Even as the first balls were struck at the most lucrative tournament in golf’s history the bitter power struggle rocking the sport’s foundations intensified on Thursday.
Forty eight rebel players led by the likes of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson teed off at the Centurion Club just north of London to begin the first of eight events in the Saudi Arabia-financed LIV Invitational Series.
The opening event boasts a $25m prize pot with an eye-watering $4m going to this week’s individual winner and there was a buzz of excitement at the course near St Albans.
But after a glitzy opening with a fly-past of vintage planes and LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman declaring a new era had begun, the PGA Tour poured water on the parade with a statement saying they would suspend those taking part.
It was hardly unexpected, and LIV Golf responded immediately, saying the PGA Tour’s decision was “vindictive and deepens the divide between the Tour and its members”.
“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.”
The 54-hole format, with no cuts and a team element bolted on, is aimed at shaking up golf’s status quo and giving players more opportunities, according to LIV Series organisers.
Critics say the breakaway series, bankrolled to the tune of $250m by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), amounts to blatant “sportswashing” by a nation trying to improve its reputation in light of human rights concerns.
The players signed up have hardly disguised the attraction of the riches up for grabs with former US Open champion Graeme McDowell saying he would have been crazy to turn it down.
But the PGA Tour and the Europe-based DP World Tour have declined requests from members for releases to compete at Centurion where finishing last guarantees a cheque of $120,000.
On Thursday the PGA Tour made good on its warning that those taking part in the new circuit would be punished.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” PGA tour commissioner Jay Monahan said in a letter to members on Thursday.
“But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. That expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”
The decision by the PGA Tour, which does not run golf’s four Majors, came after the US Golf Association said it would allow LIV golfers to play in next week’s US Open if they are exempt or had already qualified.
However, American and European players taking part could be jeopardising their chances of playing in the 2023 Ryder Cup.
Former world No 1 Rory McIlroy, who is playing at the Canadian Open and has shunned LIV Golf, said those taking part had been turned by “boatloads of cash”.
The supersized prize money available at Centurion dwarfs the $8.7m on offer at the Canadian Open.
But the field is nowhere near as strong, despite the presence of six-time Major champion Mickelson, former world No 1 Johnson and European Ryder Cup stalwarts Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
Twice Major champion Johnson confirmed he had resigned from the PGA Tour on Tuesday, as have Kevin Na and Garcia.
“It’s a new chapter for golf,” Johnson, playing alongside Mickelson, said on the first tee. “I can’t wait to get started.”
After all the talk and recriminations, play got under way on a showery day with the 16 groups of three players teeing off simultaneously in a so-called shotgun start, players arriving at their allotted tees in a fleet of London black taxis.
The 12 teams of four, with names such as Stinger, Majestic and Crushers, were selected by 12 captains at a glitzy “draft party” on Tuesday.
The novelty value of the tournament attracted good-sized galleries to the course near St Albans, with fans who paid £67 for a ground pass, welcomed by swish branding such as “Don’t Blink” in reference to the quick-style format.
After London, the LIV Series has four events in the US, one in Thailand, one in Saudi Arabia before a team finale at Donald Trump’s Doral course in Miami.
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