LIV Golf Invitational Series: What is it, who's playing, and why's it so controversial?

By Sports Desk June 05, 2022

After months of claim, counter-claim and controversy, the LIV Golf Invitational Series turns its focus to actual golf on Thursday.

The first event of a series previously known as the 'Super Golf League' gets under way at the Centurion Club, near London, next week.

A lucrative breakaway from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, there will be plenty of interest in how LIV Golf fares – even if it is a largely unpopular venture.

Regardless of its wider reputation, though, the money of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) has still attracted some of the sport's best players.

So, what is the deal with LIV Golf? How does it work? Who will be playing? And why has it caused such uproar?

Stats Perform attempts to answer the myriad questions around this contentious competition.

What is LIV Golf?

A Saudi-backed rival to the PGA Tour has been rumoured for years, taking on various names before finally launching as the LIV Golf Invitational Series.

Greg Norman, a two-time Open champion and LIV Golf's CEO, has described this as the arrival of "free agency" in golf, with leading players skipping PGA Tour events to play in the new series.

That is exactly what the PGA Tour sought to avoid when it vowed to ban any players who joined a rival league, although that promise has not yet come to pass.

"Our mission is to modernise and supercharge the game of professional golf through expanded opportunities for both players and fans alike," reads LIV Golf's website, adding its aim to provide "a cutting-edge entertainment product".

That does not only mean a new series and new events, but also a new format...

How does it work?

Gone is the long-established structure of 72 holes across four days with the field cut after two rounds.

Regular season LIV Golf events will last only 54 holes and three days, with no cuts, meaning – organisers point out – there is no danger of eye-catching names being absent for the end of the tournament.

There are also shotgun starts, "ensuring a faster and more exciting pace of play", and smaller fields with only 48 players.

This may all be unfamiliar, but it is at least straightforward. The other changes are a little more complex.

Players will be pursuing individual glory, as at any other golf tournament, but there are also team prizes on offer, with each field broken up into 12 four-man teams.

At every event, there will be an individual winner – the traditional victor with the lowest 54-hole score – and a triumphant team, whose score will be calculated using their best two scores over the first two rounds and their best three from the third.

The first seven events of the season – four in the United States and one each in England, Thailand and Saudi Arabia – will provide a seasonal individual champion, while the year's most successful team are then identified at a further match-play knock-out tournament.

Who's playing?

With a number of big names publicly opposing the breakaway, Rory McIlroy referred to the then Super Golf League as the "not-so-Super League" back in February.

But LIV Golf claims to have received 170 applications and has been able to recruit some superstar talent – namely Dustin Johnson, whose agent said it was "in his and his family's best interest to pursue it".

"Dustin has never had an issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him," David Winkle added. "But in the end, [he] felt this was too compelling to pass up."

It remains to be seen how regularly Johnson will appear in the series, given the field is set to change for every event. He is on board for the London opener, though, alongside Sergio Garcia.

With the four-man teams – who will have their own logos, colours and names – to be tweaked at each tournament, captains will draft players to join them. Unlike at the Ryder Cup, these captains are also active players.

The opening London draft is set for Tuesday, but Phil Mickelson – the most notable and controversial potential LIV Golf star – will not be involved.

Given his previous interest, Mickelson is surely likely to appear at some stage, but he has not played for several months since his comments in relation to the tournament and its funding prompted an apology.

Why's it so controversial?

Any rebel league that threatened the PGA Tour was unlikely to be globally popular, but Saudi Arabia's influence has contributed significantly to the backlash.

The country's human rights record is of major concern, along with its role in the war in Yemen, so ventures such as these – and the acquisition of Premier League club Newcastle United – by its PIF are widely cited as examples of sportswashing.

Norman has suggested Saudi Arabia is "making a cultural change".

While he described the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 as "reprehensible", the LIV Golf chief added: "Look, we've all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward."

Norman was speaking last month, by which point Mickelson's own discussion of Khashoggi's death had done a great deal of harm to the league's reputation.

The six-time major champion acknowledged Saudi Arabia's "horrible record on human rights" but added he was willing to commit to LIV Golf as it was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates".

Mickelson made those comments in November last year, although they were reported earlier this year just as the series sought to launch.

Norman said the saga "definitely created negative momentum against us" and revealed "everybody got the jitters", causing some players to back out.

Related items

  • Judge denies LIV Golf signees entry into the FedEx Cup Judge denies LIV Golf signees entry into the FedEx Cup

    The PGA Tour has won their first legal battle against the controversial LIV Golf brand, with a judge ruling on Tuesday that LIV Golf players are not eligible to play in the FedEx Cup starting this week.

    Specifically, Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford were the three golfers seeking the temporary restraining order to play at the FedEx St. Jude Championship – but a judge ruled that their cases did not prove they were victims of "irreparable harm" due to their highly paid contracts.

    The LIV Golf lawyers argued that the FedEx Cup is about "more than money" – even going as far as calling it "the Super Bowl of golf", and comparing former FedEx Cup winners to all-time greats Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman.

    They claimed the PGA Tour was attempting to use monopoly powers to stamp out fair competition, to which the PGA lawyers countered with the facts that five of their top-10 most famous players – based on their Player Impact Program – have already jumped ship, and that Gooch, specifically, signed a contract worth significantly more than the $18million awarded to the winner of the FedEx Cup.

    LIV Golf were queried about how they could project a 20 per cent market share while also calling the PGA Tour a monopoly, and that being a monopoly is not illegal, only using monopoly powers against another organisation is.

    The judge explained that the breakaway golfers would have ample opportunity to play on the alternate tour; that their upfront LIV Golf contracts took into account the possibility that they would not be eligible for the FedEx Cup and/or major championships; and that the inability to win even more money does not constitute "irreparable harm".

    Some other interesting tidbits were revealed during proceedings, including a direct contradiction from a prevalent storyline about the LIV Golf contracts.

    LIV Golf lawyers claimed that prize money won from tournaments would be "recouped against the LIV contracts" – with a clip emerging immediately afterwards showing an LIV Golf spokesperson specifically saying during a news conference featuring Pat Perez and Brooks Koepka that all prize money would be "in addition to the contracts".

    Their lawyers also confirmed that all 48 spots had been filled for next LIV Golf season, and the judge indicated that the larger-scale antitrust trial would be tentatively scheduled for September.

  • Scheffler hits out at LIV Golf players for suing PGA Tour over FedEx Cup suspensions Scheffler hits out at LIV Golf players for suing PGA Tour over FedEx Cup suspensions

    World number one Scottie Scheffler has hit out at a lawsuit being brought against the PGA Tour by several of LIV Golf's leading names. 

    With the PGA suspending players who joined the controversial Saudi Arabia-backed circuit, the likes of Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau are among 11 players to back a legal attempt to reverse those measures ahead of the FedEx Cup Playoffs beginning on Thursday.

    While reports suggest only three LIV players – Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford – are seeking re-entry to the event, the PGA has accused them of trying "to have their cake and eat it" by attempting to feature at their events.

    And Scheffler, who has been a prominent defender of the PGA Tour amid several high-profile players signing up for the LIV circuit, has little sympathy for those fighting suspension.

    "I'm definitely curious to see what's going to happen," the 2022 Masters victor told a news conference on Tuesday.

    "It's one of those deals where those guys kind of made their decision to go join another tour.

    "They broke the rules and regulations of our tour and now they're trying to sue us, which is definitely a bit frustrating.

    "I heard that was going to happen and I know some guys aren't surprised to see it, but I definitely am surprised to see some guys now suing us.

    "If they win, come out here and play, I mean, that's something that's up to the courts. I can't control what's going to happen in a court case. 

    "[I'm] definitely interested, but at the end of the day it has no effect on my preparation for the week."

  • Serena to retire: The remarkable stats, facts and figures that highlight Williams' legacy Serena to retire: The remarkable stats, facts and figures that highlight Williams' legacy

    Serena Williams' long and illustrious tennis career is drawing to a close after the American confirmed on Tuesday that the countdown has begun.

    Following a long piece in Vogue, Williams wrote of her plan to "move in a different direction" after "these next few weeks", suggesting the US Open – which begins in late August – will be her last outing.

    Thanks to her success and brilliance on the court, Williams has become synonymous with tennis and is regarded by many as the greatest the women's sport has ever seen.

    Yet, her seemingly imminent retirement cannot be seen as a shock. At the age of 40, Williams has persisted with tennis far longer than most do, and that is testament to her quality and enduring desire for success.

    With Williams now reaching the end, Stats Perform takes a look at the key facts, stats and figures of her career; in other words, Serena's remarkable legacy.

    Twenty-three… and counting?

    Of course, the headline fact for Williams' career is her grand slam titles count.

    She has won 23, which is more than anyone else in the Open era.

    But she's still got one target left: matching Margaret Court. The Australian's 24 grand slam successes include nine won before the Open era began in 1968, though her overall total has been the benchmark ever since she claimed her final crown at the US Open in 1975.

    Clearly, victory for Williams at Flushing Meadows would be the perfect farewell.

     

    The finals hurdle

    Even if Williams only reaches the championship match next month, she'll still be equalling a different record.

    Assuming she does compete in Queens, Williams heads into the US Open having played in 33 grand slam finals, one more than Martina Navratilova.

    But Chris Evert (34) sits out in front, and that record will remain hers for many, many years if Williams cannot reach the finale at Flushing Meadows.

    Top of the pile

    It's been a while now since Williams was last the highest-ranked player in the world, but in a way that only further highlights how remarkable her career has been.

    She's spent 319 weeks ranked as world number one, which is behind only Steffi Graf (377) and Navratilova (332).

    While many might have expected Williams to have been top of the pile for even longer, it's worth remembering how she's spent time out due to injuries and pregnancy, with her general involvement in top-level tennis decreasing after 2014 when she played 16 tournaments – in 2016 that halved to eight, and during no year since has she played in more.

    Additionally, some will also be surprised to learn she actually only finished the year as the top-ranked female player five times. Nevertheless, that's still third to only Graf (eight) and Navratilova (seven).

    Go hard or go home

    Such has been Williams' quality, she was always considered a threat regardless of the surface – she's won each grand slam at least three times.

    But there's no denying she was at her most lethal on hard courts.

    She has won 48 WTA Tour-level titles on hard courts, which is 11 more than anyone else (Graf) in the Open era.

    Those 48 come from a grand total of 73 across all surfaces, leaving her ranked fifth behind Navratilova (167), Evert (157), Graf (107) and Court (92).

     

    Surface to say…

    Williams' comfort on hard courts goes even further than that.

    She's won 539 matches on the surface, making her one of just two female players to surpass 500 victories on one specific ground type.

    Navratilova (600 on carpet) is the only other player to achieve the feat, with Serena's sister Venus (498 on hard) the closest to the 23-time grand slam champion.

    The grass is greener

    Despite that unrivalled excellence, hard courts may not be the surface many feel to be most synonymous with Williams, however.

    Wimbledon is the tournament that would appear to be her favourite.

    She's reached the final at SW19 11 times. Only Navratilova can better that record for the most finals at one tournament – though it's worth saying she contested the WTA Finals and Chicago 14 times each, Eastbourne 13 times and 12 at Wimbledon.

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