LIV Golf accused the PGA Tour of being “vindictive” as the war of words between the two organisations spilled over into the first day of the £200m breakaway circuit.
With what appeared to be pointed timing, the PGA Tour announced it had suspended all 17 of its members who have chosen to play the first LIV Golf Invitational just as the likes of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson were teeing off at Centurion Club in St Albans.
The two circuits are involved in a tug of war for the sport’s top talent, with Saudi-backed LIV Golf aiming to launch a super league within two years that it hopes will revolutionise the professional game, and the PGA Tour adamant that it will not release its players to play in it.
“Players did not receive the necessary conflicting event and media rights releases – or did not apply for releases at all – and their participation in the Saudi Golf League/LIV Golf event is in violation of our tournament regulations,” wrote PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
In a letter to members published by the PGA Tour, Monahan said others who followed suit – Bryson DeChambeau is to play the next event later this month – faced the same fate. He added that the 10 players who had resigned their membership to play LIV Golf events, including Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, would lose the right to play in the lucrative season-ending FedEx Cup Playoffs.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons. But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you [other members],” he added. “That expectation disrespects you, our fans and our partners.”
LIV Golf, which is run by former world No1 Greg Norman, was quick to hit back at the PGA Tour for carrying out its threat to ban any players who played at Centurion Club, the first of eight events in the first season of the new series.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and it deepens the divide between the Tour and its members,” it said.
“It’s troubling that the Tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing.
“This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London, and beyond.”
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel shot the lowest round on the first day of the first £20m event, a five-under-par 65, as South African players thrived.
His compatriot Hennie Du Plessis shot four under, with Zimbabwean Scott Vincent and Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai a further shot behind, followed by South Africans Branden Grace and Jutsin Harding on two under.
Mickelson and Johnson carded one-under-par 69s, as did English pair Sam Horsfield and Laurien Canter.
The all-South African Stinger GC, featuring Schwartzel, Du Plessis and Grace, raced into a six-shot lead in the team competition.
Analysis: Drones and Beefeaters bring new look to golf
After months of increasingly intense scrutiny over their participation in the new circuit, the players looked relieved to finally begin the LIV Golf era at Centurion Club on Thursday.
In contrast to much of the questioning they have faced this week, the massed ranks of spectators waiting at the first tee to see Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson gave the PGA Tour rebels a warm welcome, with Mickelson in particular showered with “C’mon Phil”s.
The six-time major winner beamed at the reaction from the St Albans crowd, who appeared delighted to witness his first appearance since a four-month absence from the game, and ripped a drive into the Hertfordshire countryside.
If that part felt like a regular golf tournament, there was much about the first LIV Golf Invitational that didn’t, both on the course and to those following the live broadcast.
Dance music pumped out by the tee and nine spitfires flew over in formation just before the tournament began at 2:15pm, a moment signified by Beefeaters blowing trumpets.
Once underway, the most noticeable difference was that all players were out on course at once, having started at different holes to condense the action into a TV-oriented four and a half hours.
The broadcast itself, watched by around 100,000 on YouTube in addition to those accessing via 150 global media partners, helpfully kept the leaderboard displayed at all times down the left of the display, with the number of holes left to play in big green digits at the top.
The fresh look has echoes of Formula 1 – perhaps unsurprising given LIV hired the man responsible for revamping TV coverage of grands prix, Dave Hill. Drone footage – if anything, used too sparingly – looked a worthwhile addition.
For those wanting to keep track of scoring without watching the live feed, the absence of a scoreboard on the official website was a miss. On the broadcast, the team element was slightly undermined by the individual scoring having more prominence.
As for the shotgun start format, the verdict will have to wait until Saturday, when the 54-hole event is due to conclude. But LIV Golf is up and running; what happens next will be fascinating.