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Saudi-backed golf tour raises stakes with PGA with nine-figure offers to top golfers

·Producer
·4 min read

A former world No.1 resigned membership from the PGA Tour before playing in this weekend’s inaugural event of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, the latest wave created by the controversial new golf tour bankrolled by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund.

“I chose what’s best for me and my family,” Dustin Johnson told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

Johnson reportedly signed a roughly $125 million deal, not including prize money, for his participation in the eight-event LIV series. That haul dwarfs the $74 million in prize money that Johnson made through his 15-year career on the PGA Tour.

Johnson won't be alone: Six-time major champion Phil Mickelson will also be playing at the upcoming event at the Centurion Club north of London, though he hasn’t publicly said he’s leaving the PGA Tour. Other top PGA Tour names, including some former major champions — such as Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Graeme McDowell, and Lee Westwood — will all be playing, potentially spearheading an exodus from golf's nearly 100-year old tour.

U.S. Golfer Dustin Johnson practices on the driving range ahead of ahead of the forthcoming LIV Golf Invitational Series event at The Centurion Club in St Albans, north of London, on June 7, 2022. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Golfer Dustin Johnson practices on the driving range ahead of ahead of the forthcoming LIV Golf Invitational Series event at The Centurion Club in St Albans, north of London, on June 7, 2022. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Some of the players immediately lost sponsors. The Royal Bank of Canada pulled its sponsorship with McDowell and Johnson while UPS pulled its sponsorship with Westwood. Callaway, Workday, KPMG, and Heineken have all ended or paused relationships with Mickelson.

But the players are effectively sacrificing those sponsorships to play in the golf's richest-ever tournaments. The Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund has pledged $255 million in prize money across the eight events, with a $25 million total purse per tournament and guaranteed payouts for all 48 participants.

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, stated that it has not authorized tour members access to play in the league and added: “Members who violate the tournament regulations are subject to disciplinary action.”

And not all of the new league's recruiting has been successful. LIV Golf CEO and famed golfer Greg Norman told the Washington Post that his organization offered Tiger Woods a deal in the "high nine digits."

In a statement, Mickelson highlighted excitement for a “fresh start” with LIV Golf. Reports have pegged Mickelson’s contract with LIV Golf at $200 million. For reference, that’s over $100 million more than Mickelson career prize money earnings ($95 million) earned throughout a 30-year professional career.

AL MUROOJ, SAUDI ARABIA - FEBRUARY 05: Phil Mickelson of USA chips onto the 10th green during day three of the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on February 05, 2022 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Luke Walker/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson of USA chips onto the 10th green during day three of the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on February 05, 2022 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Luke Walker/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images)

“I am thrilled to begin with LIV Golf and I appreciate everyone involved,” Mickelson’s statement stated. “I also intend to play the majors. I fully realize and respect that some may disagree with this decision and have strong opinions and I empathize with that.”

The latter part of Mickelson’s statement referenced the controversial nature of the new league. Given the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government-directed operatives in 2018, among other human rights accusations, members of the sports world have questioned American involvement in a league financially supported by Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund.

Mickelson previously acknowledged the precarious situation of working with the Saudis, according to a recent book by Alan Shipnuck, in which he referred to the Saudis as “scary motherf******." At the time, Mickelson hadn’t publicly committed to playing for LIV Golf.

“I think we all agree up here, take the Khashoggi situation — we all agree that was reprehensible,” McDowell, 42, said at a news conference ahead of this weekend's event. “No one is going to argue that fact, but we are golfers. Speaking personally, I feel that golf is a force of good in the world. I just try to be a great role model to kids."

WASHINGTON, USA - OCTOBER 02: Commemoration ceremony held in front of the US Congress on the 3rd anniversary of the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, with an event organized by the
Commemoration ceremony held in front of the US Congress on the 3rd anniversary of the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Consulate General of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, with an event organized by the "Freedom First" platform in Washington, United States on October 02, 2021. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As the tournament’s start date approached, Mickelson and other notable names opted for the big payout despite the potential public outcry.

This weekend’s winner will take home $4 million before any other bonuses. In April, Scottie Scheffler received $2.7 million for winning The Masters, one of golf’s premiere events.

“I don’t want to play for the rest of my life,” Johnson told reporters on Tuesday when explaining his defection from PGA to LIV. “This gives me an opportunity to do what I want to do.”

Josh is a producer for Yahoo Finance.

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