PGA Tour suspension dampens LIV Golf's big day

By Peter ScrivenerBBC Sport at Centurion Club
Phil Mickelson on the first tee at Centurion Club
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 quickly.

Evidence of that came 30 minutes after the most lucrative event in the sport's history began at Centurion Club, near London.

An already tumultuous week, which has seen players resigning from the PGA Tour while being asked if they are "Saudi stooges" in uncomfortable news conferences, took a significant turn at 14:45 BST.

The PGA Tour announced it was suspending 17 rebel members who have chosen to play in this inaugural $25m Saudi Arabian-funded LIV Golf Invitational event.

Within seconds LIV, which is fronted by former world number one Greg Norman, hit back, calling the PGA Tour "vindictive".

All the while, the golf tournament that is shaking the game to its core was under way.

'Is there a danger you could be seen as Saudi stooge?' - Mickelson faces media at LIV Golf event

A fleet of London black cabs had ferried the 48 players to their respective holes as they all teed off simultaneously across the course at 14:15, 17 of them oblivious to the PGA Tour's decision that would be waiting in their email inbox.

Six-time major champion Phil Mickelson and former world number one Dustin Johnson are among the biggest names in the sport to have been seduced by the Saudi millions - with rumours circulating that Bryson DeChambeau is to play in the second event in Portland, Oregon at the end of June.

Mickelson has not denied speculation he is picking up $200m (£160m), with Johnson getting a reported $150m in appearance fees for joining the series which is being bankrolled to the tune of £1.6bn by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The Americans were paired together on Thursday, with Mickelson, who is ending a four-month self-imposed exile from the game after calling the Saudis "scary", flashing his trademark cheesy smile as he received a rapturous reception on the first tee.

A fly-by of vintage aeroplanes and buglers dressed as Beefeaters heralded the start of the tournament, with Johnson hitting the first shot in front of hundreds of fans lining the fairway to watch the marquee pairing, who signed for one-under-par 69s.

Ticket sales have undeniably been slow though.

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

And the majority of fans I spoke to had taken advantage, eager to see the likes of Westwood and his European Ryder Cup team-mates Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell, while also trying to get their heads round the team element that organisers are so keen to push.

'Would you play in Russia?' Poulter & Westwood face grilling

As well as an individual competition, there are 12 teams of four players, with names like Majesticks, Fireballs and Iron Heads. LIV Golf want fans to pick teams that they can root for throughout the entire series of eight events - although that may prove tricky in this first year with players likely to change from event to event.

By having shotgun starts, where players all tee off simultaneously, they hope to provide a television-friendly product but no broadcasters have signed up.

Instead, LIV are streaming coverage via their own website and on YouTube, which attracted a concurrent audience of around 100,000 towards the end of the day's play.

And despite promising innovation, LIV have been unable to do anything about the scourge of modern golf, slow play. The 48 players went out in 16 groups of three and took around four hours and 45 minutes to get round.

South Africa's Charl Schwartzel leads the way on five under and his Stinger Golf Club is top of the team standings.

Once play was over, the focus switched back to music in the fanzone with James Morrison the headline act. "Wow, there's a crowd, I was getting a bit worried before," he said in front of an audience of a couple of hundred people.

However, there was a buzzy atmosphere in the hours leading up to the 'shotgun' start. Gates opened three hours before play got under way, with plenty of golfing distractions keeping fans entertained, to the backdrop of thumping music from a DJ.

And most people attending also seemed unperturbed by the vast sums of money on offer this week, or the origin of that cash.

But the origin of the money is contentious, with the Saudis being accused of 'sportswashing' - using the PIF's deep pockets to sponsor sporting events and deflect attention from their questionable human rights record.

The subject dominated the player news conferences on Tuesday and Wednesday. No doubt expecting the barrage of questions, LIV Golf drafted in former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer - who worked with President George W. Bush from 2001-03 - to brief the players.

To a man they all said they "didn't condone human rights violations", with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell calling the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul "reprehensible".

Perhaps Fleischer was brought in on the back of Norman's "we all make mistakes" comment when fielding similar questions on 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 repeatedly said that he doesn't want to compete with the established PGA Tour, or the European-based DP World Tour and sees a world in which players are free to choose which tournaments they want to play in.

As the players came off the course, they were not surprised to learn of the PGA Tour suspension issued by an American-based circuit fighting to keep 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 litigious situation".

He added: "I didn't want to resign, the PGA Tour has been great. I hope Keith [Pelley, DP World Tour chief] doesn't follow suit but they have a strategic alliance with PGA Tour and may have to."

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy, who is defending the Canadian Open on the PGA Tour this week and has made a moral decision to turn down Saudi money, has backed the PGA Tour's decision to suspend the rebels, but is intrigued enough to watch the LIV Golf event.

"I'll see what all the fuss is about," he said, although quipped he's "not going out to buy any team merchandise any time soon".

Around the BBC - SoundsAround the BBC footer - Sounds

Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC

Featured