Four months ago Rory McIlroy declared plans for a new Saudi-funded golf circuit to be “dead in the water” but, just days away from the first LIV Golf Invitational, that appears to be far from the case.
Contrary to McIlroy’s forecast, the opening leg in a series of eight big-money tournaments which feature both individual and team scoring is due to tee off on Thursday at Centurion Club in the Hertfordshire countryside just north of London.
And to the surprise of some sceptics, the playing line-up for the $25m (£20m) is stronger than expected, headlined by Dustin Johnson and featuring a field with eight major championships between them.
When the PGA Tour and DP World Tour began to circle wagons it looked as though it might be difficult for LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman to lure the biggest stars to the new series, but in signing up Johnson that is what they have done.
The American has two majors to his name, the Masters and US Open, and remains a force at the pinnacle of the sport, having spent 130 weeks at No1 in the Official World Golf Ranking during the past five years.
What may concern the leading tours the most, however, is that Johnson had previously pledged his allegiance to the PGA Tour, indicating in February that he had spurned the advances of LIV Golf, despite calling it a “really good concept”.
Perhaps he was biding his time, or reluctant to take some of the heat that those advancing the plans for the new series have faced. Either way, he has committed to LIV Golf, and if he has done so then there may be others of similar stature for the seven events that follow this year in a series that will expand in 2023 and evolve into a franchise-based league in 2024.
“There’s no doubt that this will go down as a historic moment in the game,” former European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley said of Johnson’s decision in an interview with Sky Sports.
As yet there has been no confirmation of whether Phil Mickelson will play the first event, but if he does the six-time major winner would bring further clout to the field.
Only 42 of the 48 players were announced last week. Five spaces were reserved for qualifiers from the Asian Tour, leaving one for a mystery player, potentially Mickelson.
More news is expected before the draft, which will divide the field into 12 teams of four, is held on Tuesday.
Already on board are some of Europe’s most successful golfers of modern times, including former world No1 Lee Westwood, major winners Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell, and Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter.
South African major winners Louis Oosthuizen, the second highest-ranked player in the field, and Charl Schwartzel have also committed.
But it is not just those whose greatest achievements may have been attained already; England’s Sam Horsfield, 25, who has marked himself out as one of European golf’s brighter prospects with three wins in the last three years, will also tee it up at Centurion Club this week.
Reigning US amateur champion James Piot is in the field too, as is Thai teenager Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat, who became the youngest male player to win a ranking event at the Asian Mixed Cup in April when aged 15 years and 37 days.
The main tours have warned players they face sanctions, thought likely to mean suspensions, if they play in LIV Golf events. American world No33 Kevin Na, who will play at Centurion Club, last week responded by resigning from the PGA Tour.
As the first LIV Golf Invitational draws closer, the protagonists and consequences of what has until now remained intangible become clearer.
McGinley added: “If this Saudi league does gather a head of steam and it does challenge the current established two tours in the world, considering the background and who’s involved and the whole ideas of team events, it could turn golf upside down and on its head.”