Greg Norman named CEO of Saudi group launching 10-event series on Asian Tour. Here’s what we know and don’t know | Golf News and Tour Information8 min read
Greg Norman is aboard. That much we know. The World Golf Hall of Famer was officially named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, the upstart entity behind a new 10-event series on the Asian Tour that will debut in 2022 and feature tournaments in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Golf Saudi is indeed involved in the new “partnership” between LIV Golf and the Asian Tour, but questions abound regarding what we’ll see next year and the group’s long-term vision. “This is only the beginning,” Norman said in a statement.
Here’s what we know and what we still don’t after Friday’s announcement.
Where does this idea come from?
The idea for a global golf tour that could rival the PGA Tour has been kicked around for decades. Back when he was World No. 1 in the 1990s, Norman himself pushed a “World Golf Tour” that would feature smaller fields and lucrative purses. The PGA Tour and then-commissioner Tim Finchem successfully fended off the challenge, in part by adopting the World Golf Championship series that began in 1999.
Norman’s initial idea and this revamped one seek to address a unique aspect of the PGA Tour’s compensation structure that has long peeved many of the game’s biggest stars: that they are not compensated fairly for the eyeballs they bring to the sport. As currently constructed, if Tiger Woods and an unknown player finish tied for eighth, they receive the same paycheck despite Woods bringing vastly more attention to the event. And if a player has an off-year on course, his bottom line will suffer as there he has no guaranteed contract. Contrast that with other sports, where the majority of a star player’s contract is assured the moment he signs it.
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Where does the money come from?
This latest push to challenge the PGA Tour first came to light in early 2020, when news broke of a startup league that sought to lure big-name stars with guaranteed contracts for anyone willing to take a leap of faith. The new tour would be funded by Golf Saudi, a division of the Public Investment Fund that has sought to alter public perception of the nation through sport. This is different than the Premier Golf League that is based in London and has also sought to attract top-level talent away from the PGA Tour.
The PIF, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia with total estimated assets of at least $500 billion, has funded a number of sporting events over the last half-decade or so, including marquee wrestling matches and tennis tournaments. It also recently bought Newcastle United Football Club in the English Premier League.
Golf Saudi has put on the Saudi International since 2019, an event on the European Tour that has drawn some of the game’s biggest stars—Dustin Johnson is a two-time champion, and Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau have both played in it—with massive appearance fees. Golf Saudi is also behind the building of multiple golf courses in Saudi Arabia, including one to be designed by Jack Nicklaus.
What is it called?
As of now, there is no name for a rival tour because there is no rival tour. Friday’s announcement merely established a new circuit within the larger Asian Tour umbrella, although the wording of the release suggested a more ambitious vision for the future.
Who will play in these events?
This is the key question. Any golf tour—especially one seeking to unseat an entity that has sat atop the professional golf pyramid for a half-century—is hugely reliant on star power, and the PGA Tour has shown a complete unwillingness to play ball with its challengers. As of now, not a single player has stated an intention to leave the PGA Tour behind and commit his future to a new tour. However, the new 10-event series on the Asian Tour is not asking players to do that because it is merely pumping money into an existing organization, not establishing a new tour.
Still, players hoping to partake in the new series will almost certainly require approval from the PGA Tour. In the past, the PGA Tour has frequently granted that type of approval—Matt Kuchar won the 2020 Singapore Open on the Asian Tour, while Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter are past champions of the Hong Kong Open—but those approvals came without the context of an existential challenge.
The Saudi-backed venture knows it needs marquee players to pull off its highly ambitious vision, and it surely has its targets. While McIlroy has been unwavering in his commitment to the PGA Tour, a number of other players have seemed more amenable to the project. Dustin Johnson’s agent has confirmed that his client has listened to proposals and also told Golfweek that Johnson has sought approval to play in the 2022 Saudi Invitational. Rickie Fowler has called the idea of a new tour “definitely interesting,” while Phil Mickelson outlined what he sees as potential benefits for fans.
“I think the fans would love it because they would see the best players play exponentially more times,” Mickelson told ESPN. “Instead of four or five times, it would be 20 times … I don”t know what the final number is.
“But that’s a big deal to give up control of your schedule. I don’t know if the players would be selfless enough to do that. But every other sport, the entity or teams or leagues control the schedule. The players kind of play where they are told to play. Whereas here, we’re able to control it.”
The eventual success or failure of the upstart tour will hinge almost entirely on whether players are willing to leave behind the familiarity of the PGA Tour establishment for an unproven entity with a controversial source of funding. That, like so much of this new tour, remains unclear.
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Is the PGA Tour vulnerable to a challenge?
So far, it has sought to establish that it’s not. The tour has wasted little time in drawing a hard line in the sand: you’re with us, or you’re with them. By mid-March 2020, McIlroy, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm had all said they weren’t interested in committing to a tour that would require them to play in all of its events rather than their current situation on the PGA Tour. McIlroy, the chairman of the Player Advisory Council, said he’d been approached about the idea as far back as 2014 and called it a “money grab.” “Which is fine if that’s what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible. Totally fine. Then go and do that if that’s what makes you happy. But I think the top players in the game—I’m just speaking my own personal beliefs—I’m playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world.”
In a move widely seen as a response to the Saudi challenge, the PGA Tour leaned into a “strategic alliance” with the European Tour at the end of 2020. The two entities announced they would begin collaborating on scheduling matters, and there are three co-sanctioned events on both tours’ schedules for 2022. The European Tour also severed its ties to the Saudi International—that event will be held as part of the Asian Tour in 2022, and members of both the PGA Tour and the European Tour will need approval to play in it, as is always the case for events put on by an unaffiliated organization. According to Golfweek, eight PGA Tour players, including Johnson, have petitioned the tour for a release. The PGA Tour has not commented on whether they might grant said releases.
At the PGA Championship in May, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh was unequivocal in his organization’s stance against the proposed upstart league. The PGA of America runs both the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, and Waugh said any player hoping to play in either of those events will need to be a member of the PGA of America, and that touring professionals get that membership through the PGA Tour.
Perhaps the most direct response to the challenge was the creation of the Player Impact Program, a $40 million prize pool to be awarded at the end of each year to the 10 players that positively move the needle for the sport. This was widely seen as a way to compensate the biggest stars for the attention they bring to the sport regardless of their on-course performance, the type of guaranteed money the new league promised and the PGA Tour had not previously offered.
Has the PGA/European Tour’s response successfully fended off the challenge?
Not yet, otherwise there’d be no need to write this article. Representatives for the new venture have continued to hang around the game throughout 2020 and 2021, often looming around PGA Tour events and in the pro golf epicenter of South Florida, unwilling to let the ambitious project die. In May, The Telegraph reported that the Saudi-backed venture had delivered offers as high as $30 million per year to Johnson, Mickelson, Rose and Koepka and communicated that it hoped to be operational by 2022. Shortly after that news broke, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said at a players-only meeting that any player who pursued playing the new tour would risk losing their PGA Tour membership.
Undeterred, the Golf Saudi pumped money into the Asian Tour, ostensibly believing it easier to co-opt an existing organization with infrastructure and World Ranking status than to start an entirely new tour of its own. That’s at least the initial plan, as evidenced by Friday morning’s announcement.
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What, then, is their final vision?
That remains unclear. Details on the new 10-event series remain murky, but it appears they will look more like the conventional 72-hole stroke-play tournaments than what was initially reported: limited fields, a team-based aspect and perhaps a shorter competition. Whether the eventual goal is to indeed establish that new circuit, with this 10-event series serving as a bridge of sorts, is not yet certain.
“I have been a staunch supporter and believer in playing and developing golf in Asia for more than four decades,” Norman said. “The Asian Tour is a sleeping giant and we share an ambition to grow the series and unlock what we believe is significant untapped potential. We see promotion of these new events as a vital first step in supporting emerging markets, creating a new platform, rich with playing opportunities that create valuable player pathways.”
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