The price was right: Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and other pros sell out to Saudi-backed LIV Golf

PGA faces existential threat from competitor with endless money

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Major champion Dustin Johnson faces the media at the LIV press conference this morning.
Major champion Dustin Johnson faces the media at the LIV press conference this morning.
Image: Getty Images

Just about everyone has a price tag. LIV Golf is trying to figure out what that price tag looks like for the biggest names in their sport. Greg Norman, the CEO of the new government-funded Saudi tour, claimed that LIV offered Tiger Woods a number in the “high nine figures” to come play for them, despite his various health issues and advancing age, which Woods turned down. So what is Tiger’s number? A billion? Close to it?

Phil Mickelson’s was reportedly around $200 million (oh, and he’d be ticked off if Tiger got four times that, to be sure). Two hundred million dollars to tell the world that getting even with the PGA Tour was worth working with people who, in his own words, “killed Khashoggi,” “have a horrible record on human rights,” and “execute people over there for being gay;” and then come back out of hiding after the public didn’t exactly warm up to that justification, apologize, say he was in therapy, and reaffirm that he’d be playing with the LIV tour.


Dustin Johnson’s number was around $125 million, reports say, and Kevin Na’s was probably a bit lower, as he doesn’t have the same name recognition or major wins as Johnson, but one can assume it’s somewhere in the 7-digit range. The two golfers also announced today that they’re officially resigning from the PGA Tour, accompanied by Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel, relinquishing their tournament rights and jumping ship before PGA commissioner Jay Monahan can exert any of his own punishments or sanctions upon them.

Taylor Gooch got paid whatever number prompted him to tell the press that he didn’t think that LIV Golf was a sportswashing effort, and to follow that up with, “Also ... I’m a golfer. I’m not that smart. I try to hit a golf ball into a small hole. Golf is hard enough.”


Gooch’s quote was just one odd moment from a press conference today that was filled with unsettling reports. An AP reporter was escorted out after trying to ask a question, per ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenberg; Graeme McDowell responded to a Daily Mail reporter’s question about how players reconciled Saudi Arabia’s human rights record with their decision to join the league by saying the issue was “polarizing” and “the Khashoggi situation…was reprehensible;” and last but certainly not least, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer emceed the event, whose price tag was apparently high enough to publicly disavow his own former comments on the Saudi government’s efforts to keep Mohammed bin Salman in power.

So what does this mean for the PGA?

All the talk about growing the game and shotgun starts are about as convincing as Mickelson’s bullshit apology, but the problem is, none of this really matters for the PGA. They’re still losing the war. Because at this point, all they have left going for them is that they’re not funded by blood money. The entire thing is about optics for them, because in sports, there are really only two things to consider — optics and money. And they don’t have the money. And the problem with the optics is that the PGA powers that be were not really all that likable to begin with.

The Saudis, on the other hand, have as much money as they want. Their participation payments make the PGA’s Player Impact Program look like lunch money. Dustin Johnson (who has made more than $74 million dollars in PGA career earnings) certainly exaggerated when he said, “I don’t want to play golf the rest of my life, which I felt like I was probably going to have to do,” but the four-month schedule of LIV accompanied by the insane amounts of cash being thrown around have to look appealing to a lot of golfers, especially those who have been on the Tour for years or decades and may not really expect to win another major again.


Johnson’s resignation bought the PGA more time to decide how they want to deal with future LIV defectors, which is probably a good thing for them, but it’s also a bit of a slap in the face to the PGA’s reputation. They’re now in the uncomfortable position of not having the ultimate power over their athletes. Johnson and his fellow ship-jumpers aren’t waiting with bated breath on what punishment or sanction Monahan will decide to hand down — no, they got ahead of it, which, unfortunately for the PGA, makes them look sort of powerless and undesirable. They’re no longer the end-all-be-all in the sport if athletes are willingly signing away their rights to play with the Tour.

Where does the PGA go from here?

Unfortunately for the infamously stubborn Monahan, this probably means that the PGA is going to have to evolve and likely loosen up a bit on that automatic LIV ban that they threatened, as well as look for ways to get their golfers better financial opportunities or more global reach for sponsorships. They’re standing on a shaky moral ground already, and despite the absolute hot mess that the LIV press conference today was, shaking their heads in disappointment isn’t exactly going to stop golfers from taking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to play elsewhere.


You can’t rest on the, “well, we do it because that’s how it’s always been” excuse when it’s no longer like that. The more golfers who join LIV, the more normalized it becomes, and that cycle will just continue until the PGA folds or becomes a sort of amateurized or lower-level version of LIV. Even the no-namers will choose LIV if there’s better money there, especially if they’re not barred from playing the majors.

So what does the PGA have going for it? A lot more tournaments during the season, for starters, and, perhaps more importantly, stability. With no LIV broadcast partners yet announced and no concept of how popular their events will end up being, the PGA offers a good, solid schedule and, at least for now, a low-risk future in the sport. A good deal of the big names have stood by the PGA despite lucrative offers, and while I know this all seemed a bit doomsday, it’s not over for them yet. They have time and they have a solid foundation that they can build on.