Saudi Arabia unleashes open war on the ‘greens’

On one side are the Northern Irish Rory McIlroy, number one in the world, and Tiger Woods an icon, winner of 15 majors. Defenders of golf tradition. their banners. Those who stand firm on the side of the American circuit (PGA Tour) and the European (DP World Tour). On the other, players like the former world number one Dustin Johnson, Sergio García o Phil Mickelson, seduced by the multi-million dollar contracts of a new competition, the LIVE golffinanced by sovereign funds of Saudi Arabiawhich is expanding its borders in a second season, about to start, and which is shaking the foundations of this sport.

An abyss has opened up between these two sides and grows deeper as the months go by. A full-fledged challenge to the structures of golf, a war in all areas, to which some players try to put a point of sanity like the Basque Jon Rahm, who from the outset declared his loyalty to the circuit, but who has tried build bridges so that the division does not go further.

“We have the right to play where we want,” he says. Rahmone of the stars of the European and American circuit, especially upset that the conflict is transferred to the Ryder Cup, the competition between Europe and the United States, which this year will be held in Rome (September 29 to October 1) and has already claimed victims, if Sergio Garcia or the swedish Henrik Stensonremoved from his role as Ryder’s European captain for joining the Saudi League.

More tournaments, more money

He LIVE golf was born a year ago as an alternative proposal to the professional circuits with the visible image of the Australian Greg Norman in front. But without much credibility in its beginnings, despite the promises of multimillion-dollar support from a public investment fund of the government of Saudi Arabia. The competition was born as an attempt to launder the image of the country, which faces constant criticism for its record on human rights or the still present memory of the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The first threats to the players of being excluded from the circuit and a step back from some of the recruits left the impression that the LIV would end up in oblivion. But just over six months later, he is more alive than ever.

In 2023, the LIV circuit will have 14 tournaments, seven more than those held in its initial season and more money than ever, advancing strongly in USA, which will host eight appointments. On February 24 it will start in Mayakobain the Rivera Maya (Mexico) and will conclude on November 3 at the Royal Greens Golf de Yeda (Saudi Arabia). Among the novelties, the presence of the one that will be held in the Real Club Valderramain San Roque (Cádiz), until now the venue of one of the Spanish tournaments that made up the DP World Tour (from June 30 to July 2) and historical reference of the Ryder Cup which was held in Spain in 1997.

The trickle of players to the LIV has been constant since its inception, to seduce, for example, the last winner of the british open, the aussie Cameron Smith. American Circuit Stars (Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson), great champions (Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson), European figures of the Ryder (García, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood), new talents on the circuit (Joaquim Niemann, Abraham Ancer o Mattthe Wolff) or winners of seven of the last 13 Masters have joined the project. The reasons? Some speak of a more balanced lifestyle. Of the possibility of spending more time with the family. But no one escapes that money is the common thread. Checks with infinite zeros, a hook that some have come to admit. It is also a pulse for power. The players barely held sway on the PGA Tour, and their discontent has also propelled the division.

A groundbreaking project

Saudi money had already entered Formula 1 or the Premier League. But he had not yet done so in golf and his irruption has taken place with a groundbreaking project (an individual competition but also by teams, three days of play, 54 holes, simultaneous starts and the option of playing in shorts) and a power economic hard to match.

Negotiations to recruit some of the stars left staggering numbers. About 200 million for Mickelsonabout 125 million for Johnson o DeChambeau. About 100 million for Koepkaaround 50 for Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel or Patrick Reed. Greg Norman assured Fox News that LIV had offered between $700 million and $800 million to Tiger Woods, which he did not accept. “I know what the Tour has done for us, the history it represents and I don’t understand why there are players who now turn their backs on what has allowed them to get to where they are,” he concluded.

The prize figures are also dizzying: 25 million to be distributed in each tournament, 50 in the last one. The man from Madrid Eugenio Lopez-Chacarra, The 22-year-old, recruited for being among the best university amateurs in the US, was one of the winners in the LIV tournament that ended in Bangkok, in October. His prize for the victory, four million euros, made that of Jon Rahm for those same dates in the Spanish Openabout 300,000 euros.

In the hands of the judges

The reaction of PGA Tour it has not been long in coming. It is true that he has expelled the dissidents, prompting 11 players to denounce him for suspending them and violating antitrust laws. The trial is scheduled for August this year.

But over time, he has been forced to change. As of this 2023, he has changed his competition system and has created a series of special tournaments (17 in total) and has started the commitment of the players to compete. The idea is that 25 of the best are always there. Prizes go up to at least $20 million. And in the Tour Campionship, which decides the FedEx Cup bonuses (the scoring system that defines the best of the year) will be 60 million. “Now we have more weight and voice on the Tour,” admits Rahm.

The European circuit has not gone that far, but it did fine those like the man from San Sebastian with $105,000 Adrián Otaegui o Ian Poulter for participating in one of the LIV events, the Portland Invitational. These went to court before the veto to play in Scotland and the judges lifted the sanction in a precautionary manner.

It will be necessary to see now what happens with the four appointments of the Grand Slam (Augusta Masters, British Open, US Open and PGA Championship), although since Augusta they have already ruled and will accept players who meet the requirements. “I think that the ‘big ones’ should be left out of the circuits,” he suggests Rahm.

“The issue is out of control. We are going to have a broken sport for a long time ”, he warns McIlroy. Not long ago, golf settled its differences on the course and now it has settled in a conflict inside and outside the ‘greens’ from which the exit is not intuited.



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