Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

The reaction against the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series that yesterday concluded its long-awaited - or for some, long-dreaded - debut event at the Centurion Club in Hemel Hempstead, England, has been strong.

Headed by Australia’s former world number one Greg Norman - who last October became chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, the company majority-owned by the Public Investment Fund which operates on behalf of the Saudi Government - this new and inordinately rich kid on the greens is formed in the image of the man who was known in his playing days as The Shark.

It is powerful. It is ruthless. And it is dangerous - particularly to the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour, enfant terrible of 1968, now the threatened older body.

For taking part in the LIV competition - it is not an acronym, but Roman numerals for 54, as it involves three-day tournaments featuring that many holes - leading United States players such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson are earning eye-wateringly large amounts of cash.

In prize money alone, players on this 12-team circuit are vying for a $225 million (£182 million/€214 million) over eight events, as seven tournaments involve a $25 million (£20 million/€24 million) purse - the biggest-ever for a golf tournament - with a $50 million (£40.5 million/€47.5 million) finale planned at Miami - Trump National Doral. And that doesn’t take into account appearance fees or money used to lure players away from the PGA Tour.

Norman has indicated that additional funding has been forthcoming to make a full breakaway series possible by 2024.

Mickelson had to make himself scarce for a few months earlier this year after Fire Pit Collective reported him as admitting the project was "sportswashing", and claiming the Saudi partners were "scary motherfuckers to get involved with" and "have a horrible record on human rights”. He has now returned to take up his reported offer of an initial $200 million (£162 million/€190 million) deal.

Johnson, who initially distanced himself from the LIV project along with fellow American Bryson DeChambeau, is reported to be receiving $125 million (£101 million/€118 million). Meanwhile DeChambeau and another US player, Patrick Reed, are the latest players reported to be joining the new enterprise.

While former world number one Rory McIlroy remains one of the highest-profile detractors of the Saudi initiative, it remains to be seen how many top PGA Tour players will drift towards the dosh.

Greg Norman, chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, believes nothing can stop the progress of the breakaway event that has just concluded its first tournament in Hertfordshire  ©Getty Images
Greg Norman, chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, believes nothing can stop the progress of the breakaway event that has just concluded its first tournament in Hertfordshire ©Getty Images

All who do are currently being banned from the PGA Tour according to Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour Commissioner. The LIV Invitational is the PGA Disinvitational.

Norman, meanwhile, has remained defiant: "Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it's exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament," he said in a statement.

"This is particularly disappointing in light of the tour's non-profit status, where its mission is purportedly 'to promote the common interests of professional tournament golfers.'

"Instead, the Tour is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market.

"No matter what obstacles the PGA Tour puts in our way, we will not be stopped."

Golf has been here before in terms of breakaway initiatives - and Norman was involved in a key effort that was stopped in 1994, when his plans to establish a World Golf Tour featuring the top players was kyboshed by the PGA, which later cherry-picked some of its most attractive elements for its own competitions.

The irony was then, and is now, that the PGA Tour is itself the product of a player breakaway which took place in 1968.

With TV coverage and accompanying sponsorship potential growing exponentially, the leading players of the day such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer created a new, lucrative vehicle for themselves by severing their links with the PGA of America and its traditional base of club professionals.

Two years earlier Frank Sinatra had proposed a tournament that would be sponsored with the then huge amount of $200,000 (£162,000/€190,000). The club pros on the PGA of America Executive Committee voted it down, saying it would be infringing upon the already established Bob Hope Desert Classic event. This was a lens through which the new megastars refused any longer to view their event.

But that same rebel, Nicklaus, revealed earlier this year that he had turned down the very lucrative opportunity of heading up the latest iconoclastic golfing initiative.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who helped form the breakaway PGA Tour in 1968, has revealed he turned down
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who helped form the breakaway PGA Tour in 1968, has revealed he turned down "something in excess of $100 million" to head up the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf Invitational event ©Getty Images

“I was offered something in excess of $100 million (£80 million/€95 million) by the Saudis, to do the job probably similar to the one that Greg [Norman] is doing," Nicklaus told the Fire Pit Collective. "I turned it down. Once verbally, once in writing. I said, 'Guys, I have to stay with the PGA Tour. I helped start the PGA Tour.'"

That he did, in 1968, in company with that other golfing megastar Arnold Palmer and other top professional players who felt their talents were not being sufficiently well recognised or rewarded by the PGA of America and formed a breakaway competition.

Fifty years on it is the PGA Tour that now finds itself being charged - in some quarters - with a failure to evolve and respond to new influences in the game.

Upon hearing of the PGA ban on those competing in the LIV Series during the first day’s play at the Centurion Club, British golfer Ian Poulter said he would appeal against the decision, adding: "I haven't resigned because I don't feel like I've done anything wrong. I've been all over the world for 25 years, played a lot of tournaments outside of continental Europe all in a calendar season.”

Have Poulter and his fellow LIV pioneers done something wrong?

As my colleague Alan Hubbard recently wrote: "It has been estimated that Saudi Arabia has spent at least $1.5 billion (£1.2 billion/€1.4 billion) on acquiring high-profile sporting events, which range from world title fights to the Formula One Grand Prix, a highly controversial Saudi International golf event which is part of the European Tour (women golfers from overseas can now compete in Saudi but must wear ankle-length trousers and not skirts), chess tournaments, football Super Cup finals and international tennis tournaments…

"Saudi is already a major player in British racing and now has a long-sought stronghold foothold in Premier League football with the much-debated acquisition of Newcastle United.

Phil Mickelson tees off during the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Series event in Hertfordshire that concluded its 54 holes yesterday ©Getty Images
Phil Mickelson tees off during the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Series event in Hertfordshire that concluded its 54 holes yesterday ©Getty Images

"The fact that Newcastle plans to wear Saudi national colours on their away shirt next season is, according to Amnesty International, a ‘clear evidence of sport washing’ and has created concern among protest groups in the UK."

Writing from the Centurion Club last week the Daily Mail’s Riath Al-Samarrai reflected: "We can have our opinions on all that, pious or nuanced or indifferent, and it is probably important here to separate the issues between the moral and the sporting. The sporting one will have vast consequences to a game many of us love, about who can play in the Ryder Cup and the majors, and that will be decided by lawyers; like everyone else in this circus they will do very well out of this $2 billion (£1.6 billion/€1.9 billion) invasion.

"But let's not ignore some of the hypocrisy around that part of the debate - the European Tour have been to Saudi Arabia. The Asian Tour does now. Players from all Tours have dipped in and loaded up in recent years without consequence, so the griping between establishments is about power balances, not the origin of the loot.

"The morality question is different. That is about how much is enough, whose back you are scratching, and on the other side, if Governments like ours can sell weapons to the Saudis, why should it fall on golfers, Anthony Joshua, F1 or Newcastle United to reject vast sums for the high ground?"

Poulter and fellow Brit Lee Westwood looked blank and dumbfounded during direct media questioning on the eve of the Centurion Club opener. Some of the questions were like the application of an oxy-acetylene torch: "Is there anywhere in the world you wouldn’t play? If Vladimir Putin had a tournament, would you play there?"

In the wake of this PR nightmare, the organisers provided players with a media crib-sheet. Suggested responses included: "This is a great opportunity to grow the game." "I don’t know how banning players is good for the game." "The Tour issued waivers for players to play in the Saudi International - what’s different now." "There were a number of factors in my decision-making, and money was certainly one of them."

While the new, fluid team format may have its advantages, nobody would be bothering about it were it not for the incentive of lots and lots of money. While there has certainly been a huge media profile for last week’s launch, it was witnessed by a modest crowd and a minimal TV audience. 

That will change - but such are the huge amounts being put into it by the Saudi investors that there seems no imminent likelihood of it being profitable.

For the players, obviously, it is about being able to play for sums of money larger than any they have been offered before. For the organisers, however, money is no object, profitability is a byproduct. It is about profile, it is about prestige. 

Or, if you prefer to adopt the phraseology of its prime player, it is about "sportwashing" - the tactic employed by regimes widely perceived to have repressive regimes and bad human rights records of distracting attention by funding lucrative and diverting sporting contests.

"In essence, sportwashing is about diversion," Simon Chadwick, a global professor of sport at Emlyon Business School in France, told USA Today last week.  

The charge has also been laid at the door of Russia following its hosting of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and 2018 FIFA World Cup finals.

English players Ian Poulter, second left, and Lee Westwood, far right, faced awkward and direct questions from the media before taking part in the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event which began last Thursday ©Getty Images
English players Ian Poulter, second left, and Lee Westwood, far right, faced awkward and direct questions from the media before taking part in the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event which began last Thursday ©Getty Images

In terms of its impact, the emergence of the LIV Series has been similar to last year’s arrival in the world of football of the European Super League (ESL).

The apparent fait accompli announced in April 2021 of a new set-up involving 12 clubs, including six from the Premier League, breaking away from the UEFA Champions League provoked an indignant reaction throughout the game, with several political leaders coming out with strong criticism of the naked greed involved.

Very soon, as their fans raged, clubs began to drop away from the enterprise - although similar schemes had been mooted before, and will surely return.

The LIV model involves large amounts of money paid to a relatively small number of players, although those players will not receive any ownership stake. Other models are available - and may yet be integrated into the pragmatic and flexible PGA Tour…

Unfortunately for another of Britain’s LIV pioneers, Lee Westwood, he made clear his disapproval of the ESL plan at the time, tweeting a GIF of a man creating a snow angel in a pile of cash, along with the simple header European Super League.

Inevitably some keen-eyed observer noticed this in the light of his involvement in the Saudi plans, tweeting back about "the pot calling the kettle black."

Westwood’s response at the press conference was surely an honest one: "This is my job, I do this for money."

Human-rights group Grant Liberty released a report on Saudi Arabian sportswashing initiatives last year, writing: "Sport is loved and played around the world, it is a giant unifying force, and it’s also a multi-billion dollar industry... by associating themselves with sport, leaders are seeking to position their country in line with that magic. They want to bask in reflected glory, and thus lighten their image."

The downside of such efforts, of course, is that they can have the unintended effect of renewing and re-focus attention of some of the human rights infractions committed by the hosting or funding nations. That has happened in the course of the last week, for instance.

For some, the LIV Series is a step too far, and too big, potentially putting the top end of a beloved sport in the hands of those who can afford everything without having any longstanding affiliation with or tradition within golf.

Others worry about the self-enclosed, elite nature of the new enterprise, its lack of any link with the broader game.

Meanwhile the PGA Tour’s bans mean we are surely heading, sooner rather than later, from the fairways and greens to courts and chambers…