‘Game of poker’: At Saudi International, players talk threat of rival golf leagues

Dustin Johnson in the first round of the Saudi International on Thursday.

Dustin Johnson looks on during the first round of the Saudi International on Thursday.

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Some of golf’s biggest names aren’t playing on the PGA Tour at one of the game’s most iconic venues this week. Instead they’re halfway across the world at the PIF Saudi International, playing a tournament that required a Tour-issued release just to participate.

The rise of star-led super leagues has been a hot topic in golf over the past couple of years, and the Asian Tour’s recent influx of cash is just the latest domino to fall. The Saudi International is sanctioned by the Asian Tour, which is funded by LIV Golf Investments and its CEO, Greg Norman. It’s a poorly kept secret that Norman’s ultimate plan is a superstar-led big-money golf league — the Super Golf League — that plays events all across the world. But it’s complicated: both the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have previously warned players of bans if they left their tours for the SGL. There have already been several reports of stars being offered massive sums to join, too.

So, what does this all mean? According to Lee Westwood, it’s all poker.

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“Well, the players of the other tours see the Asian Tour as a threat now, don’t they, because of the huge investment,” Westwood said on Wednesday in his pre-tournament press conference at the Saudi International. “It’s kind of like a game of poker really where the European Tour (now the DP World Tour) and the PGA Tour have had the biggest hand, and now there’s somebody else come to the table with more chips, so everybody is on their guard and very defensive and are clearly seeing the Asian Tour as a threat. Nobody can deny that. There wouldn’t have been all this trouble with releases and things like that if that wasn’t the case.”

There’s no shortage of unanswered questions right now, either. Most players who gave press conferences at the Saudi International were asked at least a couple of questions about the potential of the Super Golf League coming to life.

Westwood said he’d signed an NDA. Cameron Smith deflected the question. Phil Mickelson said pretty much every player in the OWGR top 100 has been contacted about the league. Asked if he was tempted to take part, Dustin Johnson said “we’ll see.”

“I think competition is good for golf,” Marc Leishman said. “I don’t know the exact details of it yet, but as an independent contractor and golfer, I feel like you’ve got to explore all options, and I think, yeah, the competition as far as golf goes will help, help the game, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”

On Tuesday, Norman talked about the newest investment into the Asian Tour, the International Series. He was also asked about the status of the Super Golf League.

“Look, they’re upset for their own reasons. From our perspective, we have our game plan about how we’re going through it,” he said. “We’re executing extremely well across all sectors of the ecosystem. If they want to be upset with us, that’s their choice. We’re not upset with them. We’re not picking a fight. We don’t want to do anything, like I explained before.

“Our process is this: LIV Golf Investments is investing into the International Series. That’s what we’re focused on now today. Will there be things announced in the future? Absolutely there are going to be things announced in the future. But right now our focus is on this. Our mission is to make sure this platform is firmly cemented in the world of golf and where we see it sitting, and we’ll focus on that, and then there will be another announcement, and then there will be another announcement.”

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