By Martyn Herman ST ALBANS, England (Reuters) – The first balls were struck at the most lucrative tournament in golf’s history as 48 players teed off at the Centurion Club north of London on Thursday to begin the eight-event LIV Invitational Series. The divisive Saudi Arabian-backed breakaway series fronted by Australia’s twice British Open champion […]
Golf-Richest event ever begins as players tee off at LIV Invitational opener
By Martyn Herman
ST ALBANS, England (Reuters) – The first balls were struck at the most lucrative tournament in golf’s history as 48 players teed off at the Centurion Club north of London on Thursday to begin the eight-event LIV Invitational Series.
The divisive Saudi Arabian-backed breakaway series fronted by Australia’s twice British Open champion Greg Norman offers $25 million per event in prizemoney with an eye-watering $4 million going to this week’s individual winner.
A 54-hole format, with no cuts and a team element bolted on, is being trumpeted as an exciting new era for golf by Norman who seems determined to shake up the status quo.
But critics say the series, bank-rolled to the tune of $250 million 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 U.S. 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.
Last week the PGA Tour reiterated a warning to members that those featuring in the breakaway circuit would be “subject to disciplinary action”, although no sanctions have been announced.
American and European players taking part also risk sacrificing Ryder Cup ambitions.
“We all know why everyone’s playing in London this week,” former world number one Rory McIlroy, who has shunned the LIV Series, said on the eve of the Canadian Open which is taking place at the same time.
“It’s boatloads of cash and it’s money up front.”
The LIV Series opener’s super-sized prize money dwarfs the $8.7 million on offer at the Canadian Open. But the field is nowhere near as strong, despite the presence of six-time major champion Phil Mickelson, former world number one Dustin Johnson, European Ryder Cup stalwarts Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood and former British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen.
Twice major champion Johnson, who initially said he was loyal to the PGA Tour, upped the ante on Tuesday when he confirmed he had resigned from the PGA Tour, a move also made by joining American Kevin Na and Spaniard 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 at 16 different starting holes in what is known as a 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 large crowds to the course near St Albans, with fans who paid the 67 pounds for a ground pass, welcomed by swish branding such as “Don’t Blink” in reference to the quick-style format.
A fly-past of vintage planes heralded the start and daily music concerts will help “super-charge” the fan experience, according to organisers, while armchair fans are able to watch free streaming via Facebook and YouTube.
After London, the LIV Series has four events in the United States, one in Thailand, one in Saudi Arabia before a team finale at Donald Trump’s Doral course in Miami.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)