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SPORT

Could big names jump ship to the Premier Golf League and revolutionise the sport?

Words by Robbie Greenfield

Professional golf might be about to get a dramatic facelift

The gargantuan $240m purse up for grabs in the proposed Premier Golf League could inject the sport with a new drive, but can this bold new concept succeed where past bids have failed? Golf writer and Dubai Eye radio presenter Robbie Greenfield delves deeper.

Former World No.1 golfer Greg Norman has always been way ahead of his time. Decades before social media and the cult of the ‘personal brand’, the brash Australian called himself ‘The Great White Shark’ and began building a business empire in the midst of his competitive pomp.

Brand Shark took off and today, the Greg Norman Company is so vast it can be viewed from space. Probably.

But one of Greg’s ideas didn’t take flight. In the mid-1990s, he proposed the novel concept of bringing together professional golf’s disparate parts and packaging them up neatly under the banner of a World Golf Tour. It was supposed to be golf’s answer to tennis’s ATP.

Professional golf may be a global game, but it’s also all over the map in a less advantageous way. Tournament golf is played in every corner of the globe, featuring four majors (the most prestigious events), four World Golf Championships, and a myriad of other events played across multiple tours.

The US-based PGA Tour is the clear powerhouse of the game, with the lesser European Tour operating a global schedule and enjoying more fleeting periods of success on the calendar, especially when visiting the Middle East in the early part of the year. But there are only so many top players to go around, and the reality is that the best of the best only convene around eight times a year.

Greg Norman tried to form a breakaway league in the 1990s

Therefore professional golf lacks a structure and as a result of the scheduling, the competitive narrative that is so integral to the success of modern sport also suffers.

Greg Norman saw into the future, but back in the 90s, his idea was quashed by the considerable might of the PGA Tour, resulting in a falling out that the two-time major winner still carries with him to this day.

Fast-forward to the modern era of on-demand streaming platforms and the ‘world tour’ concept has resurfaced in the shape of a new threat to the status quo. But on this occasion, the timing may just be right.

The Premier Golf League is an audacious model that could, if successful, completely redraw the landscape of professional golf, from how it is structured to how we watch it and follow it. The league plans to address golf’s two chief weaknesses: A convoluted playing schedule, and that lack of narrative, which means golf is among the least tribal of the popular sports. Sure, Tiger Woods has millions of fans. But what if you could support Tiger’s team?

Tiger Woods will be keeping en eye on the Premier Golf League

The company behind the bold proposal is British-based World Golf Group. It said in a statement, “If you want the world to watch, you have to showcase your best product, week-in-week-out. 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 is that chance. We believe we’ll succeed because the League is what fans, sponsors and broadcasters want – and the best players deserve. It will revitalise the sport for this and future generations.”

Here’s what we know so far. The Premier Golf League will feature 48 players, divided into 12 teams of four. Those 48 players will compete in 18 tournaments, each over 54 holes, in an eight-month season from January to September for a total prize fund of $240 million with no cut and an individual and team league format.

The weekly individual winner will claim $2m of the $10m purse, the overall individual champion will receive a $10m bonus and there will be a $40m team prize fund, with $14m split between the winning four-man team.

But where the world’s top players could really cash in is by owning a stake in their franchise. If the league is a commercial success, the potential earnings could far outstrip what the Rory McIlroys and Jon Rahms of this world currently earn as members of the PGA and European Tours.

European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley

As Greg Norman himself pointed out recently, there is also a massive broadcasting opportunity for the breakaway league. With the European Tour tied to Sky Sports in the UK and world feed, and the PGA Tour in bed with NBC, CBS and the Golf Channel, Norman cites Apple and Amazon as two potential streaming partners that could elevate the experience of viewing golf to a new and altogether more modern level. Speaking about the Premier Golf League recently, Norman said, “From what I’m seeing here, this one has every chance of getting off the ground.”

On the surface, it appears both attractive to fans of the sport and to the players themselves. So it ought to work, right? In this regard it’s prudent to watch this space. If professional sport made total sense, boxers wouldn’t be fighting for four-plus belts in the same division. The PGA and European Tours have already issued warnings to their members that absconding to the Premier Golf League will have grave consequences.

European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said, “We’re not in the habit of talking about the business of other tours. We focus on the business of our tour and the growth that we’re having right now. I think they’ve been trying to move forward for eight years, but I can’t comment on other tours. I wouldn’t comment on the business of the PGA Tour or certainly one that is not real.”

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, issued a statement, saying, “We don’t comment on the business of other tours, real or hypothetical. We’re focused on our business."

Rory McIlroy could earn big bucks in the new format

And ultimately, it is player power that will decide the fate of the venture. If Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and all the other big names come on board, a sea change may yet occur. Without their unequivocal buy-in, it will go down as just another fancy idea that never grew legs.

McIlroy has his doubts. “It’s a hard one. But I love the PGA Tour, I love the way golf is set up right now. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose what’s been built in the last 40 or 50 years. I’m still quite a traditionalist, so to have that much of an upheaval in the game I don’t think is the right step forward. But I think 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.”

My personal hunch is that reshaping the landscape of professional golf may prove trickier to accomplish than a few persuasive paragraphs in a press release make out. But I’m mightily intrigued nonetheless.

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