Saudi-backed breakaway golf tour gathering momentum
Tens of millions guaranteed to players who would be part-owners of the new tour
Dustin Johnson is among the players being targeted for a new breakaway golf league. Photograph: Julio Aguilar/Getty
Less than a fortnight after the collapse of the European Super League it has gone unnoticed that a similar disruption plan remains in play in another sport, with a breakaway tour in golf being funded and proposed by Saudi Arabia. And it has not faded into the background; far from it, in fact.
Having started out as the Premier Golf League – the project may actually now have been rebranded to include the word “Super”, unless the ESL prompted another rethink – offer letters and contracts are in the process of being delivered to a dozen of the most high-profile names in golf. Majed al-Sorour, the chief executive of Golf Saudi, is fronting the operation.
The tribal nature of football of course distinguishes it from golf but the Saudi element should attract attention that golfers thus far appear unwilling to adequately challenge. The football debacle drew castigation from government ministers and the royal family; in golf, barely a public word has been uttered in anger despite condemnation elsewhere of Saudi’s “sportswashing” attempts amid alleged human rights violations.
Bryson DeChambeau, Justin Rose, Phil Mickelson and the world No 1, Dustin Johnson, are among those on the Saudi radar. Representatives of Rose, Mickelson and Johnson did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment on Monday, relating to their clients’ current position the proposed tour. DeChambeau’s manager delivered a “no comment”. DeChambeau and Mickelson are in the field this week for the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, where the breakaway is again likely to dominate behind-the-scenes discussion.
Tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed money is on offer to players, who would be part-owners of the new tour with plans for between 12 and 18 events per year. A launch date of September 2022 has been mooted. Team and individual elements would be part of the competition.
The two-time British Open champion Greg Norman is believed to be among those advising the Saudis. Norman’s spokesperson offered no comment when approached on the scenario. This maintains a theme; so much of this operation has been conducted under a veil of secrecy.
There is, however, staunch resistance within the game. Without some kind of cooperation from existing mainstream tours, players would be risking future involvement in the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup by breaking ranks. Several high-profile European players, aware of this problem, have privately made it known they have no interest in changing their competitive domain.
Rory McIlroy firmly denounced the PGL’s plan more than a year ago, with the Northern Irishman later raising concerns about the origins of the vast cash available. McIlroy is the chairman of the PGA Tour’s player advisory council. Saudi Arabia is now even more influential in the scheme than it ever was, after the Raine Group backed away.
The PGA Tour has never displayed any willingness to engage meaningfully with the Saudis – with the commissioner, Jay Monahan, giving the regular impression of being perfectly relaxed about maintaining that position. Full detail of a PGA Tour impact fund, created to offer financial bonuses to players who deliver commercial value as and first disclosed by the Guardian last year, was reported in recent days.
The European Tour was strengthened by a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour as confirmed late last year. Saudi Arabia has claimed an element of legitimacy via their high-profile invitational tournament staged on the European Tour. That event is not understood to be on any provisional schedule for 2022 and it would be a major shock if that changes. The Saudis have turned attention towards building relationships with the Asian, Japan and Sunshine tours. – Guardian