PGA Tour says Saudi-paid players no longer eligible for tour

AP Photo/Alastair Grant
Dustin Johnson of the United States, left, and Phil Mickelson of the United States greet each other on the first tee during the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational at the Centurion Club in St. Albans, England, Thursday, June 9, 2022.

Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson launched tee shots in the Saudi-funded golf league on Thursday, and it wasn’t long before the PGA Tour said its players who took part were no longer welcome, even if they already had resigned.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan held a hard line on his pledge that players could choose one tour or the other, but not both.

Those who had resigned from the PGA Tour — Graeme McDowell said he did so 30 minutes before he teed off — were no longer eligible on any PGA Tour circuit. Those who remained members, such as Mickelson, were suspended.

“These players have made their choice or their own financial-based reasons,” Monahan said in a memo to his membership. “But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you.”

Ian Poulter said he would appeal the ruling. McDowell said he wanted to “keep the high moral ground” by resigning to try to keep litigation to a minimum. He thinks suspensions are a healthy way to go about business.

Mickelson had nothing to say except that he didn’t want to talk about the PGA Tour in his first tournament in four months, only to confirm he will play all eight of the LIV events, five of which will be in the United States.

When told that people were interested in his situation, Mickelson replied, “I’m very flattered so many people are interested.”

Still to be determined is whether those players are ever welcome back. For now, Monahan made it clear that the suspensions include the Presidents Cup — the International team (countries outside Europe) is determined by the world ranking.

Monahan said the players who resigned will have their names removed from the PGA Tour standings — FedEx Cup and Presidents Cup — after this week. He said the tour will make sure those who haven’t resigned will not affect rankings on various lists of tour players.

The USGA already has said eligible players can still compete in the U.S. Open next week. The PGA Tour does not run the majors.

PGA champion Justin Thomas and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy welcomed the decision from the tour stop this week at the Canadian Open.

“I think anybody that’s shocked clearly hasn’t been listening to the message that Jay and everybody’s been putting out,” Thomas said. “They took that risk going into it, whether they thought it was a risk or not. I have great belief and great confidence in the PGA Tour and where we’re going and continuing to grow to, and those guys just aren’t going to be a part of it.”

Ten players have resigned from the PGA Tour, a list that includes Johnson and Sergio Garcia. Mickelson, who has lifetime membership with 45 PGA Tour titles, is among those who has not.

LIV Golf, run by Greg Norman and funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, responded to the tour’s decision by calling it vindictive and divisive.

“It’s troubling that the tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing,” LIV Golf said. “This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”

At issue is players competing without a conflicting event release from the PGA Tour.

Players typically receive three such releases a year for tournaments overseas. Monahan denied releases for the LIV Golf Invitational because it is an eight-tournament series that plans to compete directly with the PGA Tour in the United States.

The tour does not allow releases for events in North America.

“We have followed the tournament regulations from start to finish in responding to those players who have decided to turn their backs on the PGA Tour by willfully violating a regulation,” he wrote.

LIV Golf has paid enormous signing fees, with The Daily Telegraph reporting $150 million for Johnson and Mickelson declining to dispute reports he was paid $200 million. Both are more than Tiger Woods’ career earnings on the PGA Tour.

Norman has said LIV would support the players even if it wound up in the courts. McDowell said some players already have spoken to lawyers.

“We haven’t been issued releases. We feel like we should have been issued releases. We’ve done it for the last 20 years, operated all over the world,” McDowell said. “Listen, we all know the situation is about something bigger. It’s competition and it’s not liked. They are having to play the game the way they feel they have to play it, which is playing hard ball.”

The European tour has not said whether it would suspend its players. It has an alliance with the PGA Tour commercially, including the first co-sanctioned events this year on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The first test for PGA Tour players figures to be the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, the week after the U.S. Open. Johnson was among those listed in the field.

The LIV Golf Invitational was being streamed on YouTube and Facebook. Before the opening round, Norman said he was thrilled to see an effort 30 years in the making come to fruition.

He tried to start a World Golf Tour in the 1990s for only the elite players and had a TV contract lined up until the PGA Tour quashed the moment with support from Arnold Palmer. That circuit never got off the ground.

This one did, with the backing of riches the likes of which golf has never seen.

Each tournament offers $25 million in prize money, with $4 million for the individual winner. The PGA Tour’s richest event is The Players Championship at $20 million. The Canadian Open this week, which has five of the top-10 players in the world, has an $8.7 million purse.