Thursday, February 29

Sponsor ‘extremely disappointed’ in Dustin Johnson’s LIV Golf decision

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Dustin Johnson’s unexpected inclusion on the list of 42 golfers who will play in LIV Golf’s inaugural event has drawn the apparent ire of a major sponsor. After the lineup was unveiled Tuesday night, Royal Bank of Canada issued a statement in which it stopped short of specifically cutting ties with the two-time major winner, but said it was “extremely disappointed” in Johnson’s decision.

“RBC is a proud partner of the PGA Tour. Our partnership is anchored with two world-class golf tournaments — the RBC Heritage and the RBC Canadian Open. The PGA Tour has been clear about its intentions in accordance with its tournament regulations should a golfer choose to play in a tournament outside the tour, including the LIV Golf Invitational Series,” RBC said in a statement.

“We were recently made aware that Dustin Johnson made the decision to play the LIV Golf Invitational Series opener. DJ has been a valued RBC team member since 2018. While we are extremely disappointed in his decision, we wish him well.”

RBC has sponsored Johnson since 2018 and he was scheduled to play in the RBC Canadian Open, which starts June 9 and takes place the same weekend as LIV Golf’s kickoff event. Johnson won the Canadian Open in 2018, and tournament organizers said in a statement they “are disappointed to learn at this late stage” that Johnson will skip this year’s tournament, the first since 2019.

Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, is another RBC golfer who will play in the LIV Golf event.

Johnson’s and McDowell’s names were among 42 made public Tuesday by organizers of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, which will tee off at Centurion Club outside London from June 9 to 11. Each of the eight events scheduled this year is set to have 48 players competing for lucrative purses over 54-hole formats with team competitions, shotgun starts and no cuts.

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In part because of heavy investment from the Saudi Arabian regime, as well as threats of punishment by PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan — particularly after incendiary comments by Phil Mickelson were published in February — most of the PGA Tour’s top names had closed ranks behind the established circuit. At that time, Johnson issued a statement in which he declared he was “fully committed to the PGA Tour.”

Ahead of May’s PGA Championship, Johnson was asked about LIV Golf’s reported interest in luring him and how he viewed the “crossroads” the sport could reach with a potential rival to the PGA Tour.

“I mean, I think golf is in a good spot,” Johnson replied. He said he thought the involvement of LIV Golf “could potentially be good for the game of golf.”

After Johnson added that he was “excited to see what happens here in a few weeks,” he was asked what he meant about being “excited.”

“I’ll be watching,” he said.

Assuming Johnson plays in the London event, he will give LIV Golf not only a jolt of star power but its highest-ranked player. The 37-year-old American is No. 13 in the world rankings.

“Dustin has been contemplating the opportunity off and on for the past couple of years. Ultimately, he decided it was in his and his family’s best interest to pursue it,” Johnson’s agent, David Winkle, said in a statement (via the Associated Press).

“Dustin has never had any issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him,” Winkle continued, “but in the end felt this was too compelling to pass up.”

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The only other top-20 player on the list is Louis Oosthuizen, a South African who won the 2010 British Open and is ranked No. 20 in the world. As expected, many of the other big names in the LIV Golf field were European, including Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter. Other noteworthy Americans set to join Johnson in England are Kevin Na and Talor Gooch, who are in the top 35.

Not on the list was Mickelson, who has been in self-imposed exile after the firestorm over his comments. He has not played on the PGA Tour since late January and sat out this year’s Masters, for the first time since 1994, and the PGA Championship, where he was the 2021 champion.

Mickelson could be one of the six players yet to be announced for the field in England. His manager said in April that Mickelson had applied for a release from the PGA Tour to play in the event.

In May, though, the PGA Tour denied releases to all of its players who were seeking an opportunity to compete in the first LIV Golf event. “As a membership organization, we believe this decision is in the best interest of the PGA Tour and its players,” the organization said in a memo.

Last year, Monahan reportedly threatened players with immediate and potentially lengthy suspensions if they joined the Saudi-backed venture. Greg Norman, a golfing great who heads the company organizing the series, responded in February by threatening Monahan with legal action if the commissioner tried to follow through with such punishments. After the PGA Tour refused to issue waivers for the opening tournament, Norman reportedly sent players a letter asserting that “LIV Golf has your back and will defend and assist you if either tour [including the top European circuit] tries to act against your interests and the progress of the sport.”

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In a statement Tuesday, Norman proclaimed, “free agency has finally come to golf.”

“This is an opportunity to start a movement that will change the course of history by bringing new and open competition to the sport we all love,” he continued. “The desire shown by the players to participate in LIV Golf demonstrates their emphatic belief in our model and confidence in what we’re building for the future.”

Other notable names in the inaugural field include 2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel, former U.S. Open and PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer, Branden Grace and Bernd Wiesberger.

The choice of Johnson and other players to compete in the event will put the resolve of Monahan and the PGA Tour to the test. As of Tuesday evening, the PGA Tour had yet to comment on the announcement of the London field.

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