‘Defend, reimburse, represent’: Greg Norman accelerates into PGA Tour collision course

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Greg Norman addresses the media at Centurion Golf Club (AFP via Getty Images)
Greg Norman addresses the media at Centurion Golf Club (AFP via Getty Images)

Greg Norman pressed the accelerator on Wednesday as the inevitable collision course between his breakaway series and golf’s traditional tours hit another fractious juncture. After the PGA Tour and DP World Tour mounted a steep roadblock by rejecting players’ requests for releases to play in next month’s launch event at Centurion Club in St Albans, Norman pledged that LIV Golf, backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, would “defend, reimburse and represent” players in the event of bans, fines or legal challenges and insisted “we are not going to be stopped”.

It was a defiant response, spoken with almost Trumpian certainty, but there are still plenty of details around the $255million LIV Golf series that remain uncomfortable or obscure. It was initially billed as a rival league and intended to lure away the world’s best players but, after Phil Mickelson said the Saudis were “scary mother*******” with a “horrible human rights record”, players withdrew en masse and the inaugural series will now instead be comprised of eight invitational events in 2022.

The field at Centurion will be made up of 48 players, with Norman claiming 36 of the 40 currently entered are ranked inside the world’s top 150, and Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and, perhaps, Mickelson are expected to be the leading names. It is a disrupting force, of that there is no doubt, but it is not necessarily what was first envisaged. Nor is it yet known if players will now baulk at the prospect of a potential legal battle over their rights to compete on a rival circuit.

“We will have the backs of the players,” Norman said. “If you were a European Tour member and came here without a release to play the Tour has a couple of options. They can fine you, they can ban you for life or they can temporarily suspend you. It’s going to be your choice. If you decide to come here and play, we’ve got your back. We’ll defend you, we’ll reimburse your fines and we’ll represent you if you want to go down the legal route. The player has to make the decision.”

The debut event is worth $25m alone and is being pitched as a revolutionising format for golf, taking inspiration from the US franchise model’s team format and Twenty20 cricket. Play will be spread over three days instead of four, with a shotgun start compacting the action into a five-hour period, while an ‘Apres Golf’ scene consisting of live DJs and gourmet food is designed to create a festival atmosphere that draws in a younger crowd. The facts are, though, that it is the best players who draw an audience and not the prospect of predominantly middle-aged men dancing in a field around posh burger stands. The event is currently set to be aired on YouTube rather than on a major broadcaster.

But to that end, Norman, who said that the full field for the event would be announced on 27 May, insisted: “We don’t need [a Rory McIlroy or a Tiger Woods]. If none of the top 20 come, it’s still going to go ahead. There is still value in there. Imagine if a 15-year-old kid out of Asia came in and won the first event. He’s the next superstar. Or an amateur. We are giving that opportunity to that kid or amateur to show the next generation is equal to if not better than the current generation.”

That was a suitable feel-good story, but the vast financial resources at Norman’s disposal have inevitably and continuously drawn scrutiny. Asked about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the alleged murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Norman’s determined speed forwards took a hasty back-pedal after an extraordinary choice of words. “Everybody has owned up to it, right?” he said in reference to Khashoggi. “It has been spoken about, from what I’ve read, going on what you guys reported. Take ownership, no matter what it is. Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”

After then being asked if the dismembering of a body with a bone saw could be qualified as “just a mistake”, Norman said: “I’m not going down this road guys. Let’s just stay focused on the golf. That’s all I’m going to do.”

Greg Norman addresses the media at Centurion Club (AFP via Getty Images)
Greg Norman addresses the media at Centurion Club (AFP via Getty Images)

Norman said he had never spoken to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman but did announce on Tuesday that the LIV Series had received an additional $2bn in funding in order to put a 14-event global league in place by 2024.

The Australian was adamant he would prefer to work “shoulder to shoulder” and was not “looking for a fight” with the PGA Tour, but there can be no illusions that the LIV Series has already positioned itself as a direct competitor. The 67-year-old, who previously tried and failed to instigate a breakaway tour in 1994, also ceded that there was little chance of reconciliation or either side backing down.

“I really have given up hope on that because I did leave a voicemail for [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] not long ago,” he said. “No response. I did write a letter. No response.”

That rift is only set to deepen over the coming four weeks and it remains to be seen whether money alone is enough to fragment the time-honoured tradition of the PGA Tour. It is a battle for golf’s soul that is being decided in boardrooms, courtrooms and by bank managers, and it will be settled far away from the greens of Centurion.

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