The most controversial tournament right now in sport gets under way on Thursday – and it threatens to blow apart men’s professional golf.
Some of the game’s biggest names will compete in the inaugural LIV Golf event in Hertfordshire despite facing lifetime bans from the PGA Tour.
The breakaway series is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – the owners of Newcastle United – and involves huge sums of money for the competitors.
It has led to players facing criticism for taking part in the Saudi-backed event due to the kingdom’s dismal human rights record.
So why is LIV Golf so controversial, how much money are the players set to earn and what are the concerns about the series? Sky News explains.
What is LIV Golf?
Reports first emerged of plans for a rival league to the PGA Tour as far back as 2019, but it was only in late 2021 that the proposal truly began to take shape.
LIV Golf Investments was formed, with PIF – the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia – its majority shareholder.
In March, the PGA Tour threatened to hand out lifetime bans to players who defect to the rival league, throwing into doubt their future appearances at major tournaments and the Ryder Cup.
Despite this, LIV Golf announced the schedule for an eight-event, $225m (£179m) invitational series which begins at Centurion Club in St Albans on Thursday. Future tournaments are planned in the US, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.
Coverage of this week’s inaugural event will be streamed on the organisation’s website as well as on YouTube and Facebook.
Which players are involved?
The star names include six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, former world number one Dustin Johnson and Ryder Cup heroes Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter.
Former major champions Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen are also competing.
Off the course, former world number one player Greg Norman is LIV Golf’s chief executive.
Why is Tiger Woods not playing?
Tiger Woods reportedly rejected a “mind-blowingly enormous” offer to join the series.
Speaking to the Washington Post, Norman suggested the 15-time major winner turned down a sum in excess of $150m (£120m) and perhaps close to $1bn (£798m).
How is it different to other golf tournaments?
LIV is the Roman numeral for 54, which is the number of holes to be played in each event, instead of the usual 72.
There is no cut, and golfers will all play at the same time, with a shotgun start in use – meaning all groups of players tee off simultaneously from different holes.
All 48 players will compete against each other in a traditional stroke play format, with the lowest scorer after 54 holes being the winner. They will also be split into 12 four-man teams.
How much money will players earn?
The $25m (£20m) purse for the London event is the largest in golf history.
A bulk of the prize fund – $20m (£16m) – is up for grabs in the individual stroke-play portion of the event, while the remaining $5m (£4m) will be shared between the top three teams.
The winner will receive $4m (£3.2m), considerably more than the $2.7m (£2.2m) awarded to the recent winners of The Masters and PGA Championship – while every player is guaranteed at least $120,000 (£96,000) just for completing 54 holes.
Why is it controversial?
Amnesty International UK has accused LIV Golf players of being “willing stooges of Saudi sportswashing” due to the Gulf kingdom’s “appalling human rights record”.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who heads the PIF, allegedly ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
In March this year, Saudi Arabia announced the mass execution of 81 men for terrorism and other offences including holding “deviant beliefs”.
And last year, Saudi aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan had a 20-year jail sentence upheld for writing satirical tweets criticising the authorities.
Women in Saudi Arabia continue to face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, according to Amnesty.
There is also “substantial evidence” of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people being frequently subject to arrest in the kingdom, the Human Dignity Trust says.
Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, Sacha Deshmukh, said: “It’s been extremely disappointing to hear a number of golf’s best-known figures attempting to play down the terrible murder of Jamal Khashoggi while sidestepping the real gravity of Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record.
“Rather than acting as the willing stooges of Saudi sportswashing, we’d like to see golfers at the LIV Golf Invitational speaking out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
“Solidarity with Saudi Arabia’s beleaguered human rights community is incredibly important and at the moment the LIV Golf series is displaying very little of this.”
What have the players said about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record?
Norman has claimed Saudi Arabia is “changing their culture within their country” and played down the role of its government in LIV Golf, telling Sky Sports News: “I do not answer to Saudi Arabia. I do not answer to their government or MBS.”
Mickelson got into hot water earlier this year when he described the Saudis as “scary m************” and said he was well aware of Saudi Arabia’s “horrible record on human rights”.
The American – who declined to confirm if he was receiving $200m (£159.5m) to compete in LIV Golf – said on Wednesday: “I don’t condone human rights violations at all.
“I’m certainly aware of what has happened with Jamal Khashoggi and I think it’s terrible.
“Nobody here condones human rights violations and nobody is trying to make up for anything.”
But he added: “I have also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history and I believe LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good for the game as well.”
McDowell branded the Khashoggi murder “reprehensible” but said: “We’re not politicians, we’re professional golfers”.
He added: “If Saudi Arabia want to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be, I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.”
Meanwhile, Westwood pointed out that players have previously competed in Saudi Arabia in European Tour-sanctioned tournaments.
What other sports have been faced criticism over Saudi links?
Golf is not the sport to come under scrutiny over its links to Saudi Arabia.
Newcastle United were bought in a £300m deal in October, with Saudi Arabia’s PIF taking an 80% stake.
The takeover was confirmed by the Premier League after it said it had received “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi state would not control the football club, one of the main stumbling blocks to a deal.
Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton has previously expressed discomfort at racing in Saudi Arabia’s grand prix due to concerns about human rights in the kingdom.
There was also criticism of the decision to host Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title fight against Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia in 2019.
What has the UK government said?
The UK government has stressed the importance of the country’s close ties with Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelled to the Gulf Kingdom in March for talks on oil.
In May, sports minister Nigel Huddleston said the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was “really important” and “we can have frank exchanges because of the nature of our relationship”.
“Saudi Arabia is an important partner of the UK in investment, intelligence and culture,” Mr Huddleston said.
“We welcome Saudi Arabian investment.
“Many, many jobs in the UK are dependent on our relationship with the Saudis but we take the opportunity to talk frankly and openly with Saudi Arabia.”