Controversy surrounding a pro Saudi golf tournament began over the summer is now coming to a head, as it was revealed this week that eight PGA Tour pros are seeking permission to play in The Saudi International in February. And at the same time, news broke that there are plans for a new golf series or even a full tour that would be backed by the Saudi government.
Whether the result is a series of events as part of a larger “cup” or trophy or a full-fledged tour that gives the PGA and European Tours true competition for the first time in its history, it appears that the battle lines are being drawn either way, and golfers might be stuck in the middle of a war between the two entities.
The situation started in July when the PGA Tour announced that it would no longer allow its golfers to participate in the Saudi International golf tournament after it was announced by the European Tour that it would no longer sanction the event.
The event was originally announced in April 2018 as part of the European Tour. Big names participated in the event, however, as it was believed that they were paid large appearance fees by the Saudi government to help add prestige to the event. It’s been reported that some players received in the millions of dollars to play and were furnished transportation via private plane to and from the country. Dustin Johnson won the inaugural tournament in 2019 and again in 2021, with Graeme McDowell claiming victory in 2020. The event’s purse was $3.5 million, which is on the low side for a high-level pro golf event, but the guaranteed payouts are something that is unique and attractive to the top stars. It’s reported that besides Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Bryson DeChambeau were paid to play in the event.
The Saudi International has long believed to be a part of a series of events held in the country—along with high-level boxing, tennis, and professional wrestling events—to improve its image amid criticism over human rights. But shortly after the Saudi International was announced, the government was criticized for its role in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, thrusting the dealings of the Saudi government into the spotlight.
After the European Tour announced that it would not sanction the event for 2022 and beyond, the PGA Tour announced that it would not give permission for its players to compete in the event. A PGA Tour spokesperson told “Golfweek” in July that, “This follows a PGA Tour longstanding policy of not granting releases to unsanctioned events.”
In fact, the event was dropped from the European Tour schedule when it was announced that the PGA and European Tours would enter into a strategic partnership that would make it easier for golfers on each tour to participate in the others’ events.
It was believed, at the time of that report, that ignoring the PGA Tour’s mandate would result in a fine for players rather than a suspension.
In September, the tournament announced a partnership with the Asian Tour—which is not affiliated with the PGA or European Tours—that will run 10 years starting in 2022, and the purse of the event being increased to $5 million. The event will mark the start of the Asian Tour’s season and will likely be one of its most prestigious and lucrative events.
Word came out last week that eight PGA and European Tour players are seeking permission for an exemption to play in the 2022 tournament. But a decision on whether those waivers would be granted do not have to come until 30 days before the start of the event, meaning that we may not know if those players can participate until Jan. 4, 2022, which is 30 days before the event is scheduled to begin on Feb. 3.
Dustin Johnson’s agent, David Winkle, confirmed that he was one of the eight to request a waiver, telling “Golfweek” that, “We have requested a release and don’t know when we’ll hear back, but I have heard verbally that the Tour is still taking everything under consideration.”
The magazine reports that the other players, who we will go into more detail later, include 2020 winner Graeme McDowell, Kevin Na, Henrik Stenson, and Lee Westwood.
It was then announced this week there may be greater ambitions from the Saudis, which would give the PGA Tour more of a reason to keep its golfers away from their event.
“Golfweek” reported that a meeting was held in New York that outlined plans for a new golf series that would be backed financially by the Saudi government. And golf legend Greg Norman would be the commissioner of whatever form the league or series of events would take.
Prior reports stated that the Saudis have floated ideas to create leagues called the Super Golf League (SGL) or Premier Golf League (PGL). It’s also unclear if it would be a full-fledged golf tour or just a handful of events with golfers vying for an overall prize at the end of that series of events. Regardless, official news is expected to come out in early November regarding the new venture.
In May, it’s believed that the Saudis reached out to prominent golfers like Johnson, Mickelson, Koepka, and DeChambeau, along with Justin Rose, Ricky Fowler, and Adam Scott with multimillion-dollar offers. That was said to be an 18-event schedule that would end in a championship that would be a four-man team concept. It was reported that the Saudis were trying to partner with the European Tour on such a concept, which led to the PGA Tour’s strategic alliance with the European Tour in response.
In addition to that partnership, the PGA Tour created the Player Impact Program in 2021. It’s a $40 million pool that rewards players based on what’s called an Impact Score. It takes popularity measures into account, such as Google searches, Q ratings, Nielsen Brand Exposure rating, and mentions on social media into account to reward golfers who bring the most attention and exposure to the PGA Tour.
Mickelson also spoke out, not necessarily in favor of the PGL or SGL, but of staging more events featuring all of the world’s top golfers.
“I think the fans would love it because they would see the bgest players play exponentially more times. Instead of four or five times, it would be 20 times. [But] I don’t know what the final number is,” Mickelson told ESPN in May.
Norman, now 66, spent 331 weeks at the world’s top-ranked golfer and won 88 times as a pro, including two times at The Open Championship. He famously was runner-up three times at the Masters and another four combined runner-ups at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. He’s since become a businessman, creating companies featuring apparel, real estate, wine production, and golf course design.
Norman has also shown interest in running a series of golf events. In 1994, Norman proposed the World Golf Tour, which would’ve been a series of eight events bringing the top-40 golfers in the world together for elite competitions. The PGA Tour did not get on board with Norman’s idea, but just three years later, it created the World Golf Championship events, which are structured somewhat similarly to what Norman initially proposed.
As word of a potential rival to the PGA Tour gains steam, it’s been made clear that the PGA Tour will levy potential lifetime bans to anyone who left the PGA Tour to join a rival organization. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh also said that anyone competing in a proposed new league would not be eligible to participate in the Ryder Cup either.
“If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they’re going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the Tour,” Waugh said in the spring. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don’t know that we can be more clear kind of than that. We don’t see that changing.”
The PGA Tour also scheduled the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am opposite the Saudi event in 2022 in an effort to dissuade golfers from seeking an exemption to play in Asia, as the Pebble Beach event has a larger purse ($8.6 million) but of course isn’t paying appearance fees.
Winkle, Johnson’s agent, acknowledged the tough position that the PGA Tour is in.
“It’s a complex issue for the Tour. I don’t know how they have to view this internally, but Dustin has gone over three years and gone first, second, first and put golf on the map in a new part of the world. He’s earned the right to defend his title. I hope it doesn’t turn into some kind of line in the sand; I don’t think anybody wins in that situation.”
Here is a full list of golfers seeking to play in the Saudi International next February.
Johnson is the World’s No. 2-ranked golfer and came off a Ryder Cup performance where he became the first player to go 5-0-0 in nearly 40 years, leading the U.S. team to a dominant win over the European team. He also won the 2020 Masters and was the FedEx Cup champion that year as well. Johnson’s 24 PGA Tour wins do not include the two Saudi International victories in 2019 and ’21. After losing the No. 1 world ranking to Jon Rahm last summer, he finished the 2021 season strong with top-10 finishes at the BMW Championship and Tour Championship.
Ancer is ranked at No. 14 in the Official World Golf Rankings after he became a first-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2021. The 30-year-old out of Mexico won the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational last August, defeating Sam Burns and Hideki Matsuyama in a playoff at that event. It was the pinnacle of a strong 2021 season where he was runner up at the Wells Fargo Championship, fourth at both the Shriner’s Hospitals for Children Open and the Travelers Championship, and eighth at the PGA Championship—his first top-10 finish at a major. Ancer was born in Texas but grew up in Mexico and has dual-citizenship.
Na, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour, is from South Korea and resides in Las Vegas, Nevada. He won once in 2021, claiming victory at the Sony Open in Hawaii and had a great performance at the Tour Championship to finish third there and in the final FedEx Cup standings. His 259 in that event was the lowest 72-hole score on the PGA Tour last season, and his victory marked the fourth-straight year in which he has a tournament win.
Kokrak has been on the PGA Tour since 2012 but didn’t win until 2021, which saw him win on two occasions. He won the CJ Cup @ Shadow Creek in late 2020 and then again at the Charles Schwab Challenge. He ended up 11th in the final FedEx Cup standings. It took him 249 career starts to log his first win and then he did so again 16 starts later, defeating Jordan Spieth by two strokes. He was also tied for ninth at The Players Championship, his best finish at that event in eight tries. He became the first player to log his first-career win and then win again that same season (35) since Francesco Molinari did so in 2018.
The 48-year-old from England has 25 wins on the European Tour and two on the PGA Tour and while he hasn’t won a major, he has a combined six finishes of third or better in them. He has been the European Tour Golfer of the Year four times, most recently in 2020, when he won the Race to Dubai. He was the world’s top-ranked golfer for 22 weeks in 2010, which was the last time he won a PGA Tour event. His titles on the U.S.’s top tour were in the Freeport-McDermott Classic in 1998 and then at the St. Jude Classic in 2010.
Fleetwood is another Englishman who has won five times on the European Tour but none on the PGA Tour. He was a runner-up at the 2018 U.S. Open and the 2019 Open Championship. In 2017, he won the Race to Dubai title on the European Tour and won all four of his matches at the 2018 Ryder Cup. His last win on the European Tour came in the Nedbank Golf Challenge in 2019.
Stenson is a former FedEx Cup champion, The Open Championship winner, and two-time European Tour Golfer of the Year. He reached second in the Official World Golf Rankings, becoming the highest-ranked Swedish player in history. He’s also the first player to win both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai championships, doing so in the same year (2013). The major victory came at The Open in 2016, and he has top-five finishes at the other three majors. After shooting a 258 to win the Wyndham Championship in 2017, he dealt with several injuries in 2018 before coming back to win the Hero World Challenge over Jon Rahm in 2019. He is also a back-to-back winner of the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, having claimed victory in 2013 and ’14. Stenson, now 45, has won six times on the PGA Tour but only had 18 starts last year, making six cuts and having a best finish of 11th at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
McDowell is in his final year with a full exemption in the PGA Tour, as the 2010 U.S. Open winner last won on tour at the 2019 Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship. He also won two other times on tour, not counting his 2020 win in Saudi Arabia. He’s also claimed victory eight times on the European Tour, including twice in 2008, 2010, and 2013.
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