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Gulf riches has legacy sports events quaking in their boots

Phil Mickelson plays in the Pro-Am ahead of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Reuters/Paul Childs
Phil Mickelson plays in the Pro-Am ahead of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational

Phil Mickelson’s self-imposed break from golf has ended with a $200 million golden handshake.

The six-time major winner stepped down from the game in February after issuing a string of controversial comments about Saudi Arabia and the PGA Tour but has announced his return for the PIF-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series.

In a statement on social media, Mickelson said that he was “ready to come back to play the game I love but after 32 years this new path is a fresh start, one that is exciting for me at this stage of my career and is clearly transformative, not just for myself, but ideally for the game and my peers.”

The first tournament of the new Saudi-supported series featuring the 51-year-old American will tee off at London’s Centurion Club tomorrow, with a record $25 million up for grabs.

Mickelson is not the only golfing legend to grace this latest tour in the game. He will be joined by former world No 1 Dustin Johnson and Ryder Cup stars Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. 

Charlie Umbers, an analyst at Oakwell Sports Advisory, told AGBI that the LIV Golf tour represents a wider sporting renaissance taking place in the region, with plenty of appetite for big-money business moves to disrupt the established leagues and tournaments.

Umbers pointed to “sporting initiatives such as the Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia F1 Grand Prix, the Anthony Joshua fight in Diriyah, the Qatar 2022 World Cup and the PIF-linked acquisition of Newcastle United.”

He added: “Countries in the MENA region have a young population — with 60 percent of the Saudi population under 30 — with a huge appetite for sport and progress.”

Spending vast sums to attract sign-ups from leading sporting figures is also hardly new to the kingdom.

Joshua’s “Clash on the Dunes” in the Diriyah was secured after million-dollar payouts, with the rumoured rematch in Riyadh also attracting huge sums for the rights. 

Even Mickelson’s reported $200 million deal to play in the new tour seems small fry considering Tiger Woods rejected $500 million from LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman. 

And it is this commitment to matching visionary plans with hefty cheques that has seen heritage sports institutions worried.

Umbers said: “The formation of this new competition has been partly driven by the players’ desire for change in the current golf ecosystem and lies in issues they perceive tours like the PGA have.

“For these established tournaments to continue and compete with the purses being offered, they will have to listen to the views of the players and adapt.”

But while Mickelson and Ian Poulter, 46, are ageing greats of golf, the LIV tour is also snapping up the future prospects of the game.

2021 US Amateur champion James Piot, 23, has reportedly signed a deal worth between $2 million and $6 million for his presence in the new tour, which will offer eight events for a total $225 million purse. 

Piot’s participation reflects the LIV Golf Tour’s drive to bulldoze the golfing hierarchy and attract the next generation of players and fans. It is aiming to have 10 events in its 2023 calendar before offering 14 tournaments in 2024.

“We have a long-term vision and we’re here to stay,” Norman said. “We’re going to grow the game, give more opportunities to players, and create a more entertaining product for fans.”

Nic Hamer, also an analyst at Oakwell, said: “New tournaments offer an opportunity for a sport to experiment.

“Established tournaments should take the opportunity to learn what does and does not go well from them.”

But even if LIV’s bombshell into the golfing scene is wildly successful, Hamer believes the legacy institutions will likely retain their edge in the near future.

“Regarding the four major tournaments, it is likely these will still carry significant weight with the players as not only are they the most prestigious tournaments in the world, they also carry the most amount of ranking points,” Hamer said.

The LIV Golf Series is not being recognised by the Official Golf World Ranking, so no ranking points are being awarded, but if that were to change Hamer predicts that “majors will likely take precedence in regards to the world rankings.”

So with no official rankings, what is attracting the leading lights of golf to sign up to the LIV tour? The players are making it clear: money. 

This year’s eight events will see $225 million of prize money being snapped up by golfers, with a huge $25 million purse hanging over each of the first seven tournaments.

The winner for each of those events will receive $4 million. The total purse will double to $50 million in October’s Miami finale.

By contrast, the PGA’s Canadian Open — which the LIV golfers are missing to play at the Centurion club — is offering $8.7 million in total prize money.

Another LIV rebel, Dustin Johnson, 37, joined the PGA tour in 2008 and went on to make approximately $74 million, but told reporters “I don’t want to play for the rest of my life, this gives me an opportunity to do what I want to do.”

Australian Matt Jones, who boasts $17 million in winnings, said more of the same, explaining that joining the LIV Series was “a lot to do with my family, being able to provide for them. Purely a business decision for me. I’m very happy with the decision I made.”

Jones — whose highest world ranking is 41 — won’t even need to play well to cash in. The prize money for finishing first in the 48-man field is $4 million but if you spend your whole day’s golf in the dunes and lakes and finish last, you’ll still pocket $120,000.

What does a golfer earn for a last-place finish on the PGA tour? Nothing.

With all this cash on the line, could more big names follow the fairway to the LIV Tour? James Hibbitt, a freelance golf writer, thinks not.

“If there are heavy sanctions, such as a lifetime ban from the PGA Tour and loss of eligibility in the Ryder Cup and Major championships, the LIV Series may not attract the real stars of the game,” Hibbitt said.

“It will still get a large portion of players, just perhaps not the very elite at the top of the world rankings.

“If there are no sanctions, players will simply pick and choose to play the LIV Series when the competing events aren’t what we would call “heritage” events.

“So they will play in all four Major championships, a handful of elevated PGA Tour events and the FedEx Cup playoff series.

“This would be the best from a players’ perspective as they combine money and the prestige those events bring.”

But it isn’t just money and prestige that attracts elite athletes. “Money aside, these players play for competition,” Hibbitt said.

“If the “rival” tour begins to attract a large portion of that competition, then it becomes watered down.

“Some players may well move purely for that reason alone. As all champions say — to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

PGA Tour’s biggest winners

  1. Tiger Woods   $120,895,206
  2. Phil Mickelson   $94,955,060
  3. Dustin Johnson $74,276,710
  4. Jim Furyk   $71,507,269
  5. Vijay Singh   $71,236,216
  6. Rory McIlroy   $62,474,495
  7. Adam Scott   $58,388,658
  8. Justin Rose   $56,682,920
  9. Matt Kuchar   $54,822,569
  10. Sergio Garcia   $54,400,870

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