The Battle Between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia Is Only Beginning, but Saudi Event in February Could Be a Turning Point

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has faced pressure from two upstart rival golf leagues.GolffileCertain dates in history become significant upon reflection. When the history of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in golf is studied, November 29, 2021, will likely be remembered as a seminal date.That’s when the Saudis proved that their money is enough to buy a legitimate field with high-wattage names like Paul Casey, Bryson DeChambeau, Jason Dufner, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell, Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Ian Poulter, Xander Schauffele, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Lee Westwood. They — and others — are all scheduled to play in the 4th Saudi International in February.While it’s possible more big names will eventually join this list, the event already carries considerable prestige, which is what the Saudis are looking for.They are willing to pay literally millions of dollars to position themselves right in the middle of the golf landscape. According to one player, the appearance fees are seven figures, with $1 to $2 million per man a conservative estimate.That means that at the very least the total spend on player fees begins at $50 million, but more likely they’re north of $100 million — a drop in the bucket for an organization that is partially funded by ARAMCO, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company with reported revenue of $229.9 billion in 2020. That figure is sure to increase as the price of Brent Crude has spiked from under $50 a barrel to more than $80.The presenting sponsor is SoftBank, a large Japanese conglomerate with tentacles in every big deal on the planet. Add it up, and the firepower behind this golf event is overwhelming.When Jay Monahan took over as commissioner of the PGA Tour in January 2017, he could never have envisioned that the PGA Tour would be under siege by not one but two separate groups early in his tenure.Toss in the fact that the players want their expenses covered when the purses are at all-time highs, with $838 million up for grabs in official prize money and bonuses in 2022. It must make the 51-year-old commissioner shake his head.One group trying to supplant the PGA Tour and its control of professional golf is the Premier Golf League. Its face is Andy Gardiner.The PGL idea has gotten little traction, and once the Saudis ended their support of the concept, it does not appear to have the legs or the funding to compete with the PGA Tour or the Saudis.Which leaves the Saudis.Unlike the PGL, the Saudi-backed Asian Tour is fully capitalized, has a prominent face in Hall-of-Famer Greg Norman and has a schedule that will attract players worldwide thanks to lavish appearance money and purses.But even with that formidable resume, many people I talk to suggest that it will take a lot more money, and they can’t see the Saudis pouring millions of dollars into golf for what might take 20-plus years to create any real movement.The response is a simple one: the Saudi’s are buying legitimacy on the world sport stage, whatever the cost, and they are willing to pay what is required to succeed.These decisions were made long before they decided to start an event more than four years ago, which was originally part of the DP World Tour. The Saudis are savvy and understand what and how long it will take. They can point to how Dubai took its time and made themselves a fixture on the golf landscape, all with far less money than the Saudis possess.By buying the Asian Tour and arming Norman with a big budget to support a new 10-event series, the Saudis also have a seat at the table as part of the International Federation of PGA Tours, a cheap price to pay to automatically become legitimate in the golf world.All Asian Tour events in the Federation are given Official World Raking status, which is the currency most players use in sponsor contract negotiations and access to majors.The Asian Tour is not small or insignificant — scroll to the bottom of its website and note the tour’s partners include Rolex and Titleist, which again offers legitimacy.The only thing that the Saudis need to make this work is the cooperation of the players, which as you can see from the announcement, they have found some interest.Monahan is smart and he sees the handwriting on the wall (even if he’s not willing to say so publicly) and that writing is that at some point he will have to make a deal with the Saudis. They have too many resources, and the players want to go where the money is, which is understandable.So, November 29th was a big day, but it is just one of many before golf’s landscape changes permanently. In the meantime it will be interesting to watch the back and forth.When asked about the releases provided to those players who need one to play in the Saudi International, the PGA Tour’s response was curious.“We have not granted any conflicting event releases for the Saudi International tournament,” a PGA Tour official stated by text. “Per PGA TOUR regulations, a decision on conflicting event releases can be made up until 30 days before the event’s first round.”Since the Saudi event isn’t until February 6, there is still time before the PGA Tour is forced to act. But it’s curious that the Saudis would issue such a release and that players like Johnson and DeChambeau would allow their names to be included in the field list.And what if the PGA Tour denies their release requests? Then what?These are just some of the little battles in what will likely be a very protracted war.

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