Golf’s burgeoning power struggle is set to detonate with the European Tour ready to refuse requests from some of its top players to accept seven-figure appearance fees to play in Saudi Arabia next year.
The hardline stance will stun many big names who believed they would be released for the Saudi International after playing in the $5m (£3.7m) event since its inception in 2019 when it was part of the European Tour’s schedule.
Players even have multi-year contracts that were signed before the acrimonious split between the sheikhs and Wentworth HQ.
But Telegraph Sport understands that the Tour and its chief executive, Keith Pelley, are not willing to compromise and will sanction any member who decides to play regardless. Except, in a calculated move by the Tour, the type and the scale of the punishment will not be revealed to the rebels until after the event.
The pros will not even know what they will be risking if they accept the Saudi cheque, some of which will feature numbers well into the millions. The same stringent tactics are thought to have been adopted by the PGA Tour and its commissioner, Jay Monahan.
It has been reported that the list of pros who have applied to the US circuit for permission to play in the Saudi International include Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood and Graeme McDowell and since these names were revealed others such as Bryson DeChambeau and Ian Poulter are also believed to have sought permits.
If and when the answer comes back as an emphatic “no” then there is sure to be outrage in the locker room. “They like to think of themselves as ‘independent contractors’ and they will not like it,” an insider said. “They have been given big money before to play in Saudi and will think they are entitled to again.”
Furthermore, it is believed that Pelley will not authorise members to play in any Asian Tour tournaments. That means that the likes of Paul Casey and Matt Fitzpatrick will not be given permission to play at the Singapore Open in January, even though that event is not bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and that, in past years, European Tour members have been given clearance.
However, the advance of the Saudis into the sport, and its ultimate plan to establish a rebel circuit to take on the European and PGA Tours, has radically changed the landscape and created new allegiances and divisions.
While the game’s two biggest tours signed up to their “strategic alliances” last year, the Asian Tour has jumped in with the sheikhs, not only heralding the Saudi International as its flagship event, but also committing to stage 10 more $2m (£1.5m) events on an annual basis financed by the Kingdom’s Private Investment Fund, which recently bought Newcastle United.
Greg Norman has been announced as the chief executive of LIV Golf Enterprises, a freshly-formed company which will inject $200m (£150m) into the Asian Tour over the next decade. “This is only the beginning,” Norman said. The relationship with the Asian Tour gives the Saudis and their mooted Super Golf League extra credibility, if only because it provides access to world ranking points and a feeder circuit to supply a stream of players.
The battle lines have duly been drawn with David Williams, the European Tour’s chairman, declaring in a recent interview, “the Asian Tour has gone from being partners to being competitors – and we are fierce competitors”.
The topic was one of the main talking points at last week’s DP World Tour Championship, the season-ender in Dubai. Pelley was seen in close discussion with many of the Ryder Cup stars, who have been offered sizable sums to tee it up in Singapore and Saudi.
The players were understandably keen to know the cost if they did defy orders, but apparently Pelley would not say. “You don’t show someone your hand in a game of poker until the end of the game and that is the stance on this,” the same source said.
“Some of the players seem to be under the impression the Tour won’t come down hard on this, but there is a determination high up that the punishment will be more than meaningless fines.”
It has been learned that earlier this year one Tour member was fined $20,000 for playing on another circuit without a release. “That was the maximum Pelley was able to go to,” the source said. “But since then that limit has been scrapped and now it is up to Pelley and the board what the fine, suspension, might be.
“When the players eventually find out the price, they might not think it worth it, especially with the huge increases in purses and earning opportunities on both of the main Tours.”
Indeed, the European Tour announced a fortnight ago that in the 2022 campaign its combined prize funds will rise above $200 million (£150m) for the first time, while on Stateside total prize money will be more than double that figure and include an added $15m (£11.3m) in the FedExCup bonus to $75m (£56.3m).
Also, rumours are rumbling of a future series of tournaments taking place in Europe and Asia that will offer guaranteed money to the world’s best. Already rich golfers are about to get richer.
“It is the elephant in the room that does not stop growing, because nobody has signed up to the SGL yet and unless they’re coming to the end of their career and want the $50 million signing-on fee or whatever it is the Saudis offering, then it will a mammoth risk to face a lifetime ban from the PGA Tour, as Monahan has promised,” the source said.
“It’ll be interesting to see who goes against the Tours and plays in this Saudi International because that might give an indication if the whole SGL thing is viable or not.”