PGA Tour suspension cushions the big day of LIV Golf

Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson drew the biggest crowds on the opening day of the LIV Golf London event

The world of golf is changing. And fast.

Proof of this came 30 minutes into the most lucrative event in the sport’s history at the Centurion Club near London.

An already tumultuous week, in which players have resigned from the PGA Tour amid uncomfortable press conferences asking them if they were “Saudi stooges,” took a significant turn at 14:45 BST.

The PGA Tour announced it will suspend 17 Rebel members who have chosen to attend this first-ever, $25 million, Saudi Arabia-sponsored LIV Golf Invitational.

Within seconds, LIV, led by former world number one Greg Norman, hit back, calling the PGA Tour “vindictive”.

Meanwhile, the golf tournament was going on, which shakes the game to the core.

A fleet of London black cabs had escorted the 48 players to their respective holes when they all teeed off across the course at the same time at 2:15pm, 17 of them unaware of the PGA Tour’s decision, which was revealed in their email inbox would wait.

Six-time major champion Phil Mickelson and former world number one Dustin Johnson are among the sport’s biggest names to be seduced by the Saudi millions — with rumors floating around that Bryson DeChambeau will play the second event in Portland, Oregon in late June.

Mickelson hasn’t denied speculation he’s raising $200m (£160m), with Johnson reportedly getting $150m in appearance fees for taking part in the series, funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF). funded with £1.6 billion. .

The Americans were brought together on Thursday, with Mickelson, who ends a four-month self-imposed exile from the game after calling the Saudis “scary”, flashed his trademark cheesy smile as he received an enthusiastic reception at the first tee.

A flyby of vintage planes and buglers dressed as Beefeaters heralded the start of the tournament, with Johnson hitting the first shot in front of hundreds of fans who lined the fairway to watch the marquee pairing, who went for one-under par 69er signed.

However, ticket sales were undeniably slow.

The tournament has a cap of 8,000 fans per day, but players like Lee Westwood have been promoting promo codes for free tickets on their social media channels.

And the majority of the fans I spoke to had jumped at the opportunity and were eager to see Westwood and his European Ryder Cup teammates Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell while also trying to get to grips with the team element to familiarize the organizers so happily push.

In addition to an individual competition, there are 12 teams of four players with names like Majesticks, Fireballs and Iron Heads. LIV Golf wants fans to choose teams to cheer for throughout the series of eight events – although that may prove difficult in this first year as players are likely to rotate from event to event.

Through shotgun launches where all players tee off at the same time, they hope to offer a TV-friendly product, but no broadcaster has signed on yet.

Instead, LIV streams the coverage through their own website and on YouTube, which attracted a simultaneous audience of around 100,000 viewers towards the end of the day’s play.

And despite promising innovations, LIV could not do anything about the scourge of modern golf, the slow game. The 48 players started in 16 groups of three and needed around four hours and 45 minutes to find their way around.

South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel leads with five under and his Stinger Golf Club leads the team classification.

With the game over, the focus shifted back to the music in the Fan Zone, with James Morrison headlining. “Wow, there’s a crowd, I was a little worried beforehand,” he said to an audience of a few hundred people.

In the hours leading up to the “shotgun” launch, however, the atmosphere was lively. The gates opened three hours before the start of the game, with a fan zone offering plenty of golf distractions to the backdrop of blaring music from a DJ.

Fans also seemed unfazed by the massive sums of money on offer this week, or where that money came from.

But the source of the money is disputed, with the Saudis accused of “sports laundering” – using the PIF’s deep pockets to sponsor sporting events and diverting attention from their questionable human rights record.

The topic dominated the player press conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday. No doubt anticipating a barrage of questions, LIV Golf hired former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who worked with President George W. Bush from 2001-2003 to brief players.

They all told one man they “didn’t condone human rights abuses,” with Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell calling the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul “reprehensible.”

Perhaps because of Norman’s “we all make mistakes” comment, Fleischer was brought in when he asked similar questions about the Saudi regime and Khashoggi at last month’s event to promote this tournament. Norman is being kept away from the press this week.

But the 67-year-old has consistently said he doesn’t want to compete with the established PGA Tour or the Europe-based DP World Tour and sees a world where players are free to choose which tournaments they want to compete in.

As the players left the course, they weren’t surprised to learn of the PGA Tour suspension imposed by an America-based circuit struggling to maintain its dominant position in the game.

McDowell said he resigned from the PGA Tour 30 minutes before teeing off to put himself in a “less contentious situation.”

He added: “I didn’t want to retire, the PGA Tour was great. I hope Keith [Pelley, DP World Tour chief] doesn’t follow, but they have a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour and may need to follow suit.”

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy, who is defending the Canadian Open on the PGA Tour this week and made a moral decision to reject Saudi money, has supported the PGA Tour’s decision to suspend the rebels but is intrigued enough to cancel the LIV Golf event see .

“I’ll see what all the fuss is about,” he said, though he quipped that he “won’t be buying any team stuff anytime soon.”

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