‘Dead in the water’: How a week at Riviera dealt a major blow to the Saudi golf league

rory mcilroy smiles

Rory McIlroy was one of many pros who spoke out against the Saudi golf league at the Genesis Invitational.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — The golf at Riviera Country Club was good, but the takes were better.

At a tournament that showcased some of the best golf of the season (courtesy of Joaquin Niemann) on one of the best venues on the PGA Tour (hat tip to Riv), the biggest stories at the Genesis Invitational had nothing to do with what happened inside the ropes. Instead, the discourse that dominated the week was focused on the mysterious Saudi golf league.

The proposed breakaway tour appeared to be making headway in recent weeks. Its goal of disrupting the foundations of pro golf by stealing away Tour stars with the promise of fat checks was gaining steam. Whispers of NDAs and wire transfers floated through the grounds. Major champions had their names linked to the Saudis, and everyone waited with bated breath for the next dominos to fall.

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And fall they did. But not in the way the power brokers of the breakaway tour would’ve hoped.

It started before the first shot of the 96th Genesis Invitational was even struck.

Eight players strolled through the media center for pre-tournament availabilities in Riviera’s picturesque clubhouse on Tuesday and Wednesday. Nearly all of them rebuked the Saudi golf league and affirmed their allegiances to the PGA Tour.

Collin Morikawa took the stand first, saying he was “all for the PGA Tour.” Chasing records set by Tiger Woods was too much to lure him away from the friendly confines of the Tour. Defending champ Max Homa followed suit. Money is nice, he said, but the thrill of winning against the best was by far his motivating factor.

The World No. 1 made his position clear next.

“I am officially declaring, let’s say, my affiliation to the PGA Tour,” Jon Rahm said. “I’m a PAC member and I have a lot of belief in Jay Monahan and the product that they’re going to give us in the future. There has been a lot of talk and speculation on the Saudi league. It’s just not something I believe is the best for me and my future in golf, and I think the best legacy I can accomplish will be with the PGA Tour.”

That solidarity displayed by the Tour’s top talent signified a major victory for the establishment. The following day, the next bomb dropped.

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, Alan Shipnuck of the Firepit Collective published a conversation he’d had with Phil Mickelson regarding the Saudi league last fall. The contents of the article exposed how Mickelson hoped to leverage the threat of the breakaway tour against those in Ponte Vedra.

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“They’re scary motherf—— to get involved with,” Mickelson said of the Saudis. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Fellow Tour pros were less than thrilled when news of Mickelson’s attempted sleight of hand reached Riviera.

“Seems like a bit of a pretty, you know, egotistical statement,” Justin Thomas said. “I don’t know, it’s like, he’s done a lot of great things for the PGA Tour, he’s a big reason it is where it is, but him and others that are very adamant about that [league], if they’re that passionate, go ahead. I don’t think anybody’s stopping them.”

Pat Perez was far less brief with his thoughts. After completing his first round, he delivered an epic, stream-of-consciousness rant about the entire ordeal.

“They’re not going to follow Phil; they’re not going to follow [Bryson] DeChambeau unfortunately,” Perez said. “You need the young crew right now to go do this thing. I don’t know exactly what Phil, why he’s got so much hate towards the Tour.”

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While Mickelson (and by proxy the Saudi tour) took hit after hit in the media, Lefty was nowhere to be found. His usually lively Twitter account was dark throughout the week, and his whereabouts are unknown.

Inside the ropes, things were (comparatively) normal. Joaquin Niemann lit Riviera on fire with a pair of 63s to open the event, and Cameron Young stayed on his heels in pursuit. The record-setting golf served as a refreshing reprieve from the wackiness transpiring elsewhere.

The respite was short-lived. On Sunday, Saudi-league drama reinserted itself into the pro golf discourse again.

Dustin Johnson, who some believed was pro-breakaway tour, released a statement early Sunday morning stating his intentions to remain on the PGA Tour. Not long after, Bryson DeChambeau did the same.

“While there has been a lot of speculation surrounding my support for another tour, I want to make it very clear that as long as the best players in the world are playing the PGA Tour, so will I,” DeChambeau’s statement read. “As of now, I am focused on getting myself healthy and competing again soon. I appreciate all the support.”

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship, the biggest names linked to the Saudi league were suddenly voicing their commitment to the tour. By the time Niemann embraced Tiger Woods on the 18th green following his win, the Tour’s symbolic victory was quite clear.

“Who’s left? Who’s left to go?” Rory McIlroy said on Sunday night. “I mean, there’s no one. It’s dead in the water in my opinion. Yeah, I just can’t see any reason why anyone would go.”

It remains to be seen what will happen next in the Saudi league saga, but one thing is certain — the week that was at Riviera severely hindered its chances at survival.


Zephyr Melton

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with the Texas Golf Association, Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and covers amateur and women’s golf. He can be reached at zephyr_melton@golf.com.