It was no coincidence when Phil Mickelson's partners during the pro-am at last week's Saudi International tournament happened to be three key figures in a proposed new golf tour that could potentially shake the foundations of the longstanding PGA Tour and European Tour and enrich the biggest names in the game.
A few days earlier, Mickelson had told reporters in San Diego that he was "intrigued" by a concept known as the Premier Golf League that would launch in two years' time and potentially have limited fields, guaranteed paydays, $10 million purses and a team concept with ownership stakes.
Mickelson said he hoped to learn more about the venture, and he undoubtedly got an earful during the pre-tournament round at Royal Greens Golf Club in Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Economic City with backers of the project, who in the aftermath of a report by GeoffShackelford.com pushed out a news release that helped explain a plan that has been nearly six years in the making.
Getting a player of Mickelson's stature -- even if he is no longer one of the top players in the game -- is key to making the concept work.
"If you want the world to watch, you have to showcase your best product, week in, week out," Premier Golf League officials said in their release. "Golf doesn't do that currently. If you had the chance to start again, you wouldn't create professional golf as it exists today. The League has that chance."
And it clearly has piqued the interest of several players, namely Mickelson but also the likes of Ernie Els, Henrik Stenson, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, who also played in Saudi Arabia last week.
While the best in the world at golf are highly compensated, there has also been a sense that the elite are underpaid by global sports standards. Many players questioned both on and off the record have noted the plusses of the concept, and few have closed the door on it.
Meanwhile, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley have sent memos to their players warning of the risks of going with the new tour and how it would affect their tour membership.
So far, it is unclear whether the Premier Golf League has the backing of a television network (or a streaming service) needed to broadcast the events. And locking in dates and venues does also not appear to be solidified. But various entities questioned said they believe there is the money to pull this off, and it's simply a matter of whether enough players would be willing to sign on. Still, there are questions -- many questions.
The tour would be composed of 48 players competing in 18 tournaments from January through September, with 10 events staged in the United States and the other eight around the world. The events would be 54 holes with no cut and shotgun starts over the first two days to better showcase all the players during a television window.
The team concept
Modeled in part after Formula 1 racing, there would be 12 teams of four players each, with a season-long competition that culminates in a season-ending event for players and teams. How it would be structured is unclear, but in theory, players or other entities could own teams. The big questions: How would players feed into this tour? Into the various teams? What if a player is injured?
The prize money
So far, the Premier Golf League is talking about $240 million, with a $10 million weekly purse for 17 events with a season-ending event. There would be $2 million paid to the winner, and a $10 million bonus to the overall individual champion. In addition, there would be a $40 million team bonus pool.
Word has slowly trickled out about the backbone of the plan. World Golf Club, based in the United Kingdom, and the Raine Group, a global merchant bank, have partnered. Colin Neville, one of the men who played in the pro-am with Mickelson, is said to have come up with the idea. Andrew Gardiner, who also played with Mickelson, is a director at Barclays Capital. Saudi Golf Federation CEO Majed Al Sorour was the other player in the group. Monahan, in his email to PGA Tour members, mentioned "Saudi interests" being part of the plan.
Many in the golf world have declined to comment. They are sensitive to what the PGA Tour (and European Tour) has accomplished but also curious what this is all about. The reason? There is a sense among those in the game that the top players are underpaid.
As the Premier Golf League release said: "As the moment, the best -- the true global stars -- subsidize the rest. The League will re-balance the economics. The best players need to compete, but not against 150 other guys every week -- 47 will suffice."
How is it that the top players are considered to be underpaid?
One player agent who wished not to be identified presented it this way: "The needle-movers, the guys who are responsible for revenue, go out and compete at the risk of not being paid," he said, citing the example of a big-name movie star. "He doesn't shoot a movie for free and see how it does."
Tiger Woods has been presented as the best example of this dilemma.
"Tiger Woods can sell a million dollars' worth of tickets, be largely responsible for a large part of the television contract (the rights fees paid to the PGA Tour), and he has to shoot scores to get paid," the agent said. "There really is an issue there. The question is how to manage and respond to it."
Rory McIlroy also hinted at this issue when he gave extensive comments at the Farmers Insurance Open. While McIlroy said he'd be very reluctant to turn his back on the history of the PGA Tour, he suggested that this new idea could get PGA and European tour brass thinking differently.
"It might be a catalyst for some changes on this tour that can help it grow and move forward and reward the top players the way they should be, I guess," McIlroy said.
As the agent said, how do you do that? The PGA Tour is strictly an earn-your-pay operation. Appearance fees are not allowed. Only players who make the cut get paid.
But those who do well can make a lot of money. McIlroy earned a $15 million bonus for capturing the FedEx Cup, in addition to official prize money that came to more than $7 million. Koepka topped the money list with more than $9 million. Both players won three times, and Koepka captured a major. They performed at high levels to achieve those sums, which are below the guaranteed salaries of the top performers in team sports.
Then take Jordan Spieth, who had an off year but still is considered a headliner. He won just over $2.1 million. Compare that to the 90th player on the money list, Adam Schenk. This is in no way meant to pick on Schenk, but most golf fans likely do not know who he is. He's anonymous, mostly. An excellent golfer, obviously. But he probably doesn't sell any tickets and had nothing to do with the television contract. He made $1.25 million.
Said an agent who wished not to be identified: "How can an organization negotiate hundreds of millions of dollars of TV contracts and someone like Tiger or Rory goes out and has the same chance of making the same money as some guy who has come off the Korn Ferry Tour? There is no arbitration panel. And no judge would say that is a fair economic model."
The Tiger factor
Getting Woods, of course, would seem to be the holy grail for the Premier Golf League. But is it? Woods is 44. When this league begins -- in two years at the earliest -- he will be 46. Is he going to play 18 tournaments in addition to the major championships? No chance. He played 14 last year and might play a total of 18 in 2020.
Sure, the Premier Golf League could lower its number of tournaments. And Woods could be given equity stake in one of the franchises and be guaranteed huge sums of money at a time in his career when official prize money would be waning. And after he gets PGA Tour victory No. 83 to break Sam Snead's record, is there a reason for him to stick around?
Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, has not commented on the proposal since speaking to Geoff Shackelford in December. His comments depicted a person trying to stay in the middle, respectful to both sides. And it should be noted that Steinberg is close with Monahan.
"It's more than a wonderful product that the PGA Tour puts in front of its members and it seems to get better each year with sponsors like FedEx, Charles Schwab, whoever it may be," Steinberg told Shackelford. "It's very stable, it's becoming more innovative all the time, so I can't answer if [the Premier Golf League] is real or not. But like anything else, you have to listen to everyone and all options."
Woods has other issues to consider. He has two legacy tournaments, the Hero World Challenge and next week's Genesis Invitational. Both are under the banner of the PGA Tour in a complicated arrangement that involves the tour, television and Woods' foundation. Could that arrangement still exist if Woods plays a competing tour? It's one of just many factors to consider.
Understandably, the PGA Tour and the European Tour have made it clear to their respective members that they do not see a way the new entity and existing tours could coexist. Stenson, who is a member of both current tours, said he received emails on different days from Monahan and Pelley espousing similar views.
"[It was] more toward stamping down than not," Stenson said of the emails. "I obviously know what everybody else has seen and read and it seems to be both exciting and turbulent a little bit at the moment."
As a member of the PGA Tour, a player agrees to certain stipulations, as expected. One of them is that you cannot play in competing events around the world. And since the tour has events some 48 weeks of the year, that's a problem. It grants releases -- that is how Woods can go play in Dubai, for example, or Justin Rose could go play in Singapore recently -- but they are limited.
To play the Premier Golf League, a player would basically have to leave the PGA Tour.
The world ranking
The Official World Golf Ranking system has, for the better part of 20 years, been used as a way to determine spots in the major championships. There are numerous other qualifications, but without tour events to earn spots or ranking points, the Premier Golf League would need to get OWGR certification as a means of entry. The OWGR was founded by the United States Golf Association, the R&A, the PGA of America, Augusta National, the PGA Tour, the European Tour and the International Federation of PGA Tours.
It's hard to imagine the two tours signing off on sanctioning the Premier Golf League. And yet, if the OWGR doesn't recognize tournaments with the best players, does it have credibility? It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Few queried have completely shut down the idea. Most see possibilities with a lot of questions.
"It's still early," Stenson said last week in Saudi Arabia, as reported by the Scotsman. "I don't think everything has been put on the table from every person or entity involved. It depends on where you are coming from as well. We've got a lot of different angles -- we've got fans, we've got sponsors, we've got TV viewers, we've got players, we've got promoters. We are all in this together, and the best way going forward would be to try and find a solution where everyone can benefit."
Greg Norman, who put forth a similar idea 25 years ago, also sees possibilities -- and spoke of them Sunday at the Golf Saudi Summit.
"It's just a matter of getting all the right components together, whether players stay together," Norman said. "With my original concept, some players loved it and others didn't like it. I had corporate, I had television, but you need 100% of the pie to be together before we can bake it. From what I'm seeing here, this one has every chance of getting off the ground."