No sooner had players competing in the breakaway LIV Golf Invitational London , the most lucrative event in the sport’s history, teed off Thursday than they were suspended by the US PGA Tour.
The $25 million event in St Albans — the biggest prize pot golf has known — is the first of eight tournaments this year bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, worth a combined $255 million.
But the LIV International Series, featuring the likes of six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, former world number one Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia is being staged in defiance of the main established tours.
And barely 30 minutes after the first shots had been struck, US PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan banished 17 players who have joined the ‘rebel’ series.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” said Monahan as he announced the indefinite suspensions and other sanctions.
“But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you. That expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”
LIV Golf, with the largest purse in golf history at $25 million for this week’s three-day event, responded by saying the PGA had deepened the fracture in the global game.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and it deepens the divide between the tour and its members,” LIV Golf said in a statement.
“It’s troubling that the tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing.
“This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”
Nine of the 17 players named by Monahan had already resigned their PGA Tour membership.
But Thursday’s suspensions, and LIV Golf’s response, appeared to herald a courtroom battle that has long looked the most likely way of resolving this split in world golf.
Players asked for releases to compete in the event in St Albans, northwest of London, and were rejected by the PGA Tour, in part because the event conflicts with this week’s US PGA Tour Canadian Open.
Monahan warned players who take part in future LIV Golf tournaments, five of which are scheduled for US venues, will face the same fate.
Those involved will also be barred from the Presidents Cup and the US PGA playoffs in August.
The DP World Tour, as the European Tour is now known, has yet to announce what, if any sanctions it will impose on the ‘rebels’.
All 48 players in the inaugural LIV field at the Centurion Club in St Albans, including European Ryder Cup stars Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell, teed off at the same time in a “shotgun start”, with 16 groups of three spread around the course.
Players have faced tough questions over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in the days running up to the new event and have been accused of greed in chasing the huge prize money on offer.
Mickelson confirmed earlier this week he had signed up for the breakaway series but he did not dispel rumours he was receiving an eye-watering fee of $200 million to compete.
The 51-year-old American has not played since the publication of comments in February in which he criticised the PGA Tour and LIV Golf’s Saudi backers.
Mickelson faced an uncomfortable grilling at a press conference on the eve of the tournament.
He insisted he did not “condone human rights violations”, adding that golf could be a force for good.
Amnesty International renewed its call for players to speak out about “human rights abuses” in Saudi Arabia, rather than being “willing stooges of Saudi sportswashing”.
Two-time major winner Johnson, who is reportedly receiving $150 million in appearance fees, is among a handful of players to have resigned their PGA Tour membership.
When asked whether he had opted for money over his country, he said he had chosen “what’s best for me and my family”.
LIV Golf is fronted by two-time major winner and former world number one Greg Norman, who pledged last month he would “defend, reimburse and represent” any players sanctioned.