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Smith defects to Saudi-backed LIV in major blow to PGA Tour

Michael Madrid
Cameron Smith talks to media during a press conference after winning the 150th Open Championship golf tournament at St. Andrews Old Course.

Australian golf fans may be split over Cameron Smith’s defection to the LIV series but the Saudi-backed circuit could ultimately find fallow ground in a country left to wither by the increasingly dominant US and European tours.

World number two Smith, who claimed his first major at the British Open in July, confirmed he had signed with LIV on Tuesday in a coup for the breakaway series spearheaded by his compatriot Greg Norman.

It was also a major blow for the US PGA Tour in its battle to retain talent and marketing firepower for an increasingly bruising war against the upstart challenger.

With LIV bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, Smith’s decision triggered some criticism in Australia, where plenty of sports fans view the series as a vehicle for “sportswashing” the Middle Eastern nation’s human rights abuses.

Yet there was also defence for the 29-year-old, who some feel is being unfairly held to a higher moral standard than the governments, corporates and entertainers who do regular business with the kingdom.

“So it’s fine for farmers, builders, teachers and miners to serenade the Saudis but it’s supposedly heinous for golfers like Smith to do the same?” sports columnist Robert Craddock wrote in News Corp media.

With LIV’s enormous signing bonuses and prize-money on offer, it came as little surprise that Smith in an interview with Golf Digest magazine admitted that his move had been a “business decision”.

The series has other attractions for Smith, who said he was relishing the prospect of being able to spend more time in Australia rather than being based almost full-time in the United States.

Australia’s local golf tour is also welcoming the prospect of having Smith and Marc Leishman, another of the country’s top players who joined LIV on Tuesday, playing in its events over the home summer.

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The US Tour has torn up the cards of LIV series defectors and the DP World Tour has also threatened suspensions but the small Australian circuit, emerging from the economically ruinous COVID period, can ill afford to shun its biggest names.

Both of Australia’s biggest events, the Australian Open and PGA Championship, are now co-sanctioned by the DP World Tour but officials have said LIV players will still be welcome to play.

“There’s no doubt our fans are looking forward to (seeing) our growing line-up of homegrown stars like Cam Smith (and) Marc Leishman,” PGA of Australia Chairman Rodger Davis said on Wednesday.

In the era when Norman was in his pomp, Australia was able to lure the world’s top players to lucrative events but the expansion of the PGA Tour has all but shunted the country off the global calendar.

The last sighting of major golfing talent Down Under was during the 2019 Presidents Cup, when record crowds flocked to Royal Melbourne to see Tiger Woods lead the US to victory over the Internationals.

For all of his detractors, Norman is at least cognisant of the Australian market and LIV has targeted the country in its expansion plans for 2023.

The prospect of LIV bringing its growing roster of major champions Down Under every year will have plenty of appeal for Australian golf fans, despite criticism of the series’ backers and its unorthodox format.

“I’m sure with Leish and I playing it’ll be appealing for LIV (to take an event there),” said Smith.

Having been given little room to move by the US Tour, Australian golf officials have sounded accommodating of LIV and the attention it could bring, if not openly welcoming it.

“World golf is in somewhat of a state of flux and the PGA of Australia is doing all it can to navigate through this disruptive period,” said Davis.