Dustin Johnson Joins Field for Saudi-Backed LIV Golf—and Repercussions Begin

Dustin Johnson, a two-time major champion and longtime world No. 1, highlights the initial list of golfers participating in the first tournament hosted by LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed upstart league that has thrown the industry into tumult.

Johnson, who had previously indicated he wouldn’t participate in the series bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund, is one of two top-20 players listed in the field for the circuit’s inaugural tournament, scheduled for June 9-11 at Centurion Club outside London. Louis Oosthuizen is the other, according to LIV Golf.

Johnson’s anticipated inclusion in the event is a coup for the new venture, which has found itself at odds with the PGA Tour and embroiled in controversy. In May, a PGA Tour executive sent a memo to its players saying they were not authorized to participate in the event. Most of the world’s best players, outside of Johnson, are not participating despite the offer of record prize money.

The decision has already cost Johnson a sponsor and will likely bring repercussions from the PGA Tour.

In a statement on Wednesday, the PGA Tour reiterated that its members were not permitted to participate in the event.

“Members who violate the Tournament Regulations are subject to disciplinary action,” the statement said.

The first LIV Golf event goes up against the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open—and two of the members of the field, Johnson and Graeme McDowell, also happen to have sponsorship deals with the Canadian bank. RBC said in a statement it was ending both deals.

“As a result of the decisions made by professional golfers Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell to play the LIV Golf Invitational Series opener, RBC is terminating its sponsorship agreement with both players,” RBC said in the statement. “We wish them well in their future endeavours.”

The angst over LIV Golf’s attempt to create an alternate circuit for golfers, and its offer of big bucks to lure big names, spiked earlier this year when author Alan Shipnick published comments by superstar Phil Mickelson, who said he was willing to do business with the Saudis despite the country’s record on human rights.

Mickelson, who was widely criticized for his comments and has not played on tour since their publication in February, is not listed among the 42 players for the first event. But that does not rule out his potential participation.

The announcement of the field sets the stage for a showdown between the golfers who will participate and golf’s governing bodies. The PGA Tour made clear to its players they were not permitted to do so. That raises the question of what, if any, punishment, such as fines or suspensions, may come.

Many of the highest-profile golfers who said yes to the event are in the latter stages of their careers—apparently willing to risk potential punishment in exchange for the lucrative purses and participation fees offered by LIV Golf.

Johnson, currently ranked No. 13 in the world, is the top golfer in the field. He’s 37 years old. Oosthuizen, the world No. 20, is 39. Three of the other most notable names, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, are in their 40s.

Ryder Cup teammates Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia are on the LIV Golf list.


Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

“Dustin has been contemplating the opportunity off-and-on for the past couple of years. Ultimately, he decided it was in his and his family’s best interest to pursue it,” David Winkle, Johnson’s agent, said in a statement. “Dustin has never had any issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him, but in the end, felt this was too compelling to pass up.”

For Johnson, who won the 2020 Masters and spent much of last year atop the world rankings, the decision to play is a major pivot. For months, his name had been linked as a possible participant. Yet, in the wake of the backlash over Mickelson’s comments, Johnson released a statement through the PGA Tour in February to seemingly quell those rumors.

“Over the past several months, there has been a great deal of speculation about an alternative tour; much of which seems to have included me and my future in professional golf,” Johnson’s statement at the time said. “I feel it is now time to put such speculation to rest. I am fully committed to the PGA Tour.”

Other golfers, around the same time, made similar statements. They opted not to participate. Johnson thing to do so anyway.

Mickelson, 51 years old, was quoted in February saying that the Saudi regime is “scary” with a “horrible record on human rights.”

“Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?” Mickelson said in the comments published in February. “Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” He has since apologized.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tiger Woods has made clear that he didn’t want to participate and had pointed words at the recent PGA Championship for those, such as Mickelson, who did.

“I understand different viewpoints, but I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There’s plenty of money out here,” he said. “You have to go out there and earn it.”

The field for this first event is majority non-US players, although the group led by former major champion Greg Norman was able to tap some other intriguing Americans. James Piot, the reigning US Amateur champion, is among those names.

LIV Golf said the tournament received more than 170 applications, with the field competing for $25 million. That’s a sum that exceeds any purse that has ever been offered on the PGA Tour for a single event.

“Free agency has finally come to golf,” said Norman, the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf. “The desire shown by the players to participate in LIV Golf demonstrates their emphatic belief in our model and confidence in what we’re building for the future.”

Nevertheless, most of the best golfers said no. None of the world’s current top-10 are participating while much of the field is ranked higher than No. 100 in the rankings.

This opening LIV Golf tournament goes up against one of the tour’s bigger events, the RBC Canadian Open. But given the timing, what may be even more fascinating is the fallout the following weekend—and who is permitted to participate.

Three of the last 12 US Open champions—Johnson, McDowell and Martin Kaymer—are in the LIV Golf field. Meanwhile, the 2022 US Open begins on June 16.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Laisser un commentaire