The head of the Asian Tour has described the defection of PGA Tour stars such Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson to the LIV Golf Invitational Series as inevitable, warning that others will follow suit and advising golf’s existing federations to start working with the Saudi-funded circuit rather than against them.
In an interview with Telegraph Sport, Cho Minn Thant, the chief executive of the Asian Tour, which has already partnered with LIV Golf, said it was short-sighted of the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour to try to “shut the door” on the Saudis.
“It’s a real shame that we’re the only federation amongst the six federations that is fully embracing this,” Cho said. “I feel like if the tours got together and said ‘Look, you’ve obviously got a massive backing from the PIF [Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund]. LIV Golf is here to stay. Let’s work together. Work out how we can build the best possible product, which can coexist with the majors, the Ryder Cup, the PGA Tour and, and the European Tour…I mean, we could be somewhere completely different right now.
“It’s disappointing that the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour have just shut the door and said ‘We treat you as competitors. And there’s going to be no dialogue between us.'”
Johnson’s bombshell that he was resigning his PGA Tour membership in order to play all eight events of the fledgling $255m (£200m) LIV Golf Invitational Series, which starts on Thursday at Centurion Club near London, has stunned the game. The 37 year-old joined the PGA Tour in 2007 and has won $74m in his career.
But Cho warned that Johnson – who is reportedly received a signing on fee $150m fees to play in the series – would not be alone in making the move. DeChambeau has also sinced joined, in his own seven-figure deal and will play in the second Luv event in three weeks’ time in Oregon.
“The market dictates whether it’s a success or not,” he said. “If the better players in the world want to play, they’ll find a way to play. And the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour will hopefully listen to them.
“I think there’s going to be more interest after the first couple of [LIV] tournaments are played. The first two events come right in the midst of a hectic season for them. But I think after the major season is done and after the FedEx Cup season is done, you will see a lot more interest from the [top] guys, especially in America.”
Cho said the Asian Tour had little choice but to partner with LIV Golf, even if that has made them the “black sheep of the tour community”.
The deal to bring 10 new annual tournaments to the Asian circuit until 2031, each with a minimum purse of $2m, as part of a $200m cash injection, “saved” the Asian Tour after the pandemic.
“It’s no exaggeration to say we wouldn’t have been able to restart if it wasn’t for the LIV partnership,” Cho said.
He added that he was “comfortable” working with the Saudi-funded group, saying many of those who cite ethical and human rights concerns were being hypocritical.
“We actually weren’t the first tour to deal with Saudi Arabia,” Cho said. “The European [DP World] Tour actually started the relationship with the Saudis over the course of the last three years with the Saudi International.
“But we feel that the Public Investment Fund – where the money is coming from – is a global business. Obviously F1 is quite comfortable working with them. There have obviously been all sorts of different promotions that have taken place in Saudi Arabia and received backing from the PIF. I guess, most recently, Newcastle United Football Club. So I’m quite comfortable for the Asian Tour to work with them.”
Cho bemoaned the fact that the PGA Tour and DP World Tour had decided they would no longer co-sanction events in Asia such as the Malaysian Open, the Hong Kong Open and the Indian Open.
But he said he was confident the Asian Tour had made the right decision partnering with LIV Golf and his members were delighted. Last week the Asian Tour held its first event on UK soil at Slaley Hall in Northumberland where Zimbabwe’s Scott Vincent and Australia’s Travis Smyth took the top spots, earning qualification to the $25m LIV Golf event at Centurion Club that was due to finish on Saturday.
‘They’re like kids in a candy story right now’
Cho said the aim was predominantly to expand the game in Asia – particularly in places like China and Korea – rather than play too many events in Europe or the United States. “We’re just trying to create more business in terms of growing the Asian Tour and adding more tournaments to the global golfing calendar,” he said. “I think we all agree that the majors will remain the pinnacle of the sport. Anyone who picks up the game dreams of winning the Masters or the Open Championship. That won’t change.
“But we’d like to see players playing across platforms. Where they play the majors, they play the PGA Tour, and also play invitationals. I mean, that would be the ideal scenario. Things have been a little stale for a while. And I think this shake-up is actually waking everyone up.
“Look at a model like the IPL and Twenty20 Cricket. It’s revolutionised the game. It’s brought a huge level of new excitement and a whole new audience.
“So, I mean, we’re prepared for turbulence in the short term. But we’re quite confident that after one or two years, things will settle down, and we’ll be in a better place.
“We’re certainly not looking back on it with any regrets at all. The mood of our players is through the roof right now. I mean, coming back last winter from no golf or playing domestic tours for $50,000 here or $100,000 there? We’ve only had one or two tournaments below half a million dollars this year. We’re travelling to Europe and doing tournaments in the Middle East. I mean, they’re like kids in a candy store right now. We’re getting huge interest from players who wouldn’t necessarily have taken notice of the Asian Tour before.”