Long before Phil Mickelson saw his reputation tarnished, his endorsement contracts disappear, his stature in the game diminished due to a controversy that – fairly or unfairly – sent him underground for the past four months, the six-time major champion was “intrigued’’ by the concept of an alternative professional golf format that would, among other things, pay huge sums to those who participated.
There was no such thing as LIV Golf Investments at the time. Greg Norman was running his Great White Shark Enterprises and designing golf courses while immersed in a second career as a successful businessman.
But there was a potential disrupter known as the Premier Golf League that for several years behind the scenes had been pitching a different way to look at professional golf, one that had suddenly gained traction and ultimately led – although not run by the all the same people – to what is taking place this week at Centurion Club, the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event.
Mickelson, 51, who will headline the event after being the subject of intense scrutiny as he skipped two major championships and endured fallout associated with his interest in a potential new league, first became engaged in conversations in early 2020, a few months prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
But his interest then has not been portrayed as many view him today: a fallen Hall of Famer whose popularity and legacy have been tarnished because he turned his back on the PGA Tour while seeking obscene riches.
Mickelson, then 49, had already agreed to accept a lucrative appearance fee to play in the second Saudi International tournament, a then-European Tour (now DP World Tour)-sanctioned event for which he would be skipping the WM Phoenix Open.
Played in King Abdullah Economic City, about 60 miles from the Saudi Arabia capital of Riyadh, Mickelson found himself grouped in the tournament pro-am at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club with Colin Neville, a partner at the Raine Group, which was a financial backer of the alternative league; Majed Al-Sorour, the CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation; and Andy Gardiner, a former corporate lawyer and financier based in London who is the CEO of the Premier Golf League.
This pro-am foursome was not put together by chance.
Over the preceding years, Gardiner had quietly met with dozens of players and agents, broadcasters, sponsors, and other stakeholders, talking up a proposed plan that would bring together many of the top names in golf for small-field tournaments with big purses. The backbone of the idea was that the stars did not compete against each other often enough on the PGA Tour.
Television executives were intrigued, as were various sponsors and those associated with making such a vision come to reality. Gardiner’s World Golf Group had considerable financial backing to get the plan off the ground, and Golf Saudi – and the sovereign wealth fund known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – was among the potential big-time investors. Getting the players – and their agents – on board was the biggest part of the process.
Only a few weeks earlier, Gardiner had met with Mickelson for the first time. They spent several hours together in Palm Springs, around the time of the American Express Championship, where Mickelson was a de facto tournament host. A week later Mickelson played his hometown Farmers Insurance Open near San Diego and then was off to Saudi Arabia.
“He was one of the later players to come into the conversation,’’ Gardiner tells Sports Illustrated. “When I met Phil, I think his words were he was all about protecting the game and enhancing its future and making sure that the deal was fair for all his peers. It wasn’t about him. It was about the fairness. It was about the allocation of the revenue.
“His understanding and knowledge of the history of the game was incredibly refreshing. He struck me as being a true historian and he struck me as having the best interests of the game entirely at heart. He believed this format would be better for the game long-term because it would be more compelling for fans. And he understood if you have a product that is as compelling as can be for fans, it is absolutely going to be worthwhile for broadcasters and sponsors.’’
That depiction, of course, is completely different from the narrative put forth in recent months about Mickelson, much of it his own doing. His interview with Golf Digest in which he referred to the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed’’ and an earlier interview with author Alan Shipnuck that was published in February in which Mickelson acknowledged the Saudi regime’s human rights issues but suggested pursuing the concept of an alternative league was still viable sent him into a spiral from which he will only now begin to emerge.
The PGL Stalls, and a Faction Breaks Away
The PGL’s plan was to have 18 tournaments comprised of 48 players from January through September, with 10 events staged in the United States and the other eight around the world. The events would be 54 holes with no cut and shotgun starts over the first two days to better showcase all the players within a confined television window.
Modeled to a degree after Formula 1 racing, there would also be 12 teams of four players each with a season-long competition that culminated in a season-ending event for players and teams. There was at first talk about businessmen, equipment manufacturers or even players owning the teams that would in time have value for which they could be sold. The team owner, if not a player, would “draft’’ the other three who make up the team.
At the time, the PGL was talking about $240 million in prize money, with a $10 million weekly purse for 17 events with a season-ending event. There would be $2 million paid to the winner, a $10 million bonus to the overall individual champion, and another $40 million team bonus pool.
Meetings with players and agents continued to take place, one at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera and another a few weeks later at the Players Championship – just as all of the sports world was to shut down due to the pandemic.
“Phil was of the view that the way the Tour was structured meant that the top guys were subsidizing too many other golfers,’’ Gardiner says. “Their value was not being met. Now of course, you’ve got off-course earnings. But he was thinking about those outside of, say, the top 15 in the world, and even for on the course, he thought there was a better way of doing this. He thought the format was good for the game.
“But he was already interested in how the allocation of revenue could be fairer. And that ultimately led to the conversation where we put the purses up from $10 million to $20 million (per event, with $4 million paid to first place). That is more fair. It pays the players what they are worth. And that fairly sums up what his attitude was.’’
While big guarantees are being reported for players agreeing to commit to the LIV Golf series, Gardiner said that upfront money guarantees were greatly reduced in the original PGL plan when it was learned that the players actually were fine with playing for bigger sums without the need for big signing bonuses.
At one point, PGL was considering investing some $600 million in upfront money to a dozen or so players who would form the backbone of the PGL. Without that money necessary on the front end, Gardiner in the spring of 2020 believed the infusion of cash was no longer necessary, hence the decision not to make a deal with Golf Saudi.
“There were guys who saw the upfront cash as their risk money because they feared they were going to be put on a beach (suspended) and not be able to play professional golf,’’ Gardiner says. “The key thing was this can be done in a way where everyone ends up smiling. And they were talking about the entire PGA Tour membership. That was crucial, and Phil was a catalyst for that.’’
Gardiner and PGL soon pivoted to another plan. First, they attempted to make a deal with the European Tour, one that would have involved some sort of partnership and helped prop up a circuit that suffered financially during the pandemic. The European Tour eventually decided on a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour that has so far yielded a couple of co-sanctioned tournaments – including next month’s Genesis Scottish Open – as well as the PGA Tour owning a stake in European Tour Productions, with further enhancements to come.
With the European Tour deal not working out, PGL then sought to join forces with the PGA Tour in a plan that was only revealed late last year. Instead of a competing league, they hoped to come under the Tour umbrella and have their 18 events (or some version of the plan) incorporated into the schedule, with a significant upfront sum paid to all PGA Tour members (as well as DP World Tour and Korn Ferry Tour members) whether they took part in the series or not.
So far, Gardiner has yet to gain much traction with this idea, despite getting plenty of supportive feedback, he says, from various players and agents.
Meanwhile, a different faction within PGL broke off and decided to take the Saudi backing with the intentions of starting a separate league, which has evolved into LIV Golf.
“It was more of a drifting away,’’ Gardiner says. “I didn’t talk to the PIF from April 2020. There might have been a short conversation the latter part of the year. But when we began our conversation with the European Tour, Saudi Golf was not involved. Because we never consummated the relationship, there was nothing to terminate. We found ourselves on parallel tracks. They had more confidence in the cash-driven upfront model than I did.’’
What the PGA Tour Offers, and the 'Issue' Therein
It is fair to wonder why any player would have an issue with the PGA Tour, the premier golf tour in the world that for decades has attracted the best players and best competition.
And the rewards have only improved. Purses continue to rise. Enhancements are made. The Players Championship earlier this year had a $20 million purse. Last week’s Memorial Tournament, an elevated event like the Genesis Invitational and Arnold Palmer Invitations, had a $12 million purse.
Last year, Patrick Cantlay won the FedEx Cup and a $15 million bonus. The bonus pool has been increased to $75 million this year, with the winner receiving $18 million, and anyone who qualifies for the Tour Championship by finishing among the top 30 in FedEx Cup points is assured of $500,000 that is put into a tax-deferred retirement account. All of this is in addition to prize money that sees players competing for typically $7 to $8 million per week, with first prize north of $1 million.
A player who squeaks into the FedEx Cup playoffs at 125th gets $120,000 in FedEx bonus money and those from 126th to 150th receive $85,000. That is some pretty impressive bonus money down the list, especially for those who may not have performed well enough to remain fully exempt on the PGA Tour.
Jon Rahm led the money list in 2021 with more than $7.7 million. The Player Impact Program (PIP) paid a pool of 10 players $40 million, with Tiger Woods getting $8 million for winning despite not playing a single official tournament.
The Tour offers day care, courtesy cars and a dry cleaning service when on the road. At certain special events, housing is provided for a fee. There is a lucrative pension plan that is considered the best in sports. Despite not being employees of the Tour, players are still offered health insurance.
In the 2020-21 PGA Tour season, there were 67 players who made more than $2 million and a total of 124 players made $1 million or more.
Of course, you can finish 48th and last all season in the LIV Golf Invitational Series (and in the last team position in the team event to end the season) and be assured of more than $1 million because of the minimum payouts each week. Last place will be worth $120,000, with $250,000 being paid to each player on the last-place team at the final event.
But while LIV Golf will reward some journeyman players handsomely, it has never been about that. The entire reason why this concept even has a chance – or got traction – is the belief that the biggest stars in the sport are not compensated commensurate to their worth – and are not going head-to-head often enough.
“You know how well you have to play to make $7 million on the golf course?’’ says PGA Tour veteran Pat Perez, who is not part of LIV Golf. “My best year (2017), I won, I got to the Tour Championship (for the top 30 in points), I made 4.3 (million dollars). That’s like 300th in Major League Baseball. And I finished 15th (in the final standings).
“Look at guys in the NBA. Some of them don’t’ even take their sweatpants off, don’t get in the games, and they are making way more than that.’’
While Perez was exaggerating, his overall point is that professional golfers have no on-course guarantees.
“The needle-movers, the guys who are responsible for revenue, go out and compete at the risk of not being paid,’’ says one player agent who wished to not be identified. He likens it to a movie star: “He doesn’t shoot a movie for free and see how it does.’’
And Woods, naturally, is often cited as the player who is underpaid compared to what he has brought to the sport
Woods has made more than $120 million in prize money in his career – NBA star Steph Curry makes a little more than $107 million in salary over two years of his current contract. The PGA Tour is not the NBA, but Woods goes beyond golf and even sports.
For his career, his on-course earnings equate to less than $5 million per year. Sure, Woods has cashed the FedEx bonus money top spot twice; he’s made multi-millions in endorsements. Some metrics suggest he’s earned more than $1 billion.
But on the course ...
“Tiger Woods can sell a million dollars’ worth of tickets, be largely responsible for a large part of the television contract, and he has to shoot scores to get paid,’’ the agent says. “There really is an issue there. The question is how to manage and respond to it.’’
Says another agent who wishes not to be identified: “How can an organization negotiate hundreds of millions of dollars of TV contracts and someone like Tiger or Rory (McIlroy) goes out and has the same chance of making the same money as some guy who has come off the Korn Ferry Tour? There is no arbitration panel. And no judge would say that is a fair economic model.’’
The PGA Tour’s two biggest mandates are playing opportunities for its members and directing funds to charity. By nearly every measure, it has been wildly successful in both endeavors. There is barely a week in the year in which there is not some form of PGA Tour golf, official or otherwise. Each tournament is set up as a non-profit, with many tournaments giving well over $1 million to local charities. In its history, the Tour said it surpassed $3 billion in charitable giving in 2020.
And while the best players in the world are highly compensated, they need to perform in order to get it.
Woods has taken the side of the PGA Tour in this battle, noting that his legacy – 15 majors, 82 PGA Tour victories – is largely secured through competing as part of the organization. He has two tournaments, the Genesis Invitational and the Hero World Challenge, that benefit his foundation under the PGA Tour’s charitable model.
But when the PGL idea was making news in early 2020, Woods acknowledged he was approached, and his representatives listened.
“My team’s been aware of it and we’ve delved into the details of it and trying to figure it out just like everyone else,’’ Woods said at the 2020 Genesis Invitational. “We’ve been down this road before with World Golf Championships and other events being started, or other tours want to evolve and get started. There’s a lot of information that we’re still looking at.’’
Asked why he thought the concept was even a possibility, or if he saw something wrong with the way the PGA Tour operated, Woods said: “You’re trying to get the top players to play more collectively. It’s one of the reasons we instituted the World Golf Championships, because we were only getting together five times a year, the four majors and the Players, and we wanted to showcase the top players on more than those occasions. And so this is a natural evolution, whether or not things like this are going to happen, but ideas like this are going to happen going forward.’’
The idea of bringing the best to together more often was exactly what the PGL/LIV people envisioned.
Gardiner says he never met with Woods, but had several meetings and conversations with Mark Steinberg, Woods’ longtime agent. It is possible that Steinberg was just on a fact-finding mission, just like many in the game were and have been during this period.
But for all the pushback that has come in recent weeks and months since the Mickelson fallout, it is safe to say that nearly every top player and every agent at least listened to the various proposals.
“To be straightforward with you guys, I haven’t necessarily made a decision one way or the other,’’ Rickie Fowler said at the PGA Championship; the popular five-time PGA Tour winner is not in the LIV field this week. “I’ve mentioned in the past, do I currently think the PGA Tour is the best place to play? I do. Do think it can be better? Yes.
“So I think it’s an interesting position. Obviously there’s the LIV and the Premier [Golf League], as well. These tours or leagues, however you want to classify or call them, they wouldn’t really be coming up if they didn’t see that there was more opportunity out there. I’ve always looked at competition being a good thing. It’s the driving force of our game.’’
Tony Finau, who is also not playing in the LIV event, acknowledges that he has explored it.
“Competition is always going to be there at any level of any sport,’’ Finau says. “Now we are seeing that in golf. Whether this is good or bad is going to be up to opinion. But having competition is a natural thing. It’s a positive thing. There’s a lot of talk about it.
“It’s something that me and my team continue to look at and what it looks like for us. It’s a natural thing to have competition in sports and that’s what we’re seeing now with LIV Golf.’’
A Star Player Listens, Then Downplays a 'Money Grab'
Rory McIlroy, 33, has four major championships and 20 PGA Tour victories and also plays the DP World Tour. From Northern Ireland, he has been a star on the European Ryder Cup team and has come to be known as a thoughtful voice on various issues. He is now a member of the PGA Tour’s policy board.
In January 2020, McIlroy acknowledged that the PGL could “be a catalyst for some changes on this Tour that can help it grow and move forward and reward the top players the way they should be, I guess.’’
And therein, again, lies the underlying issue, that there is a sense among a good number in the game that the stars are not rewarded to the level of their value.
In February 2020, in Mexico at a World Golf Championship event, McIlroy seemingly put the dagger in the PGL when he said he was against the idea.
“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it,’’ he said. “The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do. I pick and choose. This is a perfect example. Some guys this week made the choice to not come to Mexico. If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice.’’
McIlroy’s words carried a lot of weight, but the PGL was not dissuaded. It continued to talk up its ideas, including that March at the Players Championship.
Given the pandemic, and the hiatus all sports took, the idea of a rival league went into the background. It was barely broached publicly over the rest of the year. The PGA Tour quietly put together its PIP program. A new television deal was announced, meaning that by this year, purses and the FedEx Cup bonus money would all increase.
Getting back to golf and through the struggles of COVID-19 became a much bigger topic.
But by the spring of 2021, the idea of a rival league again made headlines. This time, it was being billed as the Super Golf League, and while there was some confusion as to its backing, it turned out to be a different entity than the PGL. This was the forerunner to what we know now as LIV Golf.
Mickelson was at the forefront, his name being reported as having been offered $100 million. In carefully worded responses to reporters at the Wells Fargo Championship – just two weeks before he made history by becoming the oldest major champion at the PGA Championship – Mickelson made it clear he was listening.
“I think the fans would love it because they would see the best players play exponentially more times,’’ he said. “Instead of four or five times, it would be 20 times … I don’t know what the final number is.
“But that’s a big deal to give up control of your schedule. I don’t know if the players would be selfless enough to do that. But every other sport, the entity or teams or leagues control the schedule. The players kind of play where they are told to play. Whereas here, we’re able to control it.’’
It was serious enough that it again had the attention of the PGA Tour and commissioner Jay Monahan. At a player meeting that week in Charlotte, Monahan made it clear to members who joined a rival league that they faced suspension or possible bans.
McIlroy, again, tried to put things in perspective.
“They first contacted me back in 2014, so this is seven years down the line and nothing has really changed,’’ McIlroy said. “Maybe the source of the money's changed or the people that are in charge have changed, but nothing has happened. No sponsorship deals, no media deals, no players have signed up, no manufacturers have signed up. There's been so many iterations at this point.
“You go back to what happened last week in Europe (in the spring of 2021) with the European Super League in football. People can see it for what it is, which is a money grab, which is fine if that's what you're playing golf for is to make as much money as possible. Totally fine, then go and do that if that's what makes you happy.
“But I think the top players in the game, I'm just speaking my own personal beliefs, like I'm playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world. That's why I'm playing this game. Golf has been very good to me obviously over the years by playing in Europe starting off, coming over to the PGA Tour and playing here. I honestly don't think there's a better structure in place in golf, and I don't think there will be.
“You have the strategic partnership as well between Europe and the PGA Tour and that's only going to strengthen the structure of golf going forward as well in terms of scheduling and all sorts of other stuff and working together a little bit more.’’
'This Actually Could Be Great,' Though Obstacles Remain
Undeterred, the Saudi-backed effort pushed on. In the fall, Greg Norman was announced as CEO of the new entity known as LIV Golf Investments, whose goal was to help invest in the game. The first step was to make a commitment to the Asian Tour.
The ulterior motive there was to get sanctioning by an established tour for the yet-to-be named league for which Norman would be commissioner. When he was first introduced in October, Norman was short on details but long on reasoning for forging ahead.
Nearly 30 years earlier, Norman had been part of a plan to establish a World Golf Tour that would bring together the top players in limited-field events for big prize money. He had the support of Fox Sports, but was ultimately thwarted when then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem threatened suspensions and bans similar to what Monahan has discussed today.
“I always wanted to understand why we were stuck in a box,’’ said Norman in November 2021; the 67-year-old was a winner of 20 PGA Tour events and 88 worldwide who was ranked No. 1 in the world for 331 weeks. “In ’93-’94, I thought of this idea of how do we get the best players to play against each other on more of a regular basis and give them an annuity into the future.
“I always thought if I could do something for my fellow players and carry the burden of responsibility … I just thought there was a better way, why I thought of this World Golf Tour, where they could have ownership. That’s thinking out of the box. That’s thinking like an independent contractor. Like an entrepreneur. Understanding the marketplace.’’
It remains Norman’s belief that a player on the PGA Tour, who is an independent contractor, should have the right to play wherever he wants and whenever he wants, as long as he commits to a minimum number of events – in the PGA Tour’s case, 15.
The Tour counters that those who join it agree to the rules which only allow for limited appearances outside of the PGA Tour – in the form of conflicting-event releases – that need to be granted.
And here we are.
Through numerous starts and stops, LIV Golf slowly announced a management structure and was poised in December, January and February to announce the format of its 14-team league, with more than a dozen players – it said – on board.
But all of that was thwarted in the aftermath of Mickelson’s comments. Suddenly, the 45-time PGA Tour winner and six-time major champion, was left all alone. McIlroy criticized him and players such as Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, believed to be seriously considering the new venture, sided with the PGA Tour. So did Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Jordan Spieth and several others.
McIlroy said he believed LIV was “dead in the water’’ and wondered “Who is left?’’
And yet, LIV was still alive. Officials regrouped and came up with an eight-tournament schedule called the LIV Golf Invitational Series, which begins this week and continues with five tournaments in the United States, one in Thailand and another in Saudi Arabia.
Johnson then stunned the golf world last week when he decided to play in the first LIV Golf event, thus skipping the RBC Canadian Open. He was a brand ambassador for RBC and already has been dropped by the company. Mickelson has now joined him, along with the likes of past major champions Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel and Martin Kaymer.
Kevin Na announced on Saturday that he was withdrawing from the PGA Tour, basically avoiding the possibility of being suspended, declaring himself free to play where he wants.
And more of this is expected to follow as players look to the riches being offered by LIV Golf and weighing that against giving up what they have known for years in the PGA Tour.
Gardiner first started on this process in 2014. A golf outsider, he did all he could to learn the inner workings of the game. He studied sponsorships and TV and the relationships the PGA Tour had with all stakeholders.
“I was doing it in the mode of expecting somebody to tell me why it couldn’t be done,’’ he says. “I had never worked in golf, I had a very steep learning curve. There’s only so much you can pick up without being inside the industry. I probably spent three years waiting for somebody to come to me and say, 'God no, you can’t do this.’
“There was almost an excitement because we thought we had unearthed something that others hadn’t. There was one guy I met who was involved in the game for 30 years and I showed him my document which was like 100 pages long. I was expecting ridicule. He said I had taught him an awful lot about a business he’d been in for a long time. To me, that was incredible.’’
Although Gardiner is not part of the group that will attempt to put on this controversial format this week in England, he is keenly interested in seeing how it goes and is not necessarily against it.
“I thought this actually could be great because they are showing an alternative actually exists and can come into being,’’ he says. “The only question is: Do the PGA Tour players want those guys — meaning the PIF — to run it?"
Serious obstacles remain. LIV Golf does not have a television or streaming rights deal and plans to air its first tournament via YouTube and its website for free. The tournaments will not be offering world golf ranking points, a detriment to luring more players who want an avenue to the major championships.
Ticket sales in England are not robust, and there have been a fair amount of giveaways. Then there is still plenty of skepticism about the shotgun starts and how that might be received.
But LIV Golf is banking on this: Fans, and especially other players, will be interested to see who takes $4 million on Saturday for winning a golf tournament.