(NewsNation) — Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson launched tee shots in the Saudi-funded golf league on Thursday, and it wasn’t long before the PGA Tour said its players who took part were no longer welcome, even if they already had resigned.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan held a hard line on his pledge that players could choose one tour or the other, but not both.
Those who had resigned from the PGA Tour — Graeme McDowell said he did so 30 minutes before he teed off — were no longer eligible on any PGA Tour circuit. Those who remained members, such as Mickelson, were suspended.
The stars of the LIV league have been fending off concerns about human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia since signing up to accept hundreds of millions of dollars despite, the risk of being banned from other events.
Critics say the rebel series appears to be part of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to “sportswash” or reshape its image as a backer of lavish sports events, rather than one associated with human rights abuses.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons,” Monahan said in a memo to his membership. “But they can’t demand the same PGA Tour membership benefits, considerations, opportunities and platform as you.”
Mickelson had nothing to say except that he didn’t want to talk about the PGA Tour in his first tournament in four months, only to confirm he will play all eight of the LIV events, five of which will be in the United States.
Still to be determined is whether those players are ever welcome back. For now, Monahan made it clear that the suspensions include the Presidents Cup — the International team (countries outside Europe) is determined by the world ranking.
Mike McDaniel, writer for Sports Illustrated, says the decision is not shocking, but it certainly has significance.
“His decision to announce it is historic. The PGA Tour has never come out openly and said they are suspending certain players. They have always handled this plan behind doors. That’s been the policy of the PGA Tour forever,” McDaniel said.
The USGA already has said eligible players can still compete in the U.S. Open next week. The PGA Tour does not run the majors. McDaniel says this could be a problem for the PGA.
“What it comes down to is these players want to play in tournaments on their own terms, but they also want to play in the four major championships,” McDaniel said. Those are the biggest events in the world every year. If the major championships say these guys can play, what is the PGA Tour going to do?”
PGA champion Justin Thomas and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy welcomed the decision from the tour stop this week at the Canadian Open.
“I think anybody that’s shocked clearly hasn’t been listening to the message that Jay and everybody’s been putting out,” Thomas said. “They took that risk going into it, whether they thought it was a risk or not. I have great belief and great confidence in the PGA Tour and where we’re going and continuing to grow to, and those guys just aren’t going to be a part of it.”
McDaniel says that for some golfers, they may just feel the PGA Tour is a thing of the past.
“I don’t think they feel like they need the PGA anymore. I think by resigning their membership from the PGA Tour, I feel like they almost set themselves up,” McDaniel said. “If this is disputed in court, they can say they resigned from the tour and are going to play a different tour just like everyone else does.”
Ten players have resigned from the PGA Tour, a list that includes Johnson and Sergio Garcia. Mickelson, who has lifetime membership with 45 PGA Tour titles, is among those who has not.
LIV Golf, run by Greg Norman and funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, responded to the tour’s decision by calling it vindictive and divisive.
“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,” LIV Golf said. “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.”
LIV Golf has paid enormous signing fees, with The Daily Telegraph reporting $150 million for Johnson and Mickelson declining to dispute reports he was paid $200 million. Both are more than Tiger Woods’ career earnings on the PGA Tour.
Norman has said LIV would support the players even if it wound up in the courts. McDowell said some players already have spoken to lawyers.
“We haven’t been issued releases. We feel like we should have been issued releases. We’ve done it for the last 20 years, operated all over the world,” McDowell said. “Listen, we all know the situation is about something bigger. It’s competition and it’s not liked. They are having to play the game the way they feel they have to play it, which is playing hard ball.”
The European tour has not said whether it would suspend its players. It has an alliance with the PGA Tour commercially, including the first co-sanctioned events this year on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The first test for PGA Tour players figures to be the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, the week after the U.S. Open. Johnson was among those listed in the field.
The LIV Golf Invitational was being streamed on YouTube and Facebook. Before the opening round, Norman said he was thrilled to see an effort 30 years in the making come to fruition.
He tried to start a World Golf Tour in the 1990s for only the elite players and had a TV contract lined up until the PGA Tour quashed the moment with support from Arnold Palmer. That circuit never got off the ground.
This one did, with the backing of riches the likes of which golf has never seen.
Each tournament offers $25 million in prize money, with $4 million for the individual winner. The PGA Tour’s richest event is The Players Championship at $20 million. The Canadian Open this week, which has five of the top 10 players in the world, has an $8.7 million purse.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.