When news broke that a new mega-money "World Tour" was being set up to rival the dominance of the PGA Tour, most would've been forgiven for thinking it would be dead in the water before it ever really took off. After all, that's what history has told us. It's what happened when Greg Norman proposed a similar idea back in the 1990s.
But in the modern world of Netflix, YouTube and social media, sportsmen and women are now far more likely to become global superstars, meaning player power cannot be underestimated anymore. And with the financial might of Saudi Arabia behind plans for the rumoured Super Golf League (SGL), these are tense times in a sport that stands on the brink of major division.
So, how has the PGA Tour reacted to this challenge? Well, the powers that be certainly aren't resting on their laurels and have fought at every step to protect the tour's position in the game, and its prize assets that ultimately hold the key to the kingdom.
Before the SGL came the PGL (Premier Golf League), a virtually identical F1-style concept that is perhaps only different in that it doesn't have the same financial power. Back in mid to late 2020, the PGL went to European Tour Chief, Keith Pelley, with what he described as "a very compelling offer to take the Tour to another level but in a different direction."
In response, Pelley's opposite number, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, proposed a "strategic alliance" that would be mutually beneficial and help maintain the status quo. Rather than take the risk, Pelley accepted.
Next, Monahan and co. set up the controversial Player Impact Program (PIP), a $40m fund to be dished out to the 10 players that drove the most engagement among fans and sponsors. The public lamented the idea and the financial pampering but it did little to quieten the rumblings. In May of last year, a report in The Telegraph revealed that as many as 11 of the game's biggest names had been offered between $30m and $50m to join the breakaway SGL.
Immediately, Monahan called a player meeting at Quail Hollow on the Tuesday of Wells Fargo Championship week. He warned that anyone choosing Saudi money over the PGA Tour would face lifetime bans - a stance that remains in place today.
Fast forward to July, and after the Saudi International had been dropped from the European Tour schedule in a show of solidarity, Monahan stated that the PGA Tour would not grant permission to any of its members who requested to play in the 2022 edition of the tournament.
Then, in November, record prize purses were announced on the PGA Tour for 2022, up from $367m to $427m. This included a $15m boost to the FedEx Cup Playoffs, as well as a $5m increase in the Players Championship pot - which now stands at $20m. Additionally, the PIP fund has also gone up by $10m to $50m.
But despite these efforts, when Golf Saudi published its list of confirmed entrants a week later, the likes of Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Phil Mickelson all featured. Weighing up the prospect of a long-term battle, Monahan eventually relented and granted conditional releases to 30 players, only on the basis that they add the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am - the event that coincided with the Saudi International - to their schedule in future.
The decision to permit conditional releases for the Saudi International did little to diminish the threat of the rumoured breakaway tour. Speaking ahead of the event, Phil Mickelson confirmed that he and "pretty much every player in the top-100" had been contacted to form part of the rumoured tour. The six-time Major champion would go on to praise the knock on effect the Saudi efforts have had on the PGA Tour (in terms of the purse increases mentioned above). Lefty would go on to accuse the PGA Tour of "obnoxious greed" in an interview with Golf Digest over their stance on player media rights.
As speculation grew that Mickelson was the one working closest with Greg Norman to pioneer the Saudi-backed Super League, an excerpt from an upcoming biography from Alan Shipnuck was released online. It quoted Mickelson admitting his allegiance to the reported Saudi Golf League is a ruse to leverage the Tour. Mickelson subsequently backtracked in a lengthy statement, where he apologised for his comments and said he is deeply sorry for them. Lefty also stated he would take a sabbatical from the game, although it led many people wondering if his self-imposed sabbatical was in fact an enforced suspension by the PGA Tour.
Just hours after Mickelson's apology hit, Monahan called a mandatory players' meeting at the Honda Classic. One who was in attendance, who requested anonymity, told the Golf Channel: “[Monahan] made it clear right off the top that if you’re going to play [the Super League], walk out that door now. He made the ban seem like it was in all capital letters.” Meanwhile, another stated that Monahan said anyone thinking of joining the reported league was detrimental to the Tour and would be “banned.”
The momentum that appeared to be building behind the rumoured league seemed to lose much of its lustre in just one week, with several players distancing themselves from the idea. Bryson DeChambeau announced on social media that he’d stay loyal to the PGA Tour as long as it had the world’s best players. That comment came despite the big-hitting American reportedly being lined up as the rumoured league’s poster boy only a few weeks ago. Similarly, Dustin Johnson declared himself fully committed to the PGA Tour. It appears those pledges have hardened Monahan’s stance on the issue, too, with him apparently telling the players he had changed his original speech because of them.
With the Players Championship a week away, it was rumoured that a formal announcement confirming the Saudi-backed Super League would take place. That said, with the events of recent weeks, it remains to be seen.
In a time of enormous pressures and uncertainty, one thing has remained constant and that is the PGA Tour's stance. It has remained firm that it will not entertain any member that opts to join the rumoured breakaway tour and will impose a lifetime ban. At the moment, it feels like a high-stakes game of poker between people to whom money means very little. The series of moves and counter-moves must end eventually, so the question is: who will come out on top?
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A lifelong golf fan, Andy graduated in 2019 with a degree in Sports Journalism and got his first role in the industry as the Instruction Editor for National Club Golfer. From there, he went on to enjoy a spell freelancing for Stats Perform producing football reports, and then for RacingNews365 covering Formula 1. However, he couldn't turn down the opportunity to get back into the sport he grew up watching and playing and now covers a mixture of equipment, instruction and news for Golf Monthly's website and print title.
Andy took up the game at the age of seven and even harboured ambitions of a career in the professional ranks for a spell. That didn’t pan out, but he still enjoys his weekend golf at Royal Troon and holds a scratch handicap. As a side note, he's made five holes-in-one and could quite possibly be Retief Goosen’s biggest fan.
As well as the above, some of Andy's work has featured on websites such as goal.com, dailyrecord.co.uk, and theopen.com.
What's in Andy's bag?
Driver: Callaway Mavrik Sub-Zero (9°)
3-wood: TaylorMade Stealth 2 Plus (15°)
Driving iron: Titleist U500 (17°)
Irons: Callaway Apex Pro '19 (4-PW)
Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM9 (50°, 54° and 58°)
Putter: TaylorMade Spider X
Ball: TaylorMade TP5x
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