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The first round of the Saudi International got underway on Thursday, with the strongest field in Asian Tour history tackling the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in Jeddah.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the event, with multiple players signing non-disclosure agreements regarding the breakaway Saudi Golf League, individuals reportedly being offered life changing amounts of cash and names popping up on a leaderboard that perhaps you haven't seen in years.
With so much action going on and off the course, we have listed the six biggest, and surprising, things that have happened so far at the Saudi International.
1. MATTEO MANASSERO IS BACK?
Seeing as it is a golf tournament, it is only right we start on the golf course, with a familiar name leading at the top of the star-studded field in Saudi Arabia.
Around 10 years ago, Italian, Matteo Manassero, was dubbed the next big star. Before he had even turned professional, he was the youngest-ever winner of the British Amateur Championship, had secured the Silver Medal at the Open Championship and had also become the youngest player ever to make the cut at the Masters Tournament, at 16 years and 11 months and 22 days.
Turning professional, he carried on that form, claiming his first European Tour event win in his debut season. The victory made him the youngest-ever winner on the European Tour. Not only that, but he became the first teenager to secure three wins on the Tour before claiming the flagship event at the BMW PGA Championship.
However, the Italian entered a dramatic fall in form, recording just one top-10 finish during the 2014 European Tour season. By the end of 2018, Manassero was no longer a European Tour player. Struggling on the lower-tier circuits, he did pick-up a victory in 2020, his first in seven years. It came at the Toscana Open on the Alps Tour, the third division of European golf.
Now, after a two-month break from the game, the 28-year-old is back and, an eight-under-par 62, has him at the top of the leaderboard by two shots. Currently, he leads 21 of the world's top-50, including the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed.
After his 62, which threatened a 59-watch at one point, the young Italian described his round to: “as close as perfect as it can be." He added: "I was ready in any moment of the round to do my best. That’s a great feeling, especially in the first round of the season after quite a break. I was curious and anxious to see what I would do in competition. You never know if the feels will be different on the first tee. But it went well. I am obviously very happy. I couldn’t have wished for anything more.”
Although there are still a number of rounds remaining, it's great to see Manassero back at the top of the leaderboard and competing at the high-level we know he can play at.
2. BIO KIM ALSO IN CONTENTION
We remain on the course and this time with South Korea's, Bio Kim, who is probably another name that you may recognise...
For those who are unsure, Kim was actually suspended from tournament golf for a year (was originally three before the ban was reduced) when he lost his temper after a fan’s mobile phone camera went off during his downswing.
Obviously annoyed, with such high stakes on the line, Kim turned and flipped off the fan, then slammed his club into the ground. He did go on to win the event and apologised afterwards for his outburst.
However, that didn't stop the KPGA from giving him a three-year ban, saying that he had “damaged the dignity of a golfer with (an) etiquette violation and inappropriate behaviour.” That three years was reduced down to one after the likes of Kevin Na complained about the harshness of the suspension.
The Korean PGA Tour has suspended Bio Kim for 3 years after he flipped off a fan using their cell phone in his swing 😲 pic.twitter.com/hbfmLJeiVBOctober 1, 2019
The reason as to why his name is bought up here, is because the 31-year-old is in contention after the first round of the Saudi International, with his first round 66 putting him four back of Manassero.
Kim's round, which featured six birdies and two bogies, has him currently tied in 13th, alongside the likes of Tommy Fleetwood, Cameron Smith and Jason Kokrak
3. THE TV COVERAGE
This week, British viewers are treated to some free live golf, with the Saudi International being broadcasted on the free-to-air sports television channel, FreeSports. Although the coverage is free to watch, it's limited, with the schedule only showing around 10-15 hours of action.
Although that is a set back, it does mean that people who don't have access to Sky Sports, who usually show coverage of the big golfing events, are able to watch some golf on their television, a definite welcome sight to some.
4. SAUDI GOLF LEAGUE & NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS
We now move away from the on-course chat and to the off-course news, with the reports of the breakaway Saudi Golf League dominating the golfing world.
In an exclusive Sportsmail report, it has been revealed that Bryson DeChambeau has been offered an astounding £100 million to be the poster boy of the new breakaway league. It has also been rumoured that the Saudi Golf League budget is touted at £1.5 billion, with the Daily Mail, reporting that five 'future Ryder Cup captains' allegedly sit on £20 million signing-on proposals.
On top of that, players like Dustin Johnson and Lee Westwood have stated that they have signed non-disclosure agreements, with Johnson 'not allowed to disclose' whether or not he has received a multi-million pound offer to join.
The two-time Major champion was asked: "If he had received a similar offer to that of Ian Poulter's?," with Johnson humorously answering "No, not similar!" The American had also mentioned earlier in the week that the league: "Is a really good concept," and that it will: "Make it a little more interesting for the fans and for the players".
5. MICKELSON TAKES AIM AT PGA TOUR, KOEPKA RESPONDS
One of the players that has arguably been the most closely associated—publicly at least—with the aforementioned Saudi Golf League, is Phil Mickelson, with the six-time Major champion stating at a press conference on Wednesday that: “Pretty much every player in the top 100 has been contacted at some point.”
Not only did the 51-year-old mention this, but he also released a scathing attack on the PGA Tour, with Mickelson stating that the Tour's type of greed, when it comes to media rights, is: "Beyond obnoxious.”
Mickelson went onto say: “It’s not public knowledge, all that goes on, but the players don’t have access to their own media. If the tour wanted to end any threat [from Saudi or anywhere else], they could just hand back the media rights to the players. But they would rather throw $25 million here and $40 million there than give back the roughly $20 billion in digital assets they control. Or give up access to the $50-plus million they make every year on their own media channel.
"There are many issues, but that is one of the biggest. For me personally, it’s not enough that they are sitting on hundreds of millions of digital moments. They also have access to my shots, access I do not have. They also charge companies to use shots I have hit. When I did ‘The Match’—there have been five of them—the tour forced me to pay them $1 million each time. For my own media rights. That type of greed is, to me, beyond obnoxious.”
The rant caused one player to react, with Brooks Koepka no less, calling out Mickelson in an Instagram comment on a Golf Digest post. The picture, which was an image of the back of Mickelson, had the caption: "The media rights are but a small fraction of everything else. And it is the tour’s obnoxious greed that has really opened the door for opportunities elsewhere." As a result of the post, Koepka couldn't resist commenting: "Dk (Don't Know) if I’d be using the word greedy if I’m Phil….."
6. A NEW ASIAN TOUR EVENT CONFIRMED IN THE UK
At the start of the week, it was announced that LIV Golf Investments and the Asian Tour has unveiled details of the “International Series” for 2022/2023. Featuring ten tournaments across Asia and Europe, one of those events is to be held at the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire in June.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, is the majority shareholder of LIV Golf Investments and has pledged a staggering $300m to the new series. However, the event at the Centurion Club, is said to be held the week prior to the US Open, which may well cause disruption to normal Major championship preparations.
The past few years, we have seen a fair amount of professional golf across the UK, with a 'UK Swing' being held on the European/DP World Tour. This run of tournaments was bought in due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
As well as the UK Swing, there is also the Tour's flagship event at Wentworth and the Genesis Scottish Open, an event which is part of an historic Strategic Alliance and co-sanctioned by both the DP World and PGA Tour.
Matt studied Sports Journalism at Southampton Solent University, graduating in 2019. Now a freelance writer for Golf Monthly and the PGA, he covers all aspects of the game, from Tour news to equipment testing and buyers’ guides. Taking up the game at the age of six, Matt currently holds a handicap of 3 and despite not having a hole in one…yet, he has had two albatrosses. His favourite player is Rory McIlroy, despite nearly being struck by his second shot at the 17th during the 2015 BMW PGA Championship.
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