Column: The temptation of Saudi money at LIV is in the prize fund

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The ‘4 Aces’ team celebrates with champagne after winning the team competition in a ceremony following the final round of the Bedminster Invitational LIV golf tournament in Bedminster, NJ on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Left to right, Pat Perez, Talor Gooch, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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Pat Perez said being lucky enough to be part of the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series was like winning the lottery. He wasn’t far.

Perez didn’t mince words – he rarely does – when explaining his reason for joining. It was a chance to play less and get paid more. He was even seen at a welcome party in Oregon wearing a button-up shirt with $100 bill prints, still not enough to reflect what he does.

Nor was it the signing bonus.

Perez made his Pumpkin Ridge debut last month. He shot 6 of 222 and finished tied for 29th in the 48-man field without a cut. And then Sunday at Trump National in New Jersey, Perez posted a 5 of 218 tied for 31st.

These two events earned him $1.804 million. Perez played 21 years on the PGA Tour and only earned twice that in an entire season.

He earned $304,000 on his own. The other $1.5 million came from the winning team, led by Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, who paid $750,000 per player. Now consider that Perez still has five LIV tournaments left this year, and maybe 14 money grabs next year unless he gets relegated, but it works.

It’s the real payoff for players who defected from the PGA Tour, and especially those who didn’t make it to the big leagues – like Brooks’ younger brother Koepka (Chase) and US amateur champion James Piot – and which probably never will.

The signing bonus attracts attention.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Phil Mickelson received $200 million, Johnson received $150,000, and others like Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau also in the nine-figure range.

All of those numbers are dwarfed by what Greg Norman said was “somewhere in that neighborhood” $700-800 million offered to Tiger Woods. The difference is that Woods turned it down. He also never received a $3million appearance fee for the Saudi international when he was on the European tour schedule three years ago.

Signing fees for the biggest names are generational wealth, and it has proven more valuable than their word.

That’s why Koepka was trying one week to rally the PGA Tour faithful to deliver a strong message and the following week was the latest addition to LIV Golf. That’s why Henrik Stenson signed a contract that pledged full support for the European tour as the next Ryder Cup captain, then changed his mind four months later to join the rival league.

It shouldn’t be overlooked how quickly the prize money – $25 million for each event – can add up. After just three events, LIV Golf has produced 17 millionaires from revenue alone.

Branden Grace leads the way with nearly $6.7 million. In three trials.

Along with signing fees reported by the Daily Telegraph at around $50 million, Stenson cashed in quickly on the ropes. He won at Trump National, his team finished second and the Swede walked away with $4.375 million for one week.

And there’s more of that to come.

As long as Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has money to burn – $405m in prize money for 14 events next year, not to mention a signing bonus for players who are even lucky enough to be invited to the party – players will cash in.

Of course, the majority of players are past their peak years – before the Champions Tour, as Rory McIlroy ably put it – and it’s reasonable to assume they won’t be putting as much effort into their games because they have already been paid.

But then, just as fire cannot get enough wood, those who seek money cannot get enough. And there is money to be made, even for those who have already been paid handsomely.

Johnson went from a tie for 24th at the US Open to a tie for third at LIV Golf-Portland. He went from a tie for sixth at the British Open to a second-place finish at LIV Golf-Bedminster.

The two majors paid him $620,349.

The two LIV Golf events earned him nearly $3.1 million. Including his two team wins, Johnson has already collected $5.212 million from his three appearances at LIV Golf events. In his 12 starts on the PGA Tour, he has earned $2.3 million.

It’s like that further down the food chain too.

Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz has played in two LIV Golf tournaments. He finished second to Grace in Portland and finished fourth Sunday in Bedminster. His team finished third both times, which adds $3.425 million for two weeks – 108 holes – of work.

That’s almost a million dollars more than his best season on tour. It’s also 44% of his career PGA Tour earnings from the 160 tournaments Ortiz has played in (including 68 times he missed the cut and only received free golf balls, a courtesy car and access to players’ restaurants).

Talor Gooch has played in all three LIV Golf events and joins Johnson as the only players to finish in the top 10 at all (Gooch’s best result is a tie for sixth place). He walked away with $2.823 million – or $17,425 for each hole – including his contributions to the winning team.

LIV’s earnings – excluding signing bonuses – amount to 31% of his career earnings on the 118-tournament PGA Tour over the past five years.

As long as the money is there – whatever the source or the purpose – the temptation won’t be too far behind. Whether money can buy respect and admiration, if that still matters, remains to be seen.

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