Questions swirl over Saudi-backed breakaway golf tour

Questions swirl over Saudi-backed breakaway golf tour

Greg Norman is chief executive of LIV Golf Investments.
Greg Norman is chief executive of LIV Golf Investments.

ST ALBANS, UK Golf is in turmoil as it braces for the launch of a new Saudi-backed breakaway tour but figurehead Greg Norman is confident it will be a success despite a host of unresolved issues.

The LIV Golf Invitational Series plans eight events this year but no player names have yet been announced.

There is also uncertainty over broadcast deals and whether ranking points will be on offer.

Questions over the source of the funding persist -- with Norman grilled over concerns about Saudi backing for the new tour when he faced the press in Britain last week.

The battle lines have been drawn, with the US PGA Tour refusing to release members for next month's opening event in England, which clashes with the PGA's Canadian Open.

The DP World Tour, formerly known as the European Tour, has been more opaque, saying it is "evaluating each request on a case-by-case basis".

Former world number one Norman, chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, accused the US PGA Tour of "perpetuating its illegal monopoly on what should be a free and open market".

Six-time major winner Phil Mickelson and former world number one Lee Westwood have asked for permission to play in the inaugural LIV event at the Centurion Club in St Albans, outside London, and Sergio Garcia's name is also understood to be in the frame.

But others have rejected the new golf circuit, including world number two Jon Rahm and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, as players gather in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the PGA Championship.

Two-time British Open champion Norman, 67, appears unperturbed by the lack of guaranteed star names just a few weeks away from the start of the 54-hole tournament, which takes place from June 9 to 11.

- Superstars -

The Australian believes, in the long term, the top players will be attracted to the new tour, but he does not think it needs the biggest stars to be a success from the start.

"If none of the top 20 wanted to come in, we're still going to go ahead," he said.

"There's still value in there. Imagine if that 15-year-old kid TK (Thai golfer Ratchanon "TK" Chantananuwat)... came in and won if he's playing here, if he won the first event.

"He's the next superstar. We're giving that opportunity to that kid or an amateur to come in here to have that opportunity."

Norman said he had spoken to "50 to 60 players" and they were starting to realise their rights as independent contractors to play where they wanted.

He is adamant that he is not spoiling for a fight but is braced for a legal battle and has pledged to pay players' fines if necessary.

Money is certainly not an issue for the LIV Series, with an eye-watering $25 million of prize money on offer at each regular-season event, where players will compete as individuals and in teams.

Norman last week announced the tour had been given an extra $2 billion in funding to expand the schedule.

But the source of that money -- the Saudi sovereign wealth fund -- is proving controversial, with Amnesty International adamant that the tour is another example of the "sportswashing" of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

There are a series of other unknowns even as the spectator stands go up at Centurion Club, including how will golf fans be able to watch the tournament?

Chief commercial officer Sean Bratches, former managing director of commercial operations at F1, said LIV was aiming for "broad distribution" online and was in discussions with more traditional broadcasting partners.

"We don't have any deals signed because we're right out of the gate," he said. "When we sign a deal we'll announce it."

There is also the thorny question of ranking points -- will top-level golfers be happy to play in events with no points on offer?

Again there is no clear-cut answer, even though chief operating officer Atul Khosla said tour chiefs had held talks with world ranking officials.

"I don't know that we will get it for the first event because of the nature of how long it takes for the application to go through and the process one needs to undertake," he said.

"But we are hopeful that we can get them for this year onwards."

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