To call Dustin Johnson’s withdrawal from the PGA Tour on Tuesday “seismic” would be to utter one of the biggest understatements in sporting history.
The golfing world is left picking through the scraps as one of its leading lights heads for the hugely controversial LIV Golf Invitational Series. And the rest of the world will be on tenterhooks watching the fallout as other sports consider their own issues with potential breakaways.
The Saudi-backed creation has split golf in two, and the recruitment of a former world number one is the biggest power play yet by its mega-money backers. Johnson is set to earn $150 million in appearance fees alone as one of the faces of the new series, and has admitted that the money was a huge factor in his decision to quit the traditional tour and instantly make himself ineligible for Ryder Cup consideration.
“I don’t want to play for the rest of my life, and this gives me an opportunity to do what I want to do,” the American said in a press conference on Tuesday morning. “The Ryder Cup is unbelievable and has meant a lot to me, but ultimately I decided this was best for me and my family.”
LIV Golf has been months in the making, with Phil Mickelson’s signing having been the highest-profile move before DJ’s switch. But the controversy surrounding the series’ owners, the same Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund which bought Newcastle United in October 2021, has led to many players steering clear.
The golfer is now ineligible to play in the Ryder Cup.
But with untold riches involved, the temptation for many is clear. Talor Gooch, currently ranked 35th on the PGA Tour and having never placed higher than 31st, is set to earn more in 15 months on the LIV Golf circuit than the $121m Tiger Woods has tallied in prize money in his entire career.
Woods himself was offered what Australian golfing legend and LIV CEO Greg Norman called a “high nine digit” deal to make the leap, but so far the 15-time Major winner has stood firm.
Now the rest of the sporting world will watch on as golf takes on the sort of look that many others could be tempted to follow. Only last year, football was left stunned by the attempted breakaway of some of its top clubs to form a European Super League, a move which many expect to be reprised in some form in the future.
There have also been threats of similar splits across other sports, with the 2009 Formula 1 proposal led by Ferrari being of particular interest right now given the issues bubbling up between Formula One’s owners and the sport’s governing body, the FIA.
The latest troubles came after race director Eduardo Freitas ordered that the Monaco Grand Prix be delayed due to forecast heavy rain, with owners, teams and drivers all claiming that the decision was too conservative. There has also been fallout due to the counter-proposals regarding Russian competitors, which led to F1 making its own stance and cutting ties with Haas driver Nikita Mazepin.
Similarly, football continues to encounter issues which could see the ESL proposals return sooner rather than later, with the treatment of Liverpool and Real Madrid fans at the recent Champions League final casting doubt over Uefa’s regard for supporters barely 12 months on from the European lawmakers gaining backing from fan groups for their opposition to the breakaway clubs.
At a time when sports are increasingly wrestling with the size of the dollar signs being projected from rival groups, now would be a good time for the existing governing bodies to remember where popular opinion comes from.
Would F1 fans follow a breakaway group? If they promised to let the high-stakes racing go on in more dramatic conditions, maybe.
Will football supporters eventually back a Super League? Perhaps if the current bosses continue to treat them like animals.
Might golf fans turn out to watch stars such as Johnson and Mickelson battle it out in the name of promoting the Saudi PIF? We’re about to find out.
*18+ | BeGambleAware