WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Greg Norman – “A super golf league? We’re looking at opportunities”

Everything you need to know about the Asian Tour, spearheaded by Greg Norman, as he addresses rumours of a new ‘breakaway’ golf league to rival the PGA Tour.

Click here to go straight to our world exclusive interview with Greg Norman and Cho Minn Thant, the Asian Tour commisioner.

The European Tour has a new name, the PGA Tour is about to get even bigger, and now the Asian Tour has a rich new benefactor, spearheaded by Greg Norman.

RELATED: What the rebranding of the European Tour means

The former World No.1 and Major champion wants to use a new golf series as a stepping stone to create a rival golf league, 27 years after his failed bid to establish a World Golf Tour.

There’s a LOT to unpack, so read on to find out what we know so far…

Greg Norman talks exclusively to Today's Golfer about spearheading golf's Asian Tour and creating a rival golf league.

The Asian Tour has closed the gap on the European Tour.

LIV Golf Investments, a start-up company of which Greg Norman has been made CEO, is committing more than $200 million over the next decade to a new 10-tournament series, which will be added to the Asian Tour schedule from 2022.

Each event will have a minimum purse of $1 million and will form part of a 25-event season, featuring record-breaking prize funds.

Today’s Golfer understands that Sky Sports and BT Sport are currently jostling for the UK broadcasting rights to the series, which will take place across Asia, the Middle East and Europe (venues TBC).

Greg Norman Phil Mickelson

A Super Golf League is edging closer.

Greg Norman has said ‘this is only the beginning” amid rumours that he will become the commissioner of a new Saudi-funded breakaway golf league.

Although players have been threatened with bans from the PGA Tour should they defect, The Telegraph claims that Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose are mulling over offers in the region of $30-to-$50 million to compete in a series of individual and team events.

Greg Norman told Today’s Golfer that all players are independent contractors, hence “they can play where they want”, so something has got to give. We’re not ruling out some kind of legal battle.

There is still a big human rights issue to consider.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which helped bankroll the takeover of Newcastle United, is the majority shareholder in LIV Golf Investments, which has led to claims of sportswashing. The fund is currently chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was critical of the Saudi government.

Rory McIlroy has already spoken out about the morality issues, branding the proposals a ‘money grab’ similar to football’s European Super League.

RELATED: “The LET shouldn’t be playing in Saudi Arabia”

The PGA Tour has big plans of its own.

In another twist, the PGA Tour are planning to create a series of international tournaments that will offer guaranteed money to its members. The series, which could begin as early as 2023, is just one part of a big charm offensive, designed to defuse the threat of a rival league.

In addition to ‘significant’ increases in prize funds, the FedEx Cup bonus pool is set to rise to $75 million next year, while the controversial Player Impact Program is growing from $40 million to $50 million.

A new bonus scheme will also reward every member who makes at least 15 starts with $50,000.

Greg Norman has said he's keen to work with the DP World Tour and PGA Tour.

The Premier Golf League is still lurking in the background.

Even though many of those involved have branched out to join Norman’s endeavour, the London-based group still wants to set up a 48-player, 12-team golf league – similar in style to F1 – but under the umbrella of the PGA Tour.

The league’s founder, Andrew Gardiner, has revealed that he sent a proposal to Commissioner Jay Monahan, with the view to a 2023 start date, but has yet to receive a response.

Greg Norman European Tour

World Exclusive interview: Greg Norman and Cho Minn Thant, the Asian Tour Commissioner

What attracted LIV Golf Investments to partner with the Asian Tour and invest $200 million in 10 tournaments over the next 10 years?

Greg Norman: Well, the Asian Tour is a sleeping giant and always has been. The power of the game of golf through Asia is extremely strong but it has been neglected for a long period of time.

I’ve received so many texts from players, coaches and CEOs throughout Asia saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’. Not one person has said this is a stupid idea and that gives me a lot of confidence and creditability with the direction we are taking it.

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From an Asian Tour perspective, how timely is the investment given the Tour has been on hold since March 2019?

Cho Minn Thant: The greatest thing for us is that it provides us with great stability. If you haven’t followed the Asian Tour, it was always a patchwork of national Opens. We had to work really hard to put on 25 events for our members.

But with the long-term commitment from LIV Golf Investments, 10 events will be on TV and each of them will have at least a $1 million prize fund. It’s huge for us and our members.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, if you kept your card on the Asian Tour and finished in the 60th spot on the Order of Merit, you were only earning about $70,000. When you take into account travel, caddie fees and accommodation, you’re probably not netting much after those expenses.

We’d like to get to a point where the guy who keeps their card on the Asian Tour is earning at least $150,000 to make a living for themselves. With the new prize money levels, we expect to see a huge increase in earning potential for our members.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the LIV Golf Series

Greg Norman Fox

How difficult has it been trying to run the Asian Tour in the middle of a pandemic?

CMT: Frustrating is a great word. Fortunately, the pandemic situation in Asia is starting to improve. It’s been a tough 18, 19 months but we are resuming the Tour this week in Thailand.

We’ve got back-to-back events in Phuket and playing two $1 million purse events there. We’re working with the Singapore government to get approval for two events in Singapore in January as well.

We feel that eight events is enough to conclude an Order of Merit, which started in January 2020 and will now be completed in January 2022. I know it’s bizarre, but it is what it is.

Greg Norman, known as The Shark, is a two-time Major champion and former World No.1.

LIV Golf Investments is backed by the Private Investment Fund (PIF), which has strong links with the government of Saudi Arabia. Greg, do you have any concerns as to where the money is coming from?

GN: Everybody is asking that question. Do I have concerns? No. When I look at the PIF, they are an autonomous independent fund that operates under their own esteem. They have directly or indirectly invested in a lot of other corporations around the world, and the citizens of every nation they’ve invested in are the benefactors of that investment.

The sport of golf is now looked upon as an asset class, just as much as the IPL or Premier League. There is a return on investment benchmark we do have to hit – and I’m proud of that. If we hit our benchmarks and go above our thresholds, guess who benefits? The game of golf.

Every time somebody question me on this, all I tell them is that we have this opportunity to grow the game of golf.

When does the new season commence then? How can fans watch the events in the UK?

CMT: February at the Saudi International. That will be the season opener for us. We haven’t had a broadcast deal in the UK in recent years, but I believe our media team are having good discussions with Sky Sports and BT Sports.

Dustin Johnson Saudi International Golf

How will the format work? Will there be a team element or shorter formats?

GN: It’s 72 holes of strokeplay. Standard R&A/USGA rules are being respected and honoured. We are not changing any of that.

Of the 10 new events, where will they be taking place?

CMT: We’re still working on the events, just because of the restrictions in place. In an ideal world, we’d look at the major capitals of Singapore, Korea, Indonesia… In 2022, it’s probably going to be contingent on where we can play, rather than where we want to play.

We expect a couple of events to be in the Middle East for sure. Obviously there are going to be a lot of events in South East Asia but if the opportunity arises to go further West, we will look at that as an option.

I think from a geographical perspective, there is a misconception that the Asian Tour is for Asian players in Asia only.

RELATED: DP World Tour 2022 schedule: 47 tournaments in 27 countries!

Greg, is there any truth to the rumours that you might be looking to get involved with the Australian Open to bring it back to its former glory.

GN: I have never had a discussion with anybody about the Australian Open. I read the same comments but that’s 100 percent fake news.

Greg Norman Australian Open

As each tournament has an open eligibility category regardless of Tour affiliation, is the idea to attract as many big names as possible to play in these 10 events?

GN: Absolutely. The players are independent contractors, right? They have the right to go play golf wherever they want. There is an open door. The game of golf is given them a new opportunity to experience things and enhance their market value.

How many are signed up so far? Can you give us some names?

GN: I’m not going to give you any names, but all the names are very close to the top of the World Rankings.

There have also been some reports that the PGA Tour and European Tour may refuse to grant members permission to play in these Asian Tour events. Have you had any conversations with Keith Pelley or Jay Monahan?

CMT: They haven’t come out with a definitive policy. The European Tour has mentioned that the players will have to ask for a release. We feel that the members of those respective Tours are independent contractors.

Obviously, they have a number of events they must fulfil each year but we feel that if they hit that minimum, they should be able to play wherever they want. We have dual members who play the Asian Tour and the European Tour.

We don’t have a release policy. As long as they fulfil their nine events on the Asian Tour, they can play wherever they want.

RELATED: Opinion: The LET shouldn’t be playing in Saudi Arabia

Can you understand why there might be some pushback, however?

GN: We are not a competitor. I read a comment from someone at the European Tour (chairman David Williams) that we are going to be ‘fierce competitors’. That may be the dumbest comment I’ve ever read which is actually detrimental to the game of golf.

Competition is good for the game of golf. Let’s not hurt the game of golf. By letting the game of golf breathe and grow, that will be beneficial to the players, the fans, the stakeholders and the broadcasters.

I would never have been the No.1 player in the world without competition from Seve [Ballesteros], [Sir Nick] Faldo, [Jose Maria] Olazabal, [Nick] Price. Competition is a good thing.

Greg Norman Nick Faldo

So, you want to work with the other Tours?

GN: Absolutely. We’ve had an open door. We’ve reached out to them since April this year.

Have they been willing to talk?

GN: (Shakes head)

Will you still be maintaining your role as host of the QBE Shootout on the PGA Tour?

GN: Thank you for asking that question. Because as a lifetime member of the PGA Tour, my judiciary responsibilities are to sponsors like QBE.

It’s a tournament which I’ve been involved with for the last 33 years and that’s not going away. That tells you that we can work together with the ultimate aim of growing the game of golf.

As far as I’m concerned, I hope it goes on for another 33 years.

What is your reaction to reports that the PGA Tour are planning to create a series of lucrative, international tournaments that will offer guaranteed money to the world’s best players?

GN: Oh my gosh, what an innovative idea (smiles)…

In the press release issued by LIV Golf Investments, it stated this is only the beginning. Can you confirm or deny rumours that this is just the first step in you becoming commissioner of a new breakaway golf league to rival the PGA Tour?

GN: Let’s just eliminate the word, ‘breakaway’. Let’s think about the opportunities that exist today for independent contractors and commercial investors into the sport of golf.

The opportunities are extremely broad. I see it from a player’s perspective and their under-market value. Yeah, they make a lot of money – I made a lot of money in my day – but is it truly relative to how much money is out there? Why are we sitting here today, 53 years after the PGA Tour was formed, and the PGA Tour is the only entity and game in town?

There should be opportunities for other people to come and play in the same sandbox they’re playing in. The game of golf is a big global game and the opportunities are there to expand. That’s what I’m focusing on and that’s what I’m going to deliver on.

Greg Norman

So can you confirm that we are going to see a Super Golf League?

GN: (Smiles) We’re always looking at opportunities going forward, I can tell you that.

Rory McIlroy has been quite open in dismissing the idea as a ‘money grab’. Are you concerned other players may take the same stance?

GN: Never judge something until you know the facts. That’s Rory’s opinion. I respect him. But the door is always open to a Rory McIlroy or any other top player who wants to come and sit down and listen.

Because of the connection with the Saudis, critics are referring to their involvement as sportswashing. What would you say in response to that?

GN: All I can say is that it is not from my perspective. Every country has a cross to bear and I always respect countries that want to look forward.

So, with that cross to bear, it’s now about making the failures of the past better for the future. That’s how I look at it. I see they are doing that and I believe in it. That’s not sportwashing.

Would you like to see a similar investment being made in the women’s game in the future?

GN: One hundred percent.

So, we could potentially see some mixed formats and teams if a golf league ever did get off the ground?

GN: It would be delinquent of me to not put that on the discussion table. My job is to make sure we deliver what we can to grow the game of golf across all sectors.

Quite honestly, it’s been such a pleasure to drink out of this fire hydrant.

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