Defectors open Saudi-funded golf series amid pomp, fractures

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Dustin Johnson of the United States prepares to play from the first tee during the first round of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational at the Centurion Club in St. Albans, England, Thursday, June 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

ST. ALBANS – At a distance it looked like a military flypast and Grenadier Guards trumpeting in a royal-style occasion. Only it wasn’t an extension of Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee celebrations but the launch of the Saudi-funded golf breakaway, attempting to bring a sense of faux regal pageantry to the rebellion splitting the sport.

On a course just outside north London, the band dressed as imitation infantrymen were there to proclaim the arrival of Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, two of the stars enticed from the PGA Tour to potentially earn hundreds of millions of dollars on the LIV Golf series.

The nine ageing planes rumbling overhead helped to mask the lack of significant crowd noise beyond the occasional shout of “Let’s go Phil!” as he prepared to tee off.

At the same time, the message Thursday from the PGA Tour was being delivered — go off. To all the players who defected to the renegade series, they now face banishment from future tour events. Johnson had already given up his PGA membership, but Mickelson is not ready to.

The fury of LIV Golf — a product of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund — was clear, calling the PGA Tour “vindictive" with a decision that will only deepen the divides. There were no signs of the Saudi backing across the Centurion Club, nor any sponsor branding.

Mickelson was sporting a black cap adorned by his personal logo featuring a silhouette of himself playing golf, replacing the KPMG-branded one that was worn before the corporate sponsors dropped the deal in February after he disparaged the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia. He matched Johnson with a 1-under 69, with Charl Schwartzel leading at 65.

Across the course, the only branding was from LIV Golf and a sparse number of spectators in attendance. There was intrigue from those who did turn up, accompanied by a desire to see so many of the world's leading players, although none from the top 10.

Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, had a one-stroke lead over fellow South African Hennie du Plessis. Scott Vincent of Zimbabwe and Phachara Khongwatmai of Thailand shot 67.

Unlike many spectators, Jim Dawkins, who has been coming to golf events for six decades, did pay 67 pounds ($84) for his pass to the club between Hemel Hempstead and St. Albans.

“I thought as this was the first tournament of the rebel tour it would be interesting to see how it works and who is playing,” said the 91-year-old Dawkins, who railed against the PGA Tour banning players. “I've seen an awful lot of changes.”

LIV is running curtailed 54-hole, three-day tournaments, with a shotgun start seeing players all tee off on different holes. What confuses Dawkins is the team element.

The field is split into 12 teams with garish logos and brash names, like Johnson‘s 4 Aces and Graeme McDowell’s Niblicks.

“I find this scoreboard difficult to follow,” said Dawkins, who traveled from the south of London. “You have got the players up there. I don't know how the teams are set up."

The top three teams share $5 million on top of the $20 million prize fund per event shared between the golfers individually.

To accept the lavish rewards, the players not only had to overcome concerns about being banned from the PGA Tour and events like the Ryder Cup, but also moral doubts.

This is a series viewed as being part of Saudi Arabia's efforts, branded “sportswashing” by human rights groups, to wipe away the stain of the kingdom's abuses.

"It's absolute rubbish, it's just a sport," said Colin Chambers, an 80-year-old friend of Dawkins. “When you think about the Chinese, what they do, and we are still happy to go to their Olympics."


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