LIV Golf: Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter to play in first event

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Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia
Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia played against each other in last year’s Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits

Major champions Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia are among 42 players confirmed for next week’s first $25m Saudi-funded LIV Golf Invitational.

Englishmen Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Richard Bland plus Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland are in the 12-team, 48-man field for the three-day event.

Centurion Club near London is hosting the tournament from 9-11 June.

Six-time major winner Phil Mickelson is not in the line-up but six more players will be announced by Monday, 6 June.

American Mickelson, 51, has been linked with the breakaway event for months but said in February he was taking a break from the game after apologising for making “reckless” comments about the Saudi Arabia regime and did not defend his US PGA Championship title last month.

Both the US-based PGA Tour and Europe-based DP World Tour turned down all requests for waivers to allow players to compete in the LIV series opener, which clashes with the PGA’s Canadian Open. The PGA Tour said last month its ruling was “in the best interest of the Tour and its players”.

The DP World Tour told BBC Sport on Wednesday it has no comment to make at present.

The LIV series has attracted criticism because its money is coming from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is essentially a state savings account for the country’s government.

That has led to accusations of sportswashing, with organisations such as Amnesty International arguing some countries can invest in sport as a distraction from poor human rights records.

“We’re urging all golfers playing in this tournament to speak out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia,” said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive.

“Saudi Arabia’s persecuted human rights community will feel bitterly disappointed if well-paid golfing superstars take the LIV Golf cash but stay silent about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.”

Former world number one Greg Norman, LIV Golf’s chief executive, believes the tournament will “change the course” of golf history.

“Free agency has finally come to golf,” Norman said.

“This is an opportunity to start a movement that will change the course of history by bringing new and open competition to the sport we all love.

“The desire shown by the players to participate in LIV Golf demonstrates their emphatic belief in our model and confidence in what we’re building for the future.”

Former world number one Johnson, who has won two majors, said in February he was “fully committed” to the PGA Tour.

The world number 13 is the highest-ranked player in the event at Centurion and his agent David Winkle told the Golf Channel: “Dustin’s been contemplating this for the past two years and decided it was in his and his family’s best interest to pursue it.

“He’s never had any issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it’s given him but in the end felt this was too compelling to pass up.”

Organisers of the Canadian Open said they were “disappointed to learn at this late stage that Dustin Johnson has made the decision to play the LIV Golf event”.

Johnson is a past winner of the event and an ambassador for the tournament’s title sponsors Royal Bank of Canada and his image has been used to promote the tournament.

Other major winners who have signed up include Germany’s Martin Kaymer and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.

Nicklaus turns down Saudis

Jack Nicklaus, the winner of a record 18 majors, and host of this week’s PGA Tour event – the Memorial Tournament – reportedly turned down an offer of more than $100m to front the new circuit, a claim rebuffed by LIV Golf.

However, in a news conference at the Memorial on Tuesday, the 82-year-old American said he had met with the organisers “out of courtesy” because he was designing a golf course for them.

“I’ve got zero interest in wanting to do something like that. I don’t care what kind of money they would have thrown at me,” he added.

“My allegiance has been to the PGA Tour. I grew up on the PGA Tour. I helped found the PGA Tour as it is today. My allegiance is there, and it’s going to stay there.”

When asked whether players who opted to join LIV Golf might not receive invites to play at his tournament at Muirfield Village in Ohio, he replied: “The PGA Tour will answer that. I don’t think that’s my question, frankly. We live by the rules of the PGA Tour.”

PGA Tour ‘anti-golfer and anti-fan’

In May, two-time major champion Norman called the PGA Tour’s decision to not allow its members to play in his event “anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive” and said he has told the players “we’ve got your back” and that his organisation “will defend, reimburse and represent” them should proceedings end up in the hands of lawyers.

The 67-year-old Australian had earlier told BBC Sport his plans stretch “decades” into the future after securing an extra £1.6bn of funding, which he says will enable his breakaway invitational golf series to turn into a full 14-tournament global super league by 2024.

This initial $255m (£202m) invitational series will feature six more regular season tournaments in 2022 – four in the United States, one in Thailand and one in Saudi Arabia – each having the same $25m (£20m) prize fund, meaning every leg of the series is more lucrative than the richest tournament on the PGA Tour.

The events will feature a team and individual competition, with 12 captains selecting three players in a draft-style format. Each day, the teams of four will tee off at the same time on different holes in what is termed a ‘shotgun start’.

Each event’s individual winner will take home $4m – by way of comparison, the PGA Tour’s flagship event, the Players Championship, earned Cam Smith $3.6m for his victory in March, while Collin Morikawa won $2m for his Open Championship victory in 2021.

The eighth and final tournament will be a four-day team championship at Trump National Doral Miami from 27-30 October. At the matchplay event, a $50m prize kitty will be split between the 12 teams of four, with each player receiving a 25% cut of their team’s winnings.

Norman has insisted he could make a success of the venture, even if the world’s best players shunned it.

“We don’t need them,” said Norman when asked whether attracting either Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy – who said there was a “morality” to not taking Saudi money – would enhance his proposition.

Amnesty International, in criticising sporting organisations for accepting Saudi Arabian investment, has pointed to the country’s poor treatment of women, its use of the death penalty and its hostility to LGBTQ+ rights.

The PIF’s chairman is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of Saudi Arabia’s king. The crown prince, who is known as MBS, has been accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was critical of the Saudi government.

A 2019 UN report stated that “the state of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible” for Khashoggi’s death. The Saudi government has always denied responsibility.

While promoting the new series, Norman was criticised by Amnesty International for saying “we’ve all made mistakes” as he fielded questions on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the murder of Khashoggi.

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