ST. ANDREWS – R&A chief Martin Slumbers tore into the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series on Wednesday as a money grab that threatens the game's merit-based culture that has been cultivated over centuries.
He threatened to change the British Open criteria that would make it more difficult for some players to gain entry to golf's oldest championship.
“Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prize money that’s offered to them. I have absolutely no issue with that at all,” Slumbers said at his annual news conference ahead of the Open.
“But there is no such thing as a free lunch.”
He said two LIV Golf events held outside London and Portland, Oregon, were not in the best long-term interests of golf and were "entirely driven by money.”
Those 54-hole events with no cut offered $25 million in prize money to 48 players. Many of them were given signing fees, reportedly $150 million or more, for the bigger names.
“We believe it undermines the merit-based culture and spirit of open competition that makes golf so special,” Slumbers said.
He spoke two days after The Wall Street Journal reported that the dispute between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour had the attention of the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division.
“That is a testament to their stupidity, quite honestly,” Greg Norman, the CEO of LIV Golf, said of the PGA Tour in an interview with the Palm Beach Post in Florida.
“They brought it on themselves. We haven’t done anything other than putting together a business model and giving independent contractors a right to earn a living doing something else, as well as still being a member of the PGA Tour,” Norman said.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has suspended players for competing without a release; some of them, such as Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia, decided to resign their memberships.
The European tour fined its players who joined 100,000 pounds and banned them from certain tournaments. Four players appealed to a judge and were given a temporary stay from being suspended, allowing them to compete in the Scottish Open.
USGA CEO Mike Whan said last month he could foresee a day when players who joined LIV Golf would have a harder time getting into the U.S. Open. That was as far as he went because it was in the early stages of LIV's series and he found no need to rush to a decision.
Slumbers said the R&A had no intention of banning any players. That presumably would include Open champions whose exemptions end at age 60.
“But what is on our agenda is that we will review our exemptions and qualifications criteria for The Open,” Slumbers said. “And whilst we do that every year, we absolutely reserve the right to make changes as our Open Championships Committee deems appropriate. Players have to earn their place in The Open, and that is fundamental to its ethos and its unique global appeal.”
The U.S. Open and British Open did not keep out any players suspended by their tours because of the “open” nature of their championships. Even if LIV Golf players are excluded from exemptions, they would be able to attempt 36-hole qualifying.
Augusta National has yet to say how criteria for the Masters might change. The club is closed for the summer and does not open until October to its members. Masters champions typically have a lifetime exemption, and five of them dating to 2010 — Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Garcia, Patrick Reed and Johnson — are now part of the Saudi-backed series.
All the majors rely on world ranking to determine who is exempt. Slumbers, Whan, Monahan and European tour chief Keith Pelley are among the eight-member Official World Golf Ranking board. It met Tuesday and acknowledged receiving an application from LIV Golf to be part of the ranking system. That process typically takes one to two years for approval.
By then, most of the LIV players will be out of the top 50 in the world.
The start of LIV Golf and the players it keeps signing — none from the top 15, though Norman promised more names to come — has been divisive in golf.
Tiger Woods spoke out strongly against the players who have joined, saying Tuesday that they had “turned their backs” on the PGA Tour.
The R&A said it had asked Norman, a two-time Open champion, not to come to St. Andrews for the 150th celebration — the four-hole exhibition on Monday, the champions' dinner held only at St. Andrews — because it might be a distraction.
Jack Nicklaus didn't want to choose sides.
“Greg Norman is an icon in the game of golf. He’s a great player. We’ve been friends for a long time, and regardless of what happens, he’s going to remain a friend,” Nicklaus said. “Unfortunately, he and I just don’t see eye to eye in what’s going on."
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