How LIV Golf is tearing up the sport, in 3 graphics

It seems like you can’t go a week without PGA Tour and LIV Golf players shooting each other in the press. The most recent edition featured perhaps the two greatest directors of golf’s Civil War – Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy – arguing which tour represents the future of the game. And that very argument has been at the heart of the battle that has torn professional golf apart ever since the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour hit the scene earlier this year.

Debates over the ethics of helping LIV Golf”sportswash“from human rights abuses by the Saudi royal family to questions about which professional golfers LIV Golf has given greater financial leverage, it’s not melodramatic to cast the PGA Tour-versus-LIV Golf battle as a fight for the soul of the sport itself. But how did we come to have a major sport torn in two directions, in the space of a little less than a year?

One of the main reasons LIV Golf’s meteoric rise has created such a big divide in the sport is simply the sheer scale of the names the upstart tour has poached in such a short time. When Mickelson became the first golfer to publicly entertain the idea of ​​leaving the PGA Tour – in comments made to journalist Alan Shipnuck, first published in February – he ranked among the 100 best players in the world (and was the Defending PGA Champion), but he was largely on an island at the age of 51 whose early days were probably well behind him. Since then, however, LIV Golf has managed to significantly improve its roster: Forty-four of the top 150 players in the world as of June 11 have left for the rebel round:

A timeline chart shows Phil Mickelson, the first player to join LIV on February 17, 2022, and the 15 weeks before more players start joining.  Most join the week before or the week of the first LIV tournament.  Ultimately, 44 of golf's top 150 players joined LIV.
A timeline chart shows Phil Mickelson, the first player to join LIV on February 17, 2022, and the 15 weeks before more players start joining.  Most join the week before or the week of the first LIV tournament.  Ultimately, 44 of golf's top 150 players joined LIV.

That group includes 2022 British Open champion Cameron Smith, who defected to LIV Golf in August. While a majority of top golfers still play on the PGA Tour and/or affiliated organizationsthe fact that almost a third jumped ship helps explain the shockwaves LIV Golf has sent around the golfing world.

And if you want to know why they left… well, it’s all about the money. (When is it ever not?) We compared PGA Tour and LIV Golf per-tournament revenue for players who went from former in 2020-21 — the last full PGA Tour season without LIV Golf as a competitor — to last in 2022 , and the differences for most players ranged from a modest increase under LIV Golf to an astronomical money increase for a given event:

For some golfers, like Smith, this at least partially reflects the benefits of a well-timed career year. (Smith had almost doubled his previous career earnings from a PGA Tour season even before moving to LIV Golf.) Some of LIV Golf’s higher payouts are also a function of more money going to fewer events – it there was seven since June 11against 19 for the PGA Tour – although most top players only play a fraction of the total calendar events anyway. But it’s mostly a testament to the money the Saudi government has spent to lure elite golfers away from the PGA Tour’s sphere of influence. According to Athletics$2 billion of the nation’s $620 billion public investment fund has been earmarked for spending on the kick-off golf tour — and that money has done its share of the talking so far.

In fact, another way to see the effect of LIV Golf’s presence on the professional golf industry is how the PGA Tour has responded to these defections. To various points in the summer and fall, Commissioner Jay Monahan announcement that the Tour would work with players to raise the prize money for several events on the calendar of future seasons – clearly with the aim of retaining players who are considering the idea of ​​going to LIV Golf.

Two beeswarm charts show purse value for PGA Tour and LIV events.  The top beeswarm shows the 2021-22 season, where LIV purses amount to $20 million per event, far more than almost any other PGA event.  The second beeswarm shows announced purses for 2023, where the PGA increased the value of six events, but LIV increased the value of all of its events to $25 million.
Two beeswarm charts show purse value for PGA Tour and LIV events.  The top beeswarm shows the 2021-22 season, where LIV purses amount to $20 million per event, far more than almost any other PGA event.  The second beeswarm shows announced purses for 2023, where the PGA increased the value of six events, but LIV increased the value of all of its events to $25 million.

In response to the response, LIV Golf too announced an increase in prize pools for its events, triggering what many have called a arms race between the two concurrent tours. The increased pressure to acquire and retain talent could be good for top players in the short term, but it’s still unclear where the increasingly bitter struggle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf will ultimately leave the sport.

A successful LIV Golf tour will do nothing to deter the types of Abuse of human rights that critics say the Saudi government is using golf to obfuscate. Meanwhile, if top players continue to fall short in greater numbers, LIV Golf may become an even less viable option for the middle and lower classes of players, including status on the Tour is actually the most tenuous. (In addition, the young players who directly join LIV Golf outside the amateur ranks could find themselves never be eligible for the PGA Tour.) And although there are historical cases of rival leagues force mergers and elevate established organizations with which they once competed, there are also counterexamples in which a split left his sport in tatters.

What outcome will golf find itself in when the smoke clears on this battle? Only time will tell.