At the DP World Tour Championship, There’s Also a Battle Off the Course

The lead-up to the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, last year could not have been more different than what it is this week. And one indication is what the tour itself is saying — and not saying — about the upstart but well-financed LIV Golf league.

The interest last year in one of the signature events on the DP World Tour, then still known as the European Tour, was high for all the right reasons: the battle for the season-long Race to Dubai competition, an honor formerly known as the Order of Merit, was set to be won by an American for the first time.

Billy Horschel, who had won the W.G.C.-Dell Technologies Matchplay championship and the BMW PGA Championship, and Collin Morikawa, the reigning British Open champion, came in at the top of the standings, while the third-place golfer, Jon Rahm, was not playing in the tournament. Either way, an American seemed set to win the tour’s top honor.

“Collin Morikawa and Billy Horschel are great players and great ambassadors of the game, and we are grateful for them,” Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, said in an interview at the time.

But his comments were tempered. The European Tour had recently entered into a partnership with the PGA Tour to create a pathway for European players looking to compete on the PGA Tour; it also benefited European players by elevating some of their events.

“Before the PGA Tour became our partner, as opposed to a competitor, it would have meant a lot more for an American to be in contention in the Race to Dubai,” he said. “The importance of an American winning would have been much greater in the past.”

Morikawa won the tournament and the Race to Dubai last year. It was a lot of hardware for one player to take home.

A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series

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A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:

What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.

Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.

Who is playing it? Several top players and former major champions have joined LIV Golf, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith. But many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away.

What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.

How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.

Just one year later that seems like ancient history. The reason, like many things in the sport, is LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed league that lured professional golfers with guaranteed multimillion-dollar pay days. It has changed the golfing landscape and created conflict between players who were formerly friendly competitors.

On the DP World Tour, it’s added another wrinkle, because under certain rules members who have played LIV events can also qualify for DP World Tour events based on their world rankings, something akin to double-dipping in the minds of top players like Horschel.

This conflict came into stark relief at the BMW PGA Championship, another premier event on the DP World Tour. This year, players who remained loyal to the tour spoke out against former competitors who had gone to LIV.

“They decided to go play on that tour, and they should go play there,” Horschel said before the BMW championship.

The real rancor was reserved for players who had previously not played on the DP World Tour, but were using their eligibility to play the BMW to earn world ranking points to remain eligible for major championships. LIV events do not receive world ranking points.

So what does this year hold?

Pelley and his counterpart, Jay Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner, have had a tough year. But Pelley, in an interview, gave a rosy review and outlook for the DP World Tour. He pointed to an attendance increase of 32 percent across four of the tour’s more significant tournaments, including the Scottish Open and the BMW PGA. (That increase was coming off a depressed base when Covid-19 restrictions were in force.)

“It looks like Dubai is going to continue that trend, and the fans are going to have another terrific finale to enjoy,” he said.

Colin Morikawa after winning the DP World Tour Championship last year.Credit…Warren Little/Getty Images

Neither Morikawa nor Horschel are playing in Dubai. Morikawa is getting married. Horschel is simply not playing this year. Nor are Lee Westwood, a former champion, and Ian Poulter, a fan favorite, who have gone to LIV.

The top players leading in the season-long event are strong. Rory McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, is well in front. Ryan Fox, who has played his way into the top 25, is in second, and the United States Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick is in third.

McIlroy could add the DP World Tour’s season-long title to this year’s FedEx Cup Championship, its equivalent on the PGA Tour.

Given McIlroy’s taunting of Greg Norman, another former world No. 1 golfer and the chief executive of LIV Golf, winning the season-long title would be particularly sweet. Henrik Stenson is the only other player to win both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai, but he won the titles in two different years. Stenson now plays on LIV, a decision that resulted in him being stripped of his captaincy of the Ryder Cup’s European squad for next year.

When it comes to the broader year ahead, though, Pelley has made announcements on tournaments and prize money earlier than in the past.

“We’ve traditionally used the DP World Tour Championship to announce our full schedule for the following season, but we brought that forward this year because there were a number of really positive enhancements we wanted to tell the players about,” he said.

The focus this year has been on raising prize money that mirrors what the PGA Tour has done for its members to keep them from jumping to LIV. The DP World Tour’s overall prize fund is $144.2 million — a $50 million increase from 2021.

There’s a bonus pool for the top eight players and the first four Rolex Series events have $9 million prize funds. There also is guaranteed money for younger or struggling players. The so-called Earnings Assurance program sets a base of $150,000 for golfers who play 15 events on the tour.

Pelley seemed to put a dig in at LIV when he said those minimum payments “also recognize and reward the achievement of simply making it on to the DP World Tour whilst maintaining the meritocracy and purity of a performance-based structure on our tour.”

The knock against LIV, of course, is that the league out-and-out bought players. That may be true, but the enormous, guaranteed money LIV has offered in creating a 48-player league has pushed the DP World Tour to make changes. And those are going to benefit players beyond who wins this week.

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