Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter: PGA Tour players join LIV event for cash

Dustin Johnson, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter: PGA Tour players join LIV event for cash

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson has earned over $74 million since turning pro in 2007

Leave aside the surprise news that Dustin Johnson will headline the first LIV Golf Invitational near London next week.

The real contest continues to take place off the ropes and it couldn’t be more important to the game.

We are now witnessing a battle for the future of elite men’s professional golf. Will it remain in the hands of the American PGA Tour, supported by its strategic partners based in Europe, the DP World Tour?

Or will the upstarts backed by Saudi Arabia prevail? LIV Golf Investments, led by Greg Norman, promises to revolutionize the game with a shorter, sharper product that’s lucrative enough to attract the biggest names.

It is understood that there are massive signing fees, which run into millions of dollars, so make no mistake, it comes down to money, and the Saudi Public Investment Fund, which finances the Norman project, has pots and pots.

Certainly enough to make Johnson’s head spin. The 37-year-old US Open and Masters winner emphatically sided with the PGA Tour in February, so it’s a dramatic change of heart.

“Dustin has considered this opportunity from time to time over the past two years,” Johnson’s agent David Winkle said in a statement Tuesday. “In the end, he decided it was in his best interest and that of his family to sue.”

It’s less surprising that the likes of Spain’s Sergio Garcia, England’s Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, and Ireland’s Graeme McDowell are at the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire for next week’s 54-hole kick-off.

They made no secret of their interest even though the four of them were seen as Europe’s future Ryder Cup captains. Occupying this role in the upcoming matches must now be seriously doubted.

DP World and PGA Tour players have been denied official permission to participate and penalties could follow. It remains to be seen what measures will be taken against them.

These players know what they are doing and have signed a draft that poses a potential existential threat to the current golf ecosystem. He has £1.6billion worth of backing and a good chunk of that goes to their bank accounts.

They are among the 42 names currently revealed for the 48-man tournament next week. Are they rebels or pioneers?

Will they be banned or fined? And for Europeans and Americans concerned, does this spell the end of their Ryder Cup career?

There are also implications for events such as the US Open, which takes place the following week, and the 150th Open Championship in July.

The various governing bodies are closely aligned, perhaps more so than at any time in the game’s history.

The United States Golf Association and R&A will therefore be under pressure to support the main circuits – which they want to convince in the debate on the control of ball distance.

But these more established governing bodies have a historic duty to protect the “open” nature of their leagues. Surely they would have a hard time banning any eligible Saudi sign-up to play at Brookline or St Andrews this year.

Like the DP World Tour, the R&A declined to comment when approached by BBC Sport following the Centurion field announcement.

Norman is ready to fight and there is a feeling he would welcome a legal battle. “We will have the players’ backs,” he said.

But how safe is Norman in all of this? His recent attempts to brush off questions about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying “we all make mistakes” have been roundly criticized.

In the days that followed, highly respected sports executive Sean Bratches left in what is seen as a blow to the LIV organization.

But when it comes to the golf ecosystem, LIV feels he’s on safe ground to challenge what he sees as an unfair monopoly right now. They point to the non-profit status of the PGA Tour and its strategic alliance with the DP World Tour.

If bans are imposed, litigation in America seems likely. There are suggestions that it would happen in a California courtroom.

But what competence could this action have with regard to the former European circuit based in Wentworth? The DP World brand team administers tournaments all over the world.

So many questions. Another is where does Phil Mickelson fit into all of this? The 51-year-old six-time major champion was at the heart of Norman’s project until his inflammatory comments were made public in February.

Mickelson was quoted saying the Saudis were “scary” to work with and strongly critical of their regime. At the same time, he said it was worth doing business with them for the leverage it offered against a PGA Tour he considers “greedy”.

When these comments were made public by biographer Alan Shipnuck, Mickelson disappeared from public life.

He retired from defending the US PGA Championship last month at Southern Hills after sensationally becoming the senior men’s major winner just 12 months earlier.

There is still room for him to compete at the Centurion, but it is currently unknown if this first LIV Golf Invitational event will mark his return to golf.

Next week’s tournament is the first of eight invitational events and takes on the Canadian Open which is sponsored by Royal Bank of Canada, which has been one of Johnson’s main backers.

RBC say they are “extremely disappointed” with the player’s decision to join the LIV project. This is not surprising given that his image was used to promote the tournament. It’s fair to say that the disappointment will be shared in Florida’s halls of power on the PGA Tour.

Landing the current world number 13, especially after he so adamantly pledged his allegiance to the status quo just three months ago, is a significant coup for the spoilers.

It suggests other heads could be turned despite their previously strong support for the PGA Tour. The reaction of its commissioner Jay Monahan is the next big question. However, we don’t expect any big changes before the start of the LIV Golf event on Thursday, June 9th.

Apart from the disciplinary action he could inflict, there are speculations about whether he could join forces with the UK-based Premier Golf League.

They want to shake up the professional game in the same way, but by partnering with existing tours.

PGL claims to have quite deep pockets, but there is skepticism in play as to whether this is true and whether its business model is viable.

Either way, the ball is now in Monahan’s court. His reaction will be the next step in the battle for the future of professional golf.

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