Dustin Johnson, who in February pledged his loyalty to the US-based PGA Tour, will be the highest-ranked golfer at the inaugural event of a rival Saudi-backed tour next week at Centurion Golf Club in outside London. Phil Mickelson, who has recently expressed some support for the alternate circuit, was not among those listed on the court for the tournament.
Mickelson’s absence is a slight surprise, although there were still six places available on Tuesday, so he might change his mind. Johnson’s inclusion is a breach in the broad solidarity expressed by elite male golfers on the PGA Tour over the past six months.
Johnson, 37 and ranked 13th in the world, was one of 42 players entered on the course for the first event of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, whose main shareholder is the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. The upstart league features no-cut tournaments with $25 million in total prize money to each and guarantees top players millions in appearance fees regardless of their performance.
Other players on the pitch were expected, many of them – like Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Richard Bland, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter – over the age of 40. only two – Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen – are ranked in the top 30.
The PGA Tour and the established European golf tour have refused member golfers to play in LIV Golf, which is run by retired grand champion Greg Norman. PGA Tour officials have said those who play in any of the breakaway Tour’s tournaments could face punishment, which could include suspensions or loss of Tour membership.
The next stage of the confrontation could be in court. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has insisted that tour lawyers believe any discipline imposed on golfers who play for the rival tour will withstand legal scrutiny.
Johnson, a two-time major winner who has racked up more than $74 million in career earnings from the PGA Tour, said in February he was “fully committed to the PGA Tour.” It was a sentiment shared by every top 10 player and every top golfer in a younger cohort that has dominated the PGA Tour for the past two seasons.
Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion, called the new rival league “dead in the water”.
Johnson’s agent, David Winkle, released a statement Tuesday evening: “Dustin has considered this opportunity from time to time over the past two years. In the end, he decided it was in his best interest and that of his family to pursue it. Dustin has never had a problem with the PGA Tour and is grateful for everything he has given him, but in the end he felt it was too compelling to pass up.
“Free agency has finally arrived in golf,” Norman said in his own statement. “This is an opportunity to launch a movement that will change the course of history by bringing new and open competition to the sport we all love. The players’ desire to participate in LIV Golf demonstrates their adamant belief in our model and their confidence in what we are building for the future.
The LIV Golf series includes eight events from June to October, including one in Thailand and five in the United States. At the end of July, the host site will be the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ
Saudi Arabia’s role in the new tour has already sparked controversy. Mickelson unleashed a storm of criticism in February after acknowledging that Saudi Arabia had a “horrendous human rights record” – including the murder of a Washington Post reporter – but said he considered the new tour a “once in a lifetime experience”. opportunity” to lobby the PGA Tour to increase player revenue. Mickelson later said his remarks had been “reckless”.