside the LIV Golf league: The future of the sport is in limbo

LIV Golf breaks a linear path of the sport in the USA and beyond. What's next?

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Professional golf’s roots span farther back than many American pro sports leagues. In 1916, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America formed - what would later become today’s PGA - and established the first traveling tour.

But nearly 100 years after its founding, it hasn’t changed drastically. Yes, we’ve seen the emergence of generational talents; Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships and put golf on the map, Tiger Woods break barriers by appealing to the common sports fan, and the emergence of the “new-school” golfers across the nation. But the format, payouts, and the game in general haven’t undergone any significant changes in its entire history.


Now, LIV Golf has stolen the spotlight from the PGA Tour, and it’s being met with a wide variety of criticism.


LIV Golf, which had its first professional event last week in England, is positioning themselves as the next-most drastic change to the sport. Financed by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia - the Public Investment Fund - LIV will benefit from investments of billions of dollars throughout the early years of its existence.


LIV is a reference to Roman numeral 54, which refers to both the number of holes in the standard LIV tournament. It’s sure to break some grounds in other ways, too, and many of them have to do with money. Take storied golfer Phil Mickelson, for example: the six-time Major winner accepted a contract from LIV worth more than $200m just to play…meaning, he can stack any potential earnings from tournament wins on top of his salary.


Mickelson was met with criticism from PGA fans and other golf aficionados. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” he told the media. “I understand that it brings out a lot of strong emotions for a lot of people. I respect the way they may or may not feel about it.”


Mickelson isn’t the only veteran that’s jumping ship. Reports from last week indicate that Dustin Johnson, Graeme McDowell, and Sergio Garcia have already resigned from the PGA so as to avoid any legal matters. Bryson DeChambeau was offered - and will likely accept - more than $100 million in salary. Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, and Bubba Watson - among others - have plans to cross the line as well.

This isn’t necessarily a total shock to the sports world. In 2019, the “Premier Golf League” announcement made waves; enough to warrant a response from PGA commissioner Jay Monahan, stating anyone who decided to play in this proverbial league would be immediately banned from the PGA Tour. Premier Golf League was met with another, competing league - funded by public Saudi money - which later became the Super Golf League, later re-named LIV Golf.


How successful can LIV Golf be? There are very much some intriguing factors, including its leadership. Greg Norman spent 331 weeks as the world’s number 1 golfer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and had a wildly successful business career afterwards. Now, he was tabbed as LIV Golf’s CEO, responsible for keeping the wheels moving and recruiting more golfers to join the rocket ship.


Many in favor of LIV Golf mention that the PGA Tour is a “monopoly,” violating antitrust laws and restricting the freedom of choice for professional athletes.


Craig Seebald, antitrust expert at Vinson & Elkins law firm, told ESPN that the PGA Tour must be thinking reflectively about their own strategic intentions and if they are behaving like a true monopoly. “What we worry about is the tour is definitely the most dominant tour in the world - basically they only thing going on here in the United States,” said Seebald. “I think (the tour) has to worry about if they are a monopolist of offering golf tournaments in the United States.” It certainly can be argued that the PGA is a monopoly (or behaves like one), and many are quick to back LIV Golf’s intentions to disband it.


Many pros are also satisfied with the economic opportunity that comes with the opportunity. Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and others have expressed their thoughts on the economic boost it would give their life and family. Sergio Garcia’s comments were similar: “I’m very happy to be here for many reasons. It’s going to allow me to do what I love, which is playing golf. It’s going to allow me to see my family more, spend more time with my kids, and make a good living doing it. For me, it’s a win-win.”

On the other side of the aisle, Norman - and many others that are joining LIV Golf - are under fire for joining a Saudi-backed firm, primarily due to human rights violations and crimes committed by Saudi nationals. In particular, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi - a Saudi defector who left the Middle East to work with the Washington Post - who had been vocal criticizing Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has been a topic of criticism for most of the golfers that are joining the league. The CIA declared that Khashoggi was assassinated inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey in 2018, and independent investigators found that he was murdered inside the building. While the Prince denied any involvement, he did say he was responsible because “it happened under my watch.” Among other humanitarian issues, Khashoggi’s death sparked a long debate among ethical practices of the Saudi nation - many are vocal about their dissatisfaction with those who have chosen to associate with LIV Golf for this reason.


In any case, LIV Golf will change professional golf as we know it, forever. If it thrives, will more leagues come in its wake? If it folds, how deterred will others be from starting leagues, and how much money will it take to establish a new league?


Time will tell LIV Golf’s fate. In the meantime, polarizing days are ahead for golf in the USA.

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