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M. James Ward | Is lift-off likely for the Premier Golf League?

Veteran golf writer M. James Ward says the arrival of the Premier Golf League brings far more questions than answers to golf and the sports industry at large

The concept of an all-world golf tour is not a new one. On November 17, 1994, then-world No. 2 player Greg Norman announced his plan at his Shark Shootout event. The talented Aussie believed having the world’s elite players compete at different venues globally would signal a higher level of media attention, sponsorship dollars and fan excitement.

Just one small issue. The Shark never envisioned the considerable pushback of the 800-pound gorilla called the PGA Tour as it zealously fought back to protect its brand and primacy in professional golf.

Interestingly, the PGA Tour co-opted a portion of Norman’s thinking when creating he World Golf Championships in 1999 – now four key events played globally and featuring some of the deepest fields in the sport.

Now the latest version of the global vision is moving ahead, albeit with plenty of hype but nothing concrete thus far.

The Premier Golf league is looking to debut in 2022 with 18 events. Played from January through September, with 10 events in the US, three in Europe and Asia respectively and one each in Australia and Middle East. All events 54 holes, no cut and limited to 48 players. Per event purses at $10m and featuring 12 4-man teams with select players given the opportunity for an equity stake in the outcome of their respective team. At the end of the season, a team and individual champion would be crowned. The 18 events would be scheduled so that golf’s existing four major championships are not impacted.

All of this sounds quite fascinating. But there’s one major item missing: no star player has committed publicly. In 1994 when Norman floated the concept he was already at the highest of levels in competitive golf and served as the public face assuring credibility. Fast forward to the recent WGC-Mexico event and the news from world No. 1 male player Rory McIlroy provided a clear wake-up call on what the prospects a new league faces.

“The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it,” said the four-time major champion. “The one thing as a professional golfer in my position that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything that I do. If you go and play this other golf league, you’re not going to have that choice.”

The stumbling block outlined by McIlroy lies at the heart of any effort in corralling the world’s best players. Each is an independent contractor. Each likely aligned with either of the two leading tours – PGA and European – with the former the main base of operations for many of the star players given base of operations in the USA and having the biggest purses each week.

McIlroy admitted if a flood of players opted for the Premier Golf League he would reconsider his position, however, that has not happened to date – and frankly may never happen.

The golfer with the most clout, Tiger Woods, has also been approached by organizers. But he too was non-committal at best. “My team’s been aware of it and we’ve delved into the details of it and are trying to figure it out just like everyone else,” he said.

Woods is 46, and while his star power is a clear game-changer, the longer-term reality is he alone cannot sustain such momentum given he is opting to play less – not more – relating to age-related physical limitations and energy levels.

Five-time major champion Phil Mickelson said he is “intrigued” about the concept, and even played with organizers at a pro-am event during his controversial appearance at the Saudi International event a few weeks back. But even if Mickelson opted to sign-up it’s highly unlikely players in their competitive primes will follow suit.

Naturally, these are the public comments from some of golf’s most noted players. What’s unknown is the level of private conversations between organizers and top golfers.

To reinforce the PGA Tour’s position, commissioner Jay Monahan stated any player(s) opting to be a part of this “new” effort will be persona non grata via PGA Tour affiliation, essentially declaring to players that they’re either with the Tour or PGL, and not both. Given that very real ultimatum, no player of stature has seen fit to walk out on a perilous limb knowing the reality of being permanently sawed off from the money tree that is the PGA Tour.

Norman voiced support for the new effort. But it’s hard not imagining the Aussie feeling kinship with organizers in sticking a finger in the eye of the dominant PGA Tour which co-opted his original idea and made it their own.

But the new effort poses potential issues that likely will escalate should matters proceed ahead. Much of the front money is coming from Saudi Arabia and critics have stated the Kingdom is sportswashing, in other words seeking to improve its reputation by using sports as a vehicle to provide cover when a country has demonstrated a dismal record on human rights.

Top professionals like Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Justin Rose were each queried on how they could justify their participation in the recent golf event on Saudi soil when many people within the Kingdom, notably women, are treated far less favorably than women in their own country.

The stated rationale was to “grow the game” in a country with no serious golf program of any kind. But those signing up for the PGL would see such line of questioning return with greater intensity and could very well impact endorsement contracts they’ve created for themselves. Woods and McIlroy opted not to play in the Saudi event and clearly the issue is not about money for either of them, but about cementing legacies when their careers draw to a close.

The key for any upstart is demonstrating something that provides a clear public spark. Without any existing top players looking to abandon the PGA Tour such a career move is fraught with unknowns. Mickelson could well be a prime target, as even at nearly 50 years old he still commands enough attention even if that meant no further involvement with the PGA Tour.

Yet, does anyone really see Mickelson playing 18 events, with just under half being held outside the USA, and him being away from his family for such a prolonged amount of time?

The flip side of the equation for organizers is securing the involvement of younger talented players in their career infancy given the vast sums of money on such a stage. But, such players would not have the built-in status of accomplished stars and therefore overall media and fan interest would likely be muted.

Andrew Gardiner, a London-based director at Barclays Capital and a main figure in the effort, has stated his group has partnered with the Omnicom Sport, the biggest media buyer in the United States. Besides the Saudis, The Raine Group, a global investment bank, is another partner.

The seeds have certainly been planted. But without serious water applied by key players, it’s hard envisioning this concept doing anything other than withering on the vine.

At this moment in time the existing routine for those at the highest level of professional golf is remaining with a certain entity over an unknown revolution with major ramifications.

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