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Business News/ Sports / It’s the Most Lucrative Tournament in Golf. You’ve Never Heard of the Players.
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It’s the Most Lucrative Tournament in Golf. You’ve Never Heard of the Players.

wsj

The first LIV Promotions event will see a field of little-known players compete for a spot on the Saudi-backed circuit, which offers hundreds of millions in prize money.

The first LIV Promotions event, played over 72 holes from Dec. 8-10, will offer the top three finishers a spot on the main LIV Golf circuit next season. Premium
The first LIV Promotions event, played over 72 holes from Dec. 8-10, will offer the top three finishers a spot on the main LIV Golf circuit next season.

It’s no secret that the Masters is golf’s most prestigious tournament and that the British Open is the most historic.

But the title of the world’s most lucrative golf tournament may soon belong to a three-day event at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club next week, featuring a cast of mostly unknown hackers that even ardent fans of the sport have never heard of.

The first LIV Promotions event, played over 72 holes from Dec. 8-10, will offer the top three finishers a spot on the main LIV Golf circuit next season, playing alongside the likes of Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka for the hundreds of millions of dollars the Saudi-backed league hands out to its players every year. The field, LIV told The Wall Street Journal, includes one former major champion in Jason Dufner. Then there are a whole bunch of relative nobodies.

Which means the likes of Ryan Ruffels, ranked 1,708th in the world, will soon find himself competing to earn a shot at some of the biggest paydays in the sport.

“We had a lot of inbound requests," says Gary Davidson, a senior adviser to LIV. “There is a chance that it all comes down to one putt on a playoff, or we might end up with multiple players in a playoff and it comes down to sudden death."

Beyond the outcome on the course, the most intriguing part of this tournament is how it upends one of the dynamics that has defined LIV’s presence on the golf scene since it launched in 2022.

LIV announced its arrival—and sent the golf world into chaos—by luring away superstars from the PGA Tour with enormous contracts. The deals were designed to compensate big-name players for, among other things, the prospect that they would be locked out of future Tour events. All of LIV’s players, from Mickelson and Koepka to the most obscure, were competing with the knowledge that they were guaranteed some sort of payday—even if a player finished dead last in every LIV tournament, he would make more than $1.5 million in prize money.

The upstart circuit quickly came under fire for that structure—but also for operating what critics called a closed shop, with no pathway for players to qualify for a spot in the league and access to the gobs of money that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund was injecting into the sport. Now, for the first time, they do.

This event tees off as LIV gears up for a 2024 season despite the ongoing uncertainty that looms over the professional golf world. After a year battling in the courts with dueling lawsuits and on the course over the game’s top players, the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign-wealth fund dropped arms earlier this year when they entered into a framework deal to combine their commercial golf assets in a new, for-profit entity. What exactly that looks like remains entirely unclear—the sides have set a Dec. 31 deadline to come to a definitive agreement.

But LIV is preparing for a new season anyway. The league recently released its schedule and is now set to pad out its field of 48 players with three more names from this tournament. For these wannabes, it’s an opportunity akin to what’s known as the richest match in soccer. The playoff game to get into the English Premier League determines which team will get promoted and earn the roughly $200 million jackpot that comes with playing in soccer’s biggest league—while the loser is forced to languish in the country’s second tier for another season.

“When we were speaking to players, that was the exact analogy that we used," Davidson says.

The money is just as game-changing for these players as it is for clubs like Luton Town. The field of 73 includes amateurs, like UC Berkeley golfer Sampson-yunhe Zheng, and names that may be unfamiliar such as Tapio Pulkkanen, the world’s 357th ranked golfer. Participants qualified based on certain criteria, such as their performance in top amateur competitions, or received special invitations. Davidson says the aim was to strike a balance between up-and-coming players with the established names LIV has already procured.

The field also includes golfers who have an extra incentive to try to latch on to a new circuit: They’ve been relegated from the PGA Tour. One of those is the 46-year-old Dufner, who won the 2013 PGA Championship but lost his Tour card after making just 13 cuts in 33 tournaments last season.

Since its inception, LIV has faced sneers that unlike the establishment circuits, where promotion-relegation systems already exist, it wasn’t a meritocracy where golfers could earn their way in through sheer skill. The top 30 finishers on the Korn Ferry Tour, for instance, earn their way onto the PGA Tour, which also admits the top finishers from Europe’s DP World Tour and a qualifying event known as Q-School.

For LIV, this wasn’t merely a reputational problem. One of LIV’s chief problems since it first teed off is that it has not been accredited by the Official World Golf Ranking, a system that’s crucial for players because it determines access to major championships and even how much money they’re paid by sponsors. And when OWGR denied LIV’s application in October, one of the reasons it cited was LIV’s lack of meritocracy, and limitations inviting new players onto the circuit.

It isn’t clear that LIV’s equivalent of an English Premier League playoff game will change the minds of the Surrey, England-based OWGR. In its rejection letter, OWGR noted LIV’s plans for the Promotions event but that it “does not believe it is equitable to thousands of players who strive every day" to play in OWGR eligible events.

Davidson says he believes OWGR’s issue was its belief that only a small number of players would enter or leave LIV each year, when in reality they expect the overall turnover to be closer to six to 12 players annually, a notable percentage of their small fields.

“It should be pretty difficult to get onto because it is so lucrative," he adds.

A minimum of four players are set to get promoted each year—three from this tournament, and another from LIV’s International series—and the natural consequence of that is demotion. LIV’s events, which feature both an individual and a team component, have 48 players divided among the 12 teams, and new golfers means others have to be subtracted.

Those who finish below 45th in the season-long standings are in line to get the boot, with one important caveat: some LIV golfers are exempt from relegation based on the deals that lured them to the circuit in the first place. Former world No. 1 Lee Westwood and two-time major champion Martin Kaymer would have been relegated based on their performances last season but are set to remain, owing to their status as team captains. (Which is a bit like the Premier League deciding Manchester United couldn’t get sent down because it’s too famous.)

The LIV Promotions event will see players get cut and have their scores reset after each day. Some, including Dufner, will get a bye into the second round. The tournament concludes with a 36-hole shootout on the final day.

Ironically, the actual prize money on offer at this tournament is small, at just $1.5 million. But the stakes for the players vying to reach the main circuit are as high as it gets in golf. LIV tournaments offer $25 million purses. Talor Gooch, its leader in prize money in 2023, hauled in roughly $36 million over 14 tournaments.

Gooch had previously made less than $10 million in more than 100 career PGA Tour events.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

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