The PGA and DP World Tours Allied. Then LIV Golf Happened.
Fabrizio Zanotti had been waiting to hear where he’d be this week.
Ranked 38th on the DP World Tour, he was on the cusp of getting into the Genesis Scottish Open. But as of last summer, an alliance between the PGA Tour and the DP tour means that he had a spot in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship, nearly 4,000 miles away in Nicholasville, Ky., if he didn’t get into the Scottish Open.
Zanotti, who is from Paraguay, wasn’t complaining. “It’s really good,” he said. “The partnership is nice for us here in Europe to have the opportunity to get there.”
Just a few months ago, the PGA Tour and the European Tour, which oversees the DP World Tour, had an alliance that looked fruitful. After competing for players for several decades, the tours came together in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic and by November 2020 they had formalized a partnership.
Last August, the tours announced that they were co-sanctioning three events: the Scottish Open and the Barbasol, which run Thursday through Sunday, and the Barracuda Championship next week in Reno, Nev., opposite the British Open.
This meant players on the PGA and DP World Tours could compete in either event if their ranking was sufficient to get in. But mostly it meant if they didn’t get into the Scottish or British Opens, they had a great consolation prize in playing lesser tournaments on the more prestigious PGA Tour.
When this deal was announced in August, it was heralded as a sign of the deepening cooperation between the tours and sold as a benefit to both tours’ members.
“With us co-sanctioning three events this year, we are no longer competing for top players,” Keith Pelley, the European Tour commissioner, said in an interview earlier this year.
“Everything changed after November 2020. It was a mind-set shift for both of our organizations to work as closely together as we could and share all facets of our businesses. We went from competitors to partners.”
Those were the days. That alliance is being tested publicly and politically by the new Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour. The high-dollar invitational series has lured a group of PGA and DP World Tour players away and sent more established tours scrambling to make changes.
In the first event, the winner took home $4 million, but there was guaranteed money for every player, including the last-place finisher, Andy Ogletree, who won the U.S. Amateur in 2019. (He didn’t make the field at the first LIV event in the United States, at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon, throwing into doubt his professional future.)
For golfers trying to play their way up the rankings and into tournaments, money surely matters, but it’s the Official World Golf Ranking points that matter the most. They’re what determines how much control players have over their schedules.
“The playing opportunities with the merger are great,” said Maverick Antcliff, who played in college at Augusta State University in Georgia and is ranked 171st on the DP tour. “If you have a good week in that opposite field event, you have an opportunity to transfer to the U.S. That’s the avenue I want to go. That strategic alliance has given us a clearer pathway.”
Before the alliance, the way players in Europe got invites onto the PGA Tour and into the majors was by being ranked in the top 50 in the world — not just on a particular tour — or by qualifying for the United States or British Opens through their qualifying process. The strategic alliance has given talented but lower-ranked players a chance to compete on the PGA Tour and possibly finish high enough to gain more control over their schedule.
While it presents larger, existential questions for professional golf, it has more practical week-to-week consequences for players trying to get into tournaments like the Scottish Open. Will defectors to the LIV Golf being excluded from events give other players a chance to compete? And that’s another way of players on the cusp asking if they have a spot in events after remaining loyal to the tour where they’ve been playing.
The answers aren’t clear. For one, the two tours are structured differently. The PGA Tour is a nonprofit. The European Tour is essentially a union of its members. So their punishments have differed because their members ostensibly have a say.
Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, has threatened to suspend or bar players who go to the LIV tour (with a number of players like Dustin Johnson and Kevin Na resigning their memberships upon moving to LIV).
Pelley, the European Tour commissioner, had to take a different tact with his players: They were fined $120,000 for playing in the first LIV event in London and barred from playing in the three co-sanctioned events. Pablo Larrazabal and Oliver Bekker paid their fines and were back playing on the European Tour at the recent Horizon Irish Open.
Yet the LIV Tour, which set out to challenge the existing tours, is doing so at the cost of upcoming players. Consider Ogletree, who has struggled on the PGA Tour but had his U.S. Amateur champion status to fall back on. Now the question remains what his defection to the LIV Tour means for his professional career.
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The launch of new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Who is playing it? The 48 players in the initial LIV Golf event were not exactly a who’s who of golf, and many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away. But there were big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. On June 9, it suspended the 17 PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players.
The tours announced significant enhancements to their partnership at the end of June. Among them is the PGA Tour increasing its stake in the European Tour to 40 percent, from 15 percent, which will lead to higher prize money on the DP World Tour. It also gives players on that tour a route to get onto the PGA Tour, with the top 10 European players at the end of the season getting playing privileges in the United States.
“The involvement of the DP World Tour and those players will just help expand our tournament, and it’s great for our sponsor, Barracuda Networks,” said Chris Hoff, tournament director of the Barracuda Championship, noting there will be 50 DP World Tour players in addition to 106 from the PGA Tour.
“There are plenty of guys who want to come over. It’s a middle- to upper-middle tournament when it comes to the amount of Race to Dubai points available in addition to the monetary purse.”
Those points are important, and since none of the players who went to the LIV Tour are able to play in the three co-sanctioned events this season, it gives an opportunity to other players who remained on the tours.
For a player like Antcliff, whose 550 world ranking sometimes makes getting into tournaments difficult, the alternative field events give him hope. “For myself, it is nice when there’s an event and you have the opportunity to play that same week,” he said. “It’s a long season. Your best week is just around the corner. It’s another opportunity to play a PGA Tour event.”
The co-sanctioning changes haven’t been great for all tournaments. The recent John Deere Classic used to be played opposite the Scottish Open. It’s claim to fame was having a jet waiting to fly the winner to the British Open.
Zanotti will play this week at the Scottish Open. Next week, though, he had planned to play in the Barracuda Championship on the PGA Tour, but his fourth place finish in the Irish Open got him into the British Open.
“It’s not very easy to go through the world rankings to play on the PGA Tour if you’re not a top-50 player,” said Zanotti, whose world ranking is 237. “That’s why I think it’s great to have these two opportunities. You can always win or have a good week.”