Rory McIlroy believes the PGA Tour has “done the right thing” by banning colleagues, including Ryder Cup partner Ian Poulter, who defied orders not to play in the Saudi rebel breakaway’s £20 million opener at the Centurion Club.
Yet, as the battle lines were drawn more clearly than at any point during this saga, Poulter hit back, saying he will consider legal action after he received the email informing him his 18-year membership had come to a sudden and emphatic end.
With timing clearly designed to coincide with the beginning of the LIV Golf Series, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan emailed the entire membership to declare that the 17 pros who had teed it up here, including Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, were suspended indefinitely. McIlroy fully agreed with the move that LIV termed “vindictive”.
“Jay’s done the right thing because these guys have broken rules and done things outside of the tournament regulations, and because of that, there are going to be consequences,” the Northern Irishman said. “I think that the majority of the membership really appreciate it.”
The four-time major winner is playing in this week’s PGA Tour event in Canada. Justin Thomas, who won last month’s US PGA, also sided with Monahan’s hardline stance. “I’m pleased,” he said. “I think anybody that’s shocked clearly hasn’t been listening to the message that Jay’s been putting out. They [the rebels] took that risk. 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.”
After finishing his first round, Poulter said he was “disappointed” and insisted he would “appeal”. Unlike Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and countryman Lee Westwood, Poulter has not resigned his membership.
“I haven’t because I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong,” he said. “I’ve played a lot of tournaments all around the world, this event is no different. It would be incredibly disappointing if it turns out that way [that he is banned]. I will appeal for sure. It makes no sense.”
When asked if he will consider a legal challenge, he said: “ I’m sure we’ll sit down and evaluate the process and work out what is right.” Would the lawyers be unleashed by the players or LIV? “We don’t know that yet.” On Wednesday, Poulter urged the DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour, not to issue bans.
Garcia, one of the nine players in this 48-man field who has resigned his PGA Tour membership, added to pleas to his home circuit. “ First of all, I’m European, I love the European Tour,” Garcia, the Ryder Cup’s leading points-scorer, said. “I definitely would like to keep my membership there, play at least my minimum, and get as good a chance as I can to make the Ryder Cup team, because I love that event.”
Like Poulter, Mickelson has not resigned his PGA Tour membership, but unlike Poulter, would not comment, despite repeated questions from the media. As the six-time major winner spoke – or rather declined to speak – Alan Shipnuck was being ushered away from the media interview area by security guards. It summed up a bizarre day. Shipnuck was the author to whom Mickelson called the Saudis “scary m———— to deal with” but figured he could overcome his discomfort at the Kingdom’s “horrible human rights record” because of the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” the breakaway bid presented to gain leverage over the PGA Tour in his dispute over media rights.
Shipnuck was later permitted to return to the media centre, with the incident being described as a “misunderstanding”. Shipnuck later posted on Twitter: “Well, a couple of neckless security dudes just physically removed me from Phil Mickelson’s press conference, saying they were acting on orders from their boss, whom they refused to name. (Greg Norman? MBS [Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince]? Al Capone?)”
The unseemly incident – which also led to Telegraph Sport being told by officials to stop trying to video Shipnuck’s removal – summed up a bizarre day in which the action on the fairways was overshadowed by the storms off it.
While the LIV Golf Series was busy billing the shotgun start here at 2.15pm as a milestone in the game’s history, the decisive action across the Atlantic could also be viewed as a seminal moment in this saga. It has dragged on for more than two years but at last the event had begun and finally the rebels knew the price they had paid. The balls were in the air … and the bans were in the inboxes.
“Simultaneously to you receiving this memo, the players listed below have been told that they are suspended or are no longer eligible to participate in PGA Tour tournament play,” Monahan wrote.
“These players have made their choice for their own financial-based reasons. We have followed the tournament regulations from start to finish in responding to those players who have decided to turn their backs on the PGA Tour by wilfully violating a regulation.”
However, there was no mention of a “lifetime ban”, as Monahan promised the membership that the Tour would “deal with these questions”.
Monahan did announce that even if players have resigned from the Tour they will not be eligible to play PGA Tour events as non-members, via sponsor invitations. The Tour had sought to block every avenue; presumably with the backing of its sponsors. LIV was quick to respond.
“Today’s announcement by the PGA Tour is vindictive and it deepens the divide between the Tour and its members,” a statement said. “The era of free agency is beginning …”
Telegraph Sport exclusively disclosed on Wednesday that Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed had signed up, joining Johnson, Mickelson, Garcia, Westwood, Poulter and Louis Oosthuizen.
DeChambeau and Reed will make their LIV debuts in the second $25 million event – in Portland, Oregon in three weeks’ time – and by then there will be more big names on the breakaway roster, who may, at the very least, include Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Matthew Wolff.