Rivals to the PGA Tour are nothing new. With the Saudi Golf League's latest efforts making headlines and causing a fallout, we decided to trace back the history of upstart golf tours that have led us to this point.
The past few weeks can be summed up in two words (Phil Mickelson) or three (Super Golf League). But two other words seem to be the first when talking about what has been starting waves among the PGA Tour’s best: “Saudi Arabia.”
Things may have peaked when an interview excerpt from Phil’s interview with biographer Alan Shipnuck was released by The Fire Pit Collective, an event which may have ultimately determined the fate of the proposed Super League. But like any earthquake, the behind-the-scenes action operates deep, well below the surface.
In the case of the Super Golf League, it’s a chronology that can be traced back more than 50 years. It’s a timeline that reflects the long-term motivations of several key parties. Fury Golf has assembled a basic timeline of these events to help you understand that, while there are some obvious “bad guys,” everyone has had a role to play.
1969: The Creation of the Tournament Players Division
Jack Nicklaus sits at No. 317 all-time in terms of earnings, and that’s not just because of inflation. Viktor Hovland, at 24, has already reached No. 215.
It’s possible that the icons of old might have earned even less, if it weren’t for the formation of the Tournament Players Division during 1969. This group — championed by the likes of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and others — was formed under the belief that the PGA of America did a shoddy job of distributing earnings from its tournaments, and recognizing the names who brought the league attention and profit.
Five years later, the TPD would rebrand as the PGA Tour (which to this day remains autonomous from the PGA of America). The point is this: Breakways from the dominant league are possible, and the PGA Tour is the strongest proof.
1994: The World Golf Tour
Greg Norman, who finished the 1994 Tour season as the No. 2 golfer in the world, made the World Golf Tour official, providing an alternative to the PGA Tour for at least eight weeks during 1995.
The mini-tour would feature more than $25 million in payouts, distributed across eight tournaments. Each event guaranteed a $600,000 payout to the winner, as well as an additional $1 million to the top point-scorer across the season’s run. A $3 million event purse matched that of The Players Championship, which — like today — was the highest-paying event at the time.
David Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner, quickly flexed legal muscle, stating that the tour would enforce rules regarding conflicting events, as well as television release rules. He later upped the ante, threatening suspensions and fines for participants. Fox Television began to get cold feet, concerned over potential loss of future PGA revenue, and pulled out of the World Golf Tour conversation. That decision went beyond just lost broadcast potential; much of that $25 million seasonal purse could be traced back to Rupert Murdoch.
The WGT’s 1995 season quickly disappeared from the schedule. Norman, however, was not impressed. The conflict had invited conversation over what legal ability the PGA had to enforce participation, and whether the FTC could step in to decide otherwise.
“It will happen,” Norman said, tellingly. “Whether it happens in 1995, 1996 or 2006, it will happen."
2015: Transfer of the Public Investment Fund’s Control
The Public Investment Fund is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, an investment pool operating on behalf of Saudi Arabia. The fund reportedly controls more than $500 billion in assets, both cash and otherwise. It is also notorious for its opaque nature, with few of its investments actually identified.
Although still secretive, the PIF has become slightly more transparent in recent years, following a 2014 decision to allow investments outside of Saudi Arabia. Following that decision shortly thereafter, authority over the fund was transferred to the Council of Economic and Development Affairs from the Ministry of Finance. The head of this new council?
Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Although not technically at the head of the government, Prince Salman has been viewed as the de facto decision maker in Saudi Arabia since his father’s ascension. The prince serves as deputy prime minister, the minister of defense, and the head of PIF. The latter role allows him to wield the fund for his Vision 2030 plan, a development strategy that spreads far and wide for both economic and public relations purposes.
Among PIF’s most prominent channels for putting the kingdom in a glowing light among an international audience is through athletics. One such move was the purchase of Newcastle United FC during 2021, which spurred protests. Prince Mohammed has been accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American journalist, and others with an extrajudicial team of assassins, as well as a run of heavy-handed diplomatic involvement in nations such as Yemen.
February 2019: The First Saudi International Is Held at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club
There had been no official word on a Saudi-backed golf league looking to lure the world’s best away from the PGA Tour but rumors had been on the tips of everyone’s tongue for long enough that it couldn’t be ignored.
Therefore the first Saudi International, attracted more attention than one might expect. Although part of the European Tour, the number of A-List Americans who made the trip was enough to fuel a highlight reel and, based on the number of promotional videos shown with stars like Patrick Reed speaking to rooms full of Saudi children, it seems that was exactly the point.
Dustin Johnson was the winner, bringing home $583,000. That was less than half of what was offered at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the week’s PGA event. Some stayed home to chase a higher paycheck. Among them? The 2019 champ was Phil Mickelson, who took home $1.37 million.
February 2020: The Premier Golf League
The formal existence of a potential competitor to the PGA Tour is formalized (although its existence has been known for quite some time), as Tim Gardiner is named CEO of the Premier Golf League. His name is hardly a surprise, as Mickelson had made the trip abroad for the second Saudi International, and played with Gardiner in the pro-am.
PGA pros indicated that they had been contacted by the PGL for years, with Rory McIlroy claiming contact as early as 2014. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan warns players not to expect being able to play both sides, but his menace is less loud than Finchem’s had been.
Reports suggest that events have been scaled up even more from Norman’s World Golf Tour: The winners at the eight PGL events would each take home $5 million, nearly double the current champion’s check at The Players Championship.
That said, Norman only had billionaire Rupert Murdoch fronting funds. The support of Saudi Arabia’s PIF beefs up the bank…and the debates.
April 2021: The Player Impact Program
On its face, the Player Impact Program was advertised as a reward for players who brought in the most attention for the PGA. The system offered a total of $40 million to 10 players, with the winning “PIP score” bringing in $8 million. Underneath its face, the mechanics were about as murky as those of its acronym competitor, the PIF.
For one, among the five qualifying factors that played into the PIP rankings were separate ratings systems, not released to the public. This includes the “Q Rating,” which claims to measure a player’s brand appeal and familiarity. The primary critique against the system was that the rich only got richer. Which was probably also the point: Few doubted it was dangled to keep the PGA’s biggest fish swimming in the same pool.
The PGA also doesn’t plan to release the official results, making it seem all the more fishy. The most recent reports suggest that Tiger Woods topped the PIP, despite not playing a tournament during 2021. It’s enough to legitimize some complaints from Mickelson (who, for the record, seems to have gotten second-place PIP money).
Whether you spell it PIP or PIF, it’s not popular among professional golf fans.
August 2021: The PGA and European Tour form a “Strategic Alliance”
Another read-between-the-lines event occurred later during 2021, when the PGA Tour and the European Tour announced a “strategic alliance,” aimed to benefit members of both leagues.
The European Tour could be described, technically, as a competitor to the PGA Tour, however the Euro has never been quite spunky enough to attempt a coup. Therefore the provisions of the alliance seem to favor the PGA: The biggest events on the Euro, such as the Irish Open, nearly doubled their purses, and the PGA agreed to award FedEx points for such events.
The message seemed to be that the PGA Tour doesn’t mind if you play elsewhere. Just don’t play for any Saudi-backed tour.
October 2021: Greg Norman named CEO of LIV Golf Investments
This marks the peak of Greg Norman’s goal of founding a PGA competitor, which seems to have become The Shark’s white whale. Less than a year earlier, Norman had praised the potential of the Premier Golf League, but in October, Norman was named the commissioner of the new Super Golf League, sponsored by the PIF (where the PIF lost interest in the PGL is not clear). Two days later, Norman is named CEO of LIV Golf Investments (if “LIV” is an acronym, they haven’t revealed what it stands for), the firm responsible for handling the schedule.
SGL is not announced as a new tour, but a 10-event series housed within the Asian Tour. More than $200 million is committed to the Asian Tour over 10 years. The press releases don’t hide that the ultimate goal is to create a global rival to the PGA Tour.
November 2021: Premier League Golf Persists
The PGL, still kicking despite being dumped by the PIF, announced it was seeking to partner with the PGA — a league it had once hoped to unseat.
There are two potential reasons for why the PGL decided to reach out to the PGA. One may be that the PGL seeks to cultivate its PGA-beating league from within, similar to what the SGL announced it would do with its Asian Tour start.
More likely, however, is that the loss of PIF sponsorship has left the PGL’s wallet much less full than it had been; teaming up with the PGA might be its only hope for survival. The PGA hasn’t shown interest in the proposal.
And that’s somewhat why the PGL has fallen under the radar while the SGL hogs all the recent headlines. It really is about the money. Namely, you’ll need a lot of it to stare down the PGA.
December 2021: Tiger Woods pledges allegiance to the PGA Tour
It seems like big news — that the most influential golfer in the history of the game comes down firmly on the side of the PGA Tour against any of its potential competitors. The noise created by the PGL still keeps the PGA’s ears perked up, however.
Part of this stems from earlier reports that the PGL had been aggressive in courting its prime targets, offering advances for participation. The values vary, from $30 to $50 million, for players with international appeal, such as Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, and Bryson Dechambeau. Mickelson may have been offered up to $100 million for playing the pitchman and bringing big names with him to the SGL.
That said, cracks were more evident than many believed. McIlroy, the tour conscience, had been decrying Saudi leagues. Many of his contemporaries — Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm among them — had also written off leaving the PGA.
February 2022: The Fourth Saudi Invitational Is Held.
Following the partnership announcement from the PGA and European Tours, the Saudi International Championship made a bolt from the European Tour to the Asian Tour. Coincidentally, the purse improves drastically, nearly doubling to $1 million for the winner.
February 2022: The Mickelson Interview
One sentence from Shipnuck’s interview captured the essence of years of Saudi debate:
Mickelson acknowledged the murder of Khashoggi, as well as the kingdom’s repression of dissidents and minorities. He justifies his involvement by suggesting he has no other way to gain leverage on the PGA Tour without their financial backing.
Fallout came quickly. Most notable in the aftermath were statements from Dechambeau and Dustin Johnson, declaring allegiance to the PGA Tour. Although there are plenty more professional golfers to step in and take their place, the PGL’s success hinges on attracting a marquee list of names…a list that seems to have dwindled down to Mickelson himself.
The story hasn’t quite ended there. Although Dechambeau, Johnson and many others have pulled back from the idea of the SGL, one needs to wonder “why now.” Mickelson’s quote didn’t illuminate any new information; it just cast it in a new light…that some of the world’s best knew exactly who they were dealing with. Their sudden retreat was more about brand preservation than sudden awareness.
It suggests that players are ready to make the leap…but the money’s got to be right (both in total and in morality). The PGA Tour needs to realize that it’s not winning this battle based on its own righteousness, but that its own competition has even bigger questions to answer for.
What’s the solution to keep the world’s best playing on the Tour they know (if not love, necessarily)? That’s a topic the PGA must continue to consider.