Greg Norman says top-ranked players ‘excited’ as big-money tour takes shape
Greg Norman, as a 67-year-old commissioner of a new series of golf events announced Wednesday morning, is not that different than he was half his lifetime ago, when he was one of the best golfers in the world. As a player, he was charismatic and headstrong. Norman’s golf was emotional and reactive. He took things personally.
And so Norman will be as a commissioner. That became clear Wednesday morning when he spoke with a small group of reporters and answered questions about this new eight-event, team-based, high-payout series of international golf events.
Norman wants you to call the series by its name, and understandably so: the LIV Golf Invitational Series. LIV, pronounced as in live long and prosper, is also a Roman numeral that, as a golf score — 54 — is pretty much perfect, if you like making birdies on 18 straight holes on a par-72 course. It also is the number of holes that will be played in LIV golf events.
Norman doesn’t want you calling it the Saudi golf league. He does acknowledge that the majority of the funding comes from the vast investment fund called PIF, a private Saudi company overseen by Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and linked, according to a U.S. intelligence report, to the death of the columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi.
There’s so much going on here it’s head-spinning. Let’s start with the concept — 54 holes, team play and individual play, 48 golfers — and how Norman and his team came up with it. Norman attended his first Ryder Cup last year at Whistling Straits, where he was doing radio commentary.
“I’ve never seen a team event with energy like that, and that was a gobsmack moment,” Norman, a native Australian who has lived in South Florida for decades, said Wednesday from a sleek, sun-drenched office in a high-rise in West Palm Beach.
Norman’s remarks here have been lightly edited and reordered for clarity.
“To see the interactions of players who weren’t playing on the first tee, engaging with the fans? Man, it put goosebumps on me and I’m not even American or European. I saw the value of what team sport does, the camaraderie of the players, how they want to represent their team or their country or their playing partner that given day. It was a moment. I was really into it from an emotional standpoint, from a player standpoint.
“So for me, and Sean [Bratches, a LIV Golf executive], we both got hit in the forehead with this massive energy: ‘Look at the fans, this is what they want! Individual as well as team [competitions]’. And that’s what we’re having right here, with LIV Golf.”
It’s hard to believe, but that Ryder Cup in Kohler, Wis., was only half a year ago. Tiger Woods, who was supposed to be an assistant captain there, was not on hand. He was in his home in South Florida, continuing to rehab from his horrifying February 2021 car crash.
But Phil Mickelson was there, as an assistant captain. He was also the reigning PGA Championship winner and a certifiable golf legend, the oldest player ever to win a major. He was by far, the most accomplished and experienced person in a U.S. uniform that week and was seemingly an insider on every important conversation, when he wasn’t walking hand-in-hand with his wife, Amy, down the sides of the Whistling Straits fairways.
Since then, Mickelson has turned his life upside down with, essentially, his mouth and his interest in Norman’s fledgling league. In comments he made to John Huggan of Golf Digest, Mickelson accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed,” as he sought to get permission for his own golf ventures. In comments he made to a biographer, Alan Shipnuck, he said that ruling-class Saudis were “scary mother—-ers.” He has not played golf in public in months, and he has not made a public statement in weeks.
“I have not spoken to him in quite a while,” Norman said Wednesday morning. “I’ve wanted to leave him alone. He wanted to have his own space, so I just respect that.
“He’s been great for the game of golf. He’s got a fan base that’s incredible. He’s done things that many other players wish they could emulate over their career. And I wish him nothing but the best. I really do. From a player-to-player perspective, we’ve all screwed up in our lives. We’ve all made some stupid statements and comments over a period of time that we wish we could take back.
“At the end of the day, I just want Phil to know from a player’s perspective, and as the CEO of LIV Golf, that we welcome him back [when] he wants to come back and play the game of golf.
“It’s up to him. It’s on his time schedule. And as he clears his head and gets himself back to the game of golf, the better off the game of golf will be.
“It’s sad. There’s no question about it. At the end of the day, I’m just gonna let Phil have his time to flush out what he needs to flush out in his mind and get himself back into equilibrium.”
Golf, typically the most orderly of sports, has never had a period like this one.
*Woods ran his car off the road 13 months ago, with the gas pedal almost fully depressed, incurred major injuries and announced that his life as a professional golfer was changed forever. But since then, between his comments in support of the PGA Tour and his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, he has looked, far more than ever before, like an elder statesman of the PGA Tour and of Establishment Golf.
*Mickelson has gone from the most public of popular golfing figures to the most silent of them.
*Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner who made his mark in golf as an affable and skillful marketing man, has become a sure-footed, take-charge leader, through the pandemic and the emergence of competing tours.
*Donald Trump, owner of numerous courses bearing his name, lost the 2022 PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots. But Trump Bedminster was named Wednesday as the venue for the third of the eight LIV Golf series events, in late July.
Each of these first seven events, before a concluding team championship in late October at a venue to be named, are invitationals. Norman said that he sent emails to 250 golfers, all of them male, Tuesday night at around 10:30 and this is how described the response he received within 11 hours:
“I’ve got to tell you, from a player’s perspective, the amount of response [has been] unbelievably positive. I’m talking about single-digit ranked players in the world, emailing me first thing this morning, just so excited to hear about what we have to say and what we’ve got.”
As a PGA Tour player, Norman was a thorn in the side of his commissioners, first Deane Beman, later Tim Finchem. (Mickelson has been, too — first to Finchen, later to Monahan.) As a player, Norman wanted what many pros wanted and what they still want: more playing opportunities for more money. The PGA Tour, and other organized tours around the world, impose order where there otherwise would be bedlam. The result is order, but turf wars, too. Norman is holding fast to what he felt as a player. Professionals should be able to play where they want for as much as they can get. A TV deal, he figures, will find their way to tournaments featuring players fans want to watch. This whole thing is a work-in-progress.
Norman is holding fast to what he felt as a player.
“For decades, I fought for the right of a player to have the opportunity and choice to go play wherever he wants without having restrictions,” Norman said. “I remember when I was the No. 1 player in the world, trying to get the right to go back and play in my home [Australian] tour. And I fought for home-tour release rules. Why do we have to apply for a waiver for that? You know, players can apply for a waiver and get it. And I’ve heard as recently as of this year that some European tour players just went and played without even getting a release.
“The players see their opportunities. They’re independent contractors. They have this freedom of choice. I’ll just sit back and give them the new opportunities.”
One of the first questions players will ask, in the face of these new playing opportunities, is this: Will I get Official World Golf Ranking points for playing in these LIV events? LIV officials are trying to get that answered. Do you know why that question is so important? Because a player’s OWGR is his passport to the best-paying events in the world.
Viewed that way, this whole thing is not that complicated. Players will follow the money. They seldom ask where it comes from.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com