New Saudi tour deserves barely a golf clap

Phil Mickelson, the chief recruiter for a Saudi-funded rival league to the PGA Tour, was the last big name to join the 48-man field for the LIV Golf Invitational that starts Friday outside London. It will be Mickelson's first time playing since Feb. 6 at the Saudi International. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

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Phil Mickelson, the chief recruiter for a Saudi-funded rival league to the PGA Tour, was the last big name to join the 48-man field for the LIV Golf Invitational that starts Friday outside London. It will be Mickelson's first time playing since Feb. 6 at the Saudi International. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The revolution begins Thursday, with a shotgun start. Employing the same format as any charity scramble – in this case the cause is the Phil Mickelson Bad Decisions Relief Fund – the LIV Golf International Series dawns in London.

They’re really doing it, staging an eight-event circuit – half the events in the U.S. – in a direct challenge to the PGA Tour, the big, swinging titanium driver of professional golf. With the backing of a Saudi government looking to paper over its many abuses in colorful tender, LIV Golf is stress-testing one of the most comfortable organizations in sports.

This, after all, is a Tour whose pilings are sunk deeply into the bedrock of the Fortune 500 and its top players are running out of new homes to buy in South Florida before they run out of capital. Yet could there be even a greener pasture than this?

Here now are golfers forced to explore the vast limits of their personal greed. They are being made to confront the choices between tradition and contrivance, between an uncomfortable alliance with the Saudis and the high moral ground, between really rich and stupid rich.

For Mickelson, one of the first over the wall to join the LIV tour, it was, of course, a no-brainer. Having incurred massive gambling losses, so the reports go, his supposed $200 million contract for switching sides will go a long way toward forestalling a knee-capping.

For those who have chosen to stand by the PGA Tour: We salute you for your loyalty to a group that has done nothing but make your lives one continual Ralph Lauren ad, even if you aren’t entered in this week’s RBC Canadian Open.

Granted, those Saudis are “scary mothers” (Mickelson’s own, edited, words).

But how scared should the PGA Tour be?

And how seriously should they be taken by the golf world?

So far, in both cases, not so much.

The Saudis have managed to buy their way pretty successfully into one sport – horse racing. But their stable of golfers at this stage remains several thoroughbreds short.

Mickelson and Dustin Johnson are the biggest names in the 48-player field in London. Johnson is 37 and without a win since the 2020 fall Masters. His world ranking is 15, his lowest in seven years. Signing a contract reported to be upward of $200 million, this is more about working on his great-great-great-great grandchildren’s future (the man’s PGA Tour winnings already exceed $74 million) than about being any kind of pioneer.

D.J. lends a sliver of credibility to this week’s proceedings outside London. He is one of four former Masters champions competing there – along with Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel. Johnson likely will lose sponsorships – RBC, sponsor of the Canadian Open recently dropped him – but somehow the game will carry on. He’s not exactly a bright, shining personality. In terms of commercial acting, Johnson makes Matt Ryan look like Sir John Gielgud. So, no great loss there.

Johnson, Garcia and Kevin Na were among those who felt the need to renounce their PGA Tour citizenship before teeing off Thursday, even before knowing the specifics of the Tour’s punishment for the breakaway golfers. Even if they have sacrificed their chances to play on future Ryder Cup teams and in the Tour Championship at East Lake, the best players probably can still ride their exemptions into the four majors. It’s unlikely the U.S. Open would bar a former champion such as Johnson next week.

Otherwise this week’s LIV field is a patchwork of a couple of relevant, yet marginally known players – Hudson Swafford, Talor Gooch, Na – a few internationals of some repute – Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen – and the wrong Koepka – Chase. Former Tech star and U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree is there to establish a retirement plan.

Overall, you get the feeling this LIV thing is for those who have grown tired of real professional golf.

There’ll be four of the world’s top 50-ranked players in the field. By contrast, even a Canadian Open field weakened by its position one week out from the U.S. Open can claim eight of the world’s top 25, including No. 1 Scottie Scheffler.

The money is undeniable: The LIV winner will gross $4 million (last place in the no-cut, 54-hole event pays $120,000). There is a parallel team element that will pay out an additional $5 million to the top three four-man teams.

The interest is highly deniable. Turning sheik golf into chic golf requires more than an embarrassing payday. In the end I can’t help but believe that LIV will be to golf what the WFL’s dicker rod was to football and the ABA’s red, white and blue ball was to basketball.

And they’re already losing that sizable part of the golf demographic that requires its children’s help to launch Google. To watch the action, one must stream the broadcast off the LIV website, YouTube or Facebook. Sounds far too complicated. I’ll nap to network golf, thank you.

Rory McIlroy talked of being on the right side of history in standing with the PGA Tour over the LIV insurgent. That’s exactly where he and his kind will fall. And they’ll get only richer, too, as the Tour builds more mounds of money in order to combat the threat.

The others will try to soak the Saudis as best they can without making any real golf history at all.