It wasn’t the start to the LIV Golf League that Lee Westwood would have wanted but there were no consequences for the Englishman finishing 41st of a 48-man field in Mexico last month as the big-money tournaments on the upstart circuit famously have no cuts.
No cuts, that is, until the end of the season, when Westwood or any other player finishing in the bottom half of the league table will be at risk of being jettisoned by team captains now further incentivised to succeed by owning minority stakes in their franchises.
This transfer market and the opportunity for promotion to and relegation from LIV Golf are among the big – but as yet not widely understood – changes to the Saudi-backed tour in what is its second year but its first as a fully fledged league.
“We want to make sure there is more understanding that this isn’t a closed shop,” one high-ranking LIV Golf executive told City A.M. ahead of the second tournament of the season, which starts in Tucson, Arizona, on Friday.
A key priority this year, they added, is “educating people on how open this is and that we have created what we feel is a very fair and meritocratic opportunity for players, whereby we have relegation and promotion.”
How promotion, relegation and trading works in LIV Golf
LIV Golf’s first year was a string of invitational tournaments, with team line-ups sometimes changing from event to event, meaning that while it showcased the innovative format it was difficult to sustain a narrative and there was little jeopardy. That has all changed in 2023.
Players who finish in the top 24 of the individual standings after the 14 events in the inaugural LIV Golf League calendar are assured of keeping their card for 2024, but those ranked below can be traded out by their captains during the off-season.
The bottom four will automatically be relegated, replaced by four players who qualify via the International Series co-sanctioned with the Asian Tour and a promotion tournament, but organisers expect the annual reshuffle to be considerably more pronounced.
“The teams will stay the same but the players will change,” the executive said. “We need that in top-class professional sport. As much as we’ve got the guarantee at the top end you also need to have the jeopardy at the bottom end. That is part of the drama and interest.”
The promotion and relegation elements of the LIV Golf League have been reported before, and have long been part of the plans to develop the circuit, as former executive Sean Bratches told City A.M. more than a year ago.
But they have had little attention, in part because so much of LIV Golf is new but also because the enormous prize funds, the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the tensions with the PGA Tour and its stars such as Rory McIlroy have overshadowed much else.
“I think it will be a storyline that naturally comes to light, and as we get to the 13th and 14th events there will literally be players standing over putts to keep their status,” the current LIV executive said.
Captains will get to nominate who, if anyone, on their teams they wish to trade, meaning that Westwood could find himself ditched by compatriot and friend Ian Poulter – however unlikely that particular scenario currently sounds.
“As much as we guarantee that four players will be relegated, we actually think the number that will naturally shift will be between eight and 12,” the LIV executive said. “We think we’ll probably change up to 25 per cent of the field each year.”
Six-time Major winner Phil Mickelson, arguably the most high-profile of LIV’s signings so far, is understood to have personally recruited Brendan Steele to his HyFlyers team ahead of the first LIV Golf League campaign.
LIV Golf teams now separate businesses, part-owned by captains
Influence over who plays for them is just one way in which captains are shaping their teams, which now have more distinct identities and matching outfits; Poulter’s Majesticks, who include Westwood, Henrik Stenson and Sam Horsfield, wear powder blue.
They are essentially now running them as separate businesses in which they own a minority stake, reported to be around 25 per cent; recruiting sponsors, managing budgets and deciding on how to divvy up prize money won via the team standings.
“Certain players are partners of ours in the teams,” said the executive. “The league is majority shareholder in all of these teams. The teams are separate businesses and being run as such.
“Teams are out there speaking to partners. We expect at the next event or two there will be teams with unified commercial deals across the players.”
That is the case for the vast majority of the teams, anyway. A small, unspecified number of current captains do not have equity. This leaves open the possibility of luring other big-name players to LIV Golf to fill those slots.
“There are options still available for a couple of teams,” said the executive.
As the captaincy issue highlights, some players in the LIV Golf League are more equal than others. And while the vast majority are susceptible to relegation or being traded out, a small number have longer exemptions.
“As we go through the season we’ll look at whether this is going to impact the integrity of relegation. We don’t think it will because it is so few players,” said the executive.
“There are some with exemptions against relegation but frankly it’s the ones we would expect to be challenging for the top three rather than in the bottom four.”
Women’s LIV Golf ‘a matter of when not if’
While LIV Golf has turned men’s golf on its head it has not yet affected the women’s game, although Saudi Arabia has become a significant player through the Aramco Team Series, a lucrative recent addition to the Ladies European Tour.
Organisers may have enough on their plate for now, but there remains an ambition to recreate the LIV Golf League format with a parallel competition featuring some of the world’s top female players.
“LIV was created to be additive to golf and that’s not just the men’s sport,” said the executive.
“There is a huge amount of opportunity for what this could become and who it could benefit. Down the line we would love to see how that could come to life. It’s something we like to think is a case of when rather than if.”