Golf is a game of traditions, but sometimes money trumps tradition, as the PGA is finding out as some of the world’s top golfers have jumped ship to play in the new LIV Golf series. Its first U.S. tournament is slated for this weekend in Portland, Ore.
The PGA has fired back by banning the defectors from playing in PGA events, but Rick Franza, Dean of Hull College of Business at Augusta University, said they may have a tough case if the players decide to challenge the suspensions in court since they are independent contractors, not employees.
“Nothing will be resolved until it goes to court,” Franza said. “I think there are three things that could determine if it goes to court or not. First, if someone playing LIV Golf wants to play in a PGA Tour event and they are barred. Second, if somehow the stance on Majors changes, which I think is very plausible. Third, will these guys be included in the Official World Golf Rankings? This is important because the OWGR help determine automatic entry into the majors.”
The names joining LIV will be familiar to Augustans. They include past Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, and Charl Schwartzel. Other top golfers who defected include Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Na, Talor Gooch, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Bernd Wiesberger.
While the players have been suspended from PGA tournament play, for now, they will be allowed to play in the four Majors – The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship. Of the Majors, only the PGA Championship is run by the PGA.
The LIV Golf series is backed by Saudi Arabian money – lots of it – which is part of the PGA’s public protest of the event. Saudi Arabia has been accused by some people in the United States of being a major violator of human rights.
Running the league is LIV Investments, whose CEO is The Shark, Greg Norman. Because LIV has ties to the billions in Saudi Arabia’s coffers, it has paid more than half-a-billion dollars to the defectors just for them to appear in its tournaments, plus the chance to win additional millions per tournament.
The LIV format looks a little different than the average PGA tour. The eight scheduled tournaments will be 54 holes instead of 72 and will be played by 12 four-player teams (the teams are chosen by draft the Tuesday before the tournament). The winning team splits the $20 million top prize, with another $5 million divvied up among the others.
Franza said that by leaving, the players may also be challenging the PGA Tour to change how they do business.
“I think in the grand scheme of things, the guys would like to stay with the PGA Tour,” he said. “But for some of them, it’s a way to try to get the PGA Tour to change things. I don’t know if they (LIV Golf players) are looking for guarantees or not, but they’re probably looking for bigger purses, although purses have already gotten pretty big. I think they may want different events that aren’t all stroke-play events.”
The PGA Tour has recently announced significant prize money increases for some of their tournaments as a response to the LIV Golf series.
Challenges from upstart leagues are nothing new in major sports. Baseball was challenged by the Federal League in 1914-15 and the Mexican League in 1944, and the NFL withstood challenges from the AFL (they merged in 1969) and the World Football League in 1974-75. The NBA faced a challenge from the ABA in the 60’s and 70’s before those two leagues merged and hockey withstood pressure from the World Hockey Association in the 1970’s.