Greg Norman and his billionaire Saudi backers are not taking over the Asian Tour, insists the circuit’s chief, after the Australian great’s new company pledged $200 million to create 10 new tournaments.
Nor is the former world number one launching a breakaway “super league” via his plunge into the Asian Tour that shook the golf world, tour commissioner and CEO Cho Minn Thant told AFP.
Norman last month revealed he was the CEO of newly formed LIV Golf Investments, a Saudi sovereign wealth fund-backed company committing $200 million to 10 new global events on the Asian Tour schedule over the next decade.
Scant on detail, the announcement was interpreted by some as the first move in establishing Norman’s oft-touted “super league” that could split men’s professional golf and threaten the dominance of the US PGA Tour.
Such speculation is wide of the mark, Cho said, while acknowledging that Norman has ambitions to create a superstar golf circuit separate to the main tours.
“I think there’s been a misconception that LIV Golf has taken over the Asian Tour and we are going to get the ‘LIV Golf Tour’ or the ‘Saudi Tour’, which is incorrect,” said Cho, speaking by video link from Jupiter, Florida, where two-time major winner Norman is based.
“They are a promoter who are adding 10 events to our tournament schedule. Our structure remains the same,” assured Cho, who is finalising details on a 25-event Asian Tour 2022 calendar.
‘Most lucrative season’
It will begin with the $5 million Saudi International on February 3-6.
That is not part of the new Norman-funded 10-event series but is expected to attract stars such as Dustin Johnson, who won in 2019 and 2021, when the tournament was sanctioned by the European Tour.
The 10 new events, likely to kick off in the Middle East and Europe, will join long-standing Asian tournaments such as the Hong Kong Open and Maybank Championship in Malaysia.
To take part, players such as Johnson will need a release from the US PGA Tour, which a year ago formed a “strategic alliance” with the European Tour to counter the threat of any breakaway circuit.
“Obviously, before, they were almost assured of being released,” said Cho.
“But now I guess it’s a little bit harder… just because the PGA and European Tours may feel that we’re somewhat more competitive.”
Cho’s focus now is on rekindling the Asian Tour, on hold since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The interrupted 2020-21 season resumes later this month after a 20-month absence with two $1 million tournaments in Thailand and will conclude with two more in Singapore in January, ahead of the new season launch in February.
Cho revealed the new Norman-backed events will be full-field with “70 to 80 Asian Tour members” with slots available to the top 200 in the world, plus others including elite amateurs.
“To have 10 tournaments with prize money above $1 million each has basically never before been seen on the Asian Tour,” said Cho.
“It’s very likely to be the Asian Tour’s most lucrative season.”
The majority shareholder in LIV Golf Investments is the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds and behind the takeover of Premier League football club Newcastle United.
It has brought accusations of Saudi “sportswashing” of the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.
“I think the political agenda is never going to be far from the conversation,” said Cho.
“We’re open to having the conversation.
“And our response is basically that we’re very fortunate that they are interested in golf and it’s good for the game of golf,” said Cho, who noted that PIF has also invested in the likes of Uber.
Cho acknowledged that Norman and his Saudi backers harbour ambitions to start a “super league”, in which the game’s stars could compete for guaranteed payouts in individual and team events.
“Sure, it’s certainly one of their ambitions to start a league,” admitted Cho.
“If the best players in the world decide that it’s something that they want to be part of, there’s no reason why the Asian Tour shouldn’t be part of it,” he said.
“But let’s face it, the PGA Tour is still the pinnacle tour that everyone wants to play, and it always will be.”