The Saudi-backed LIV Golf tees off, and the PGA Tour quickly suspends 17 players
Even before it started, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series reshaped the careers of several high-profile players, costing golfers such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson their relationships with the PGA Tour and some of their sponsors.
A reprisal had been expected from the PGA Tour — and immediately after the inaugural LIV tournament teed off on Thursday, the PGA issued sanctions against 17 players who defected to the new series.
The players "are suspended or otherwise no longer eligible to participate in PGA TOUR tournament play, including the Presidents Cup," PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a letter to tour members.
The golfers include Mickelson and Johnson, along with other highly ranked players such as Louis Oosthuizen (21), Kevin Na (34), Talor Gooch (35) and Sergio Garcia (57).
Of the 17 golfers, nine had preemptively resigned their PGA Tour membership.
LIV Golf is backed by Saudi Arabia's wealth, allowing it to lure top players with the promise of windfalls of cash — from eye-popping incentives to millions in prize money and guaranteed payouts.
The PGA Tour says the defectors are motivated by money
By playing in the LIV event, the 17 golfers "decided to turn their backs on the PGA TOUR by willfully violating a regulation," Monahan wrote in his letter. Any players who follow them to the Saudi-backed tour will meet the "same fate," he added.
The golfers "made their choice for their own financial-based reasons," and have officially been notified that they're now barred from PGA Tour events, Monahan said.
The PGA Tour's punishments don't affect golf's major tournaments, such as next week's U.S. Open. That's because the majors are operated by their own governing bodies. This week, the U.S. Golf Association said it won't bar players from the U.S. Open if they participate in the LIV event.
Saudi ties quickly raised red flags
But LIV's ties to Saudi Arabia's repressive monarchy instantly prompted a strong backlash, because of the kingdom's flagrant human rights abuses. Critics — and even Mickelson himself — have also noted that U.S. intelligence has concluded that Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved the operation leading to the brutal 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
"It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words," Mickelson said in February, after he was quoted discussing why he was embracing the new golf series despite the Saudi regime's well-known human rights violations.
But on Monday, Mickelson confirmed he would play in this week's LIV event, risking the wrath of the PGA. With the threat of sanctions looming, Johnson and other players resigned from the PGA Tour.
Critics call LIV Golf "sportswashing" — a strategy countries such as China and Russia have used in attempts to remake their global reputation without changing their stances on human rights.
LIV Golf's first tournament is now streaming online
The inaugural tournament — the LIV Golf Invitational London — isn't on TV, but curious sports fans can watch the action online, through YouTube, Facebook and the LIV Golf site.
Players teed off on Thursday shortly after 2 p.m. local time — 9 a.m. ET.
This version of golf has been tailored for TV. Instead of the stately procession of three golfers heading to the tee box at No. 1, the LIV tournament has a "shotgun" start, with players simultaneously teeing off on 16 holes around the course.
How is LIV Golf different?
Most dramatically, the shotgun start is geared to immediately deliver a flood of golf to fans watching online. It's also meant to ensure all players face the same conditions on the course.
LIV also blends team and individual competition. There are 12 teams, which were determined this week. Introducing an element of fantasy sports, 12 players were dubbed captains on Tuesday, followed by a rapid-fire draft to select their four-member squads.
Players on the winning team will get an extra $3 million. The rosters will change for every tournament.
The tournament's individual competition largely runs like any other golf tournament, but in this case, it's concurrent with team play.
In another change, LIV uses three rounds, instead of the four the PGA Tour uses in its stroke play tournaments. And because there's no cut after the first two rounds, players are guaranteed a share of the prize money.
The LIV series has seven "regular season" events, followed by a team tournament final to be held in late October. The next tournament is slated to be played in Portland, Ore., starting on June 30.
Who's playing in the LIV tournament?
A field of 48 golfers is playing in the London event. Along with Mickelson and Johnson, the field includes other former major champions such as Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.
Also playing: Kevin Na, who resigned from the PGA Tour on Sunday, and several former U.S. Amateur winners, including James Piot, the reigning champion who recently moved from college play to teeing off at the Masters.
More U.S. golfers (11) are in the tournament than pros from any other country, according to a roster published by LIV.
Here are the golf pros the PGA Tour suspended on Thursday:
Sergio Garcia; Talor Gooch; Branden Grace; Dustin Johnson; Matt Jones; Martin Kaymer; Graeme McDowell; Phil Mickelson; Kevin Na; Andy Ogletree; Louis Oosthuizen; Turk Pettit; Ian Poulter; Charl Schwartzel; Hudson Swafford; Peter Uihlein; Lee Westwood.
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