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On Tuesday in Saudi Arabia, Greg Norman made an announcement that may come to be seen as the day the global order of golf changed forever. On the other hand…
In 1994, Norman was in the forefront of an attempt to establish a golf World Tour, a plan which rapidly imploded. As a player he was one of the biggest names in the game. Now he’s a big player in the game’s business. Last October, he was appointed chief executive officer of LIV Golf Investments, an organisation largely funded by the Saudi-based Public Investment Fund (PIF). LIV is not an investor in the Asian Tour but will promote the new tournament series announced on Tuesday. A governor of PIF, incidentally, is Yasir Al-Rumayyan, now chairman of Newcastle United FC and also chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation and president of the Arab Golf Federation.
The 10-event Asian Tour International Series, which will apparently be worth $300 million, will get underway in Thailand next month and from June 9-12 it will include a £2 million - plus huge appearance fees - tournament at the Centurion Club in St Albans. (Fair enough, I guess: the PGA Tour holds tournaments outside the United States and what was previously called the European Tour went all over the world, so why should the Asian Tour be “geo-fenced” to just Asia?) Norman says they are trying “to grow the game of golf”. But as Iain Carter of the BBC pointed out, the UK is hardly a backwater in terms of golf development and the June dates they have chosen conflict with the Scandinavian Mixed tournament in Sweden, which could probably be said to be doing more to grow the game, an event promoted by the men’s and women’s tours in Europe.
This is, of course, about money, and very much the matter of where it is coming from. “Sports-washing” is what critics call it; Saudi Arabia has a dreadful record regarding human rights and this is supposed to make the country look better. But if Ian Poulter has indeed been offered over $20 million to sign up for the potentially impending Super Golf League then one might understand why he would seize this opportunity to secure the financial futures of his children’s children’s children. He is 46 and if that means he never gets to be a captain in the Ryder Cup, the event that has highlighted his career, then so be it.
The men’s European Tour rebranded itself as the DP World Tour in November and it and the PGA Tour have been making noises in line with the suggestion that they are not going to sit idly by while the Asian Tour ups the ante, notwithstanding that many PGA and DP World Tour players were granted releases to play in the Saudi International (formerly a European Tour event) which began at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club earlier today. And not everything is going smoothly for the new rich kids on the block. Shortly before Christmas, the R&A announced that the winner of the Asian Tour Order of Merit would no longer receive an invitation into the Open Championship, the 150th staging of which will occur at St Andrews in July. It is not clear this is because of the Asian Tour’s new Saudi association but that exemption had been in place for 20 years.
Norman said on Tuesday: “Absolutely there are going to be things announced in the future but right now our focus is on this.” The unavoidable implication is that down the road he and the Saudis intend to establish a new circuit of some kind. Norman did make a point of adding: “Remember what I said; this is just the beginning.”
There are not enough top players to go round if an accommodation cannot be found with the existing tours, and it is hard to see how this can happen. For Ian Poulter the decision may be comparatively easy. For a top player in his 20s, much less so. It seems that Dustin Johnson (aged 37) and Lee Westwood (48) have signed non-disclosure agreements in respect of the Super League. Norman may have said “we’re not in this for a fight; we’re in this for the good of the game” but it is hard to see Jay Monahan at the PGA Tour and/or Keith Pelley at the DP World Tour sharing that opinion.
Apart from the courts, where is all this likely heading? In his excellent book The Power of Geography, Tim Marshall writes of Saudi Arabia (did you know it’s the world’s largest country without a river?) that its look-ahead strategy, called Vision 2030, “accepts that the economy must be diversified, with the focus on technology and the service sectors... an economy which will be able to survive the slow end of the oil era, and one in which [the people] will be free to enjoy some of the leisure pursuits most of the modern world takes for granted”.
That Asian Tour Open exemption or not, I’m not putting money on a Saudi golfer lifting the claret jug any time soon…
You can follow Robert Green on Twitter @robrtgreen and enjoy his other blog f-factors.com plus you can read more by him on golf at robertgreengolf.com