PGA Tour grants Saudi International exemptions … with strings attached

dustin johnson hits tee shot at saudi international

Dustin Johnson will be among the PGA Tour stars competing at the Saudi International.

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The best things in life are free. The right to skip out on the PGA Tour, it turns out, is not.

Golf’s biggest tour has granted exemptions into the controversial Saudi International in February, it announced Monday evening, but those exemptions will come to players at a price. As part of the agreement to grant admission into the Saudi field, the Tour stipulated each player commit to a future start at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which is the Tour event that will be held the same week.

“Players who have played in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at least once in the past five years were granted a release on the condition that they commit to play it at least once in the next two years (’23, ’24),” the Tour said in a release. “Players who have not played the historic tournament on the Monterey Peninsula at least once in the past five years were granted a release on the condition that they commit to play it at least twice in the next three years (’23, ’24, ’25).”

In total, 30 PGA Tour players requested an exemption in order to play in the event at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, including the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio Garcia, among others. As part of their agreement to play in the event, many players reportedly received significant entrance fees — with some players fetching as many as seven figures for their appearance.

Phil Mickelson competes in a practice round at the 2021 Saudi International.

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The decision from the PGA Tour marks a significant moment in the game’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Of course, Saudi Arabia’s recent human rights record has drawn criticism from both world leaders and human rights organizations, but that hasn’t halted the country from expanding its own ties to the sport, or stopped the PGA Tour from issuing exemptions into the event over the last half-decade.

For the PGA Tour, the newfound concerns largely center around LIV Golf Investments, the firm rumored to be forming a rival professional golf tour. The firm, which is being headed up by Greg Norman, shares the same high-profile financier as the Saudi International: the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. The Public Investment Fund (or PIF) is a sovereign wealth fund (a state-owned investment portfolio) reportedly worth north of $500 billion. In recent years, the fund has increasingly invested in international sports, completing a purchase of the Premier League’s Newcastle United earlier this year in addition to the creation of LIV Golf Investments.

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In granting the exemption, PGA Tour leadership sidesteps an ethical quagmire: it has repeatedly insisted that its players are both owners and independent contractors, a theory the Tour would seemingly subvert should it deny exemption into the Saudi International. In the release announcing the decision, the Tour reiterated its guidelines “fully support denial of such requests” — but the legal boundaries of those guidelines remain largely untested. It’s a predicament not unlike the one facing Tour leadership should it decide to enforce the lifetime ban it has reportedly threatened those considering the rival tour with.

Those decisions remain on the horizon for the PGA Tour. With its announcement Monday evening, the can has been sufficiently kicked further down the road.

For now, the Saudi International will have its stars in 2021 … for a price.

James Colgan

Golf.com Editor

James Colgan is an assistant editor at GOLF, contributing stories for the website and magazine on a broad range of topics. He writes the Hot Mic, GOLF’s weekly media column, and utilizes his broadcast experience across the brand’s social media and video platforms. A 2019 graduate of Syracuse University, James — and evidently, his golf game — is still defrosting from four years in the snow, during which time he cut his teeth at NFL Films, CBS News and Fox Sports. Prior to joining GOLF, James was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from.