What Dustin Johnson's leap to Saudi-backed LIV means for golf

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Imagine if Russell Wilson — Super Bowl champion, veteran still very much in his prime, ranked No. 12 on the NFL’s Top 100 list last year — had jumped from Seattle to the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions.

With that one move, the USFL would go from afterthought to curiosity. Wilson’s move would give the league a legitimacy that a whole roster full of Who’s That Guys can’t. All of a sudden, the NFL wouldn’t be the only football game in town.

It’s not a perfect comparison to what’s happening now in golf; for one thing, the USFL isn’t backed by limitless billions of Saudi oil money. But the Wilson-to-the-USFL hypothetical has a real-world equivalent now that Dustin Johnson — Masters champion, veteran still very much in his prime, ranked No. 13 in the world — has joined the about-to-debut LIV Golf tour.

With one move, the LIV tour vaulted from irrelevance to curiosity. Next up: threat.

The Saudi-backed venture is planning on hosting eight 48-player tournaments this season in a range of locations around the world, including the United States. LIV’s primary draw for players is money — vast, generational sums of money — supplied by Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Public Investment Fund. Thanks to a $2 billion investment, LIV plans to begin with a handful of tournaments in 2022 and 2023 before breaking wide in 2024.

Johnson’s name had come up in connection with the LIV in its early stages. But when Phil Mickelson basically vaporized months’ worth of public relations efforts with his callous, calculating comments about the Saudis’ human rights record — short version: he was OK with their atrocities, because he could use them to stick it to the PGA Tour — Johnson and others quickly backed away.

“I am fully committed to the PGA Tour,” Johnson said in February, in a statement that sounded so unlike his news conference speech patterns it may as well have been in a foreign language. “I am grateful for the opportunity to play on the best tour in the world and for all it has provided me and my family. While there will always be areas where our Tour can improve and evolve, I am thankful for our leadership and the many sponsors who make the PGA Tour golf’s premier tour.”

Since then, the PGA Tour has indicated in no uncertain terms that it would take a dim, punitive view of anyone who attempted to jump ship and play on the LIV tour. So what changed in the past three months for Johnson?

The money, probably.

Dustin Johnson will play in the LIV's inaugural event in London. (Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images )
Dustin Johnson will play in the LIV's inaugural event in London. (Maddie Meyer/PGA of America/PGA of America via Getty Images )

The Telegraph reported Wednesday that Johnson was paid £100 million — about $125 million — to join the league. Given that Johnson has earned about $74 million in tournament winnings in the entirety of his PGA Tour career, that sum — or anything close to it — would be enough to get a "tell me more…" from almost anyone.

There’s ample reason to presume that Johnson has significant incentives coming his way. To start, there’s the statement his agent released shortly after the field was announced:

"Dustin has been contemplating the opportunity off-and-on for the past couple of years," David Winkle, Johnson's agent, said. "Ultimately, he decided it was in his and his family's best interest to pursue it. Dustin has never had any issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him, but in the end, felt this was too compelling to pass up."

“Is grateful for all it has given him” has a real thanks-for-the-memories vibe to it, like Johnson knew that once he made this move, there would be no going back. That sense heightened when RBC, one of Johnson’s sponsors, cut ties with him soon after his announcement. A player who turns his back on the PGA Tour and sponsorships doesn’t do so without assurances that money in equal or greater amounts will be flowing his way.

Even if Johnson isn’t getting anything more than the previously announced substantial purses for the events, LIV Golf is investing in more than just his golf acumen. It’s investing in his image, his standing, his symbolism. With all due respect to the Sergio Garcias, Kevin Nas and Lee Westwoods of the world, Johnson — in his prime, at the top of the sport — legitimizes LIV in a way that a lucrative old-timers’ match never would.

What comes next? First, the year’s two remaining majors — the U.S. Open and the Open Championship — will need to weigh in. The PGA Championship’s leadership indicated earlier this month that they would not yet recognize LIV as a viable tour for the purposes of filling out the field. Johnson already has exemptions into both majors, but what about other players in the LIV lineup? Would the majors and the Ryder Cup block them from participating?

The Tour also has choices and challenges ahead. Any attempt to boot Johnson or other LIV players off the Tour would draw an immediate lawsuit. And if that court challenge broke in favor of the players, you’ll see many more streaming over to LIV in search of an easy payday.

"Are we independent contractors or not?" Rickie Fowler asked prior to the PGA Championship. "I feel like there needs to be some clarity between if you're an independent contractor or ... basically an employee." Fowler indicated at the time that he hadn't yet made a decision on LIV, but his name was not in the initial field for next week's tournament.

From the outside, critics have accused LIV of sportswashing — using sports to clean up the image of Saudi Arabia and obscure its human rights violations. For players, the political backdrop isn’t the issue. History is the PGA Tour’s primary selling point for them, and that’s something LIV can’t yet match.

“I believe in legacies,” Tiger Woods said just before the PGA Championship. “I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There's plenty of money out here.”

True, but those who don't have legacies the length of Woods' might be more tempted to look elsewhere ... particularly those who will be dominating the game in the 2020s and 2030s.

“You want to have records, I want to win tournaments, and for me, that's why for now … LIV Golf doesn't interest me,” Matthew Fitzpatrick said Wednesday. But then he added an offhand line that lays out the threat lurking offshore: “In five years, if all of a sudden that becomes the main tour, then obviously you sort of rethink your options.”

If LIV Golf is still around in five years — and there’s certainly enough money flowing in that it could be — a whole lot of people are going to be rethinking their options. With Johnson in the fold, it’s already begun.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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