SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The normally sedate sport of professional golf is in full-on battle mode. The country's top men's tour - and its oldest one - the PGA Tour, announced it's suspending 17 players who competed in today's inaugural event of the LIV Golf series. This breakaway tour is backed by Saudi Arabia to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Joining me now is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman to tell us about this. Hi, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi.
PFEIFFER: Tom, the PGA had threatened sanctions, and today that threat became real. What happened?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, Sacha. So last month, the PGA Tour denied player requests to play in this first LIV event in London, and the tour said anyone who defied that decision would be punished. So when players started teeing off today, that's when PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan sent a memo saying the 17 players at the LIV event are suspended or otherwise no longer eligible to participate in PGA Tour tournament play.
PFEIFFER: Are there any big names among those 17 players?
GOLDMAN: There sure are - none bigger than Phil Mickelson, six-time major winner and one of the most popular players ever on the PGA Tour. Dustin Johnson is another star, a former world No. 1-ranked player. D.J., as he's known to golf fans, is 1 of 10 of the PGA players playing in London who resigned from the PGA Tour before today's sanctions. Now, Mickelson hasn't resigned as of now. Also, at least one of the sanctioned players says he will appeal.
PFEIFFER: Tom, the PGA Tour is very lucrative and successful.
PFEIFFER: So why are these golfers playing the LIV series?
GOLDMAN: Because LIV is more lucrative - a lot. Everyone in the 48-man field gets paid well. The 48th place finisher in the individual competition gets $120,000 for finishing last, and the winner gets 4 million. Now, to be fair to these players - especially the guys who normally play on lesser-known tours - they are not rich, and they are grinding away all year to make what they can. LIV is a chance to make quick, guaranteed money.
For the already rich, like Mickelson and D.J., they are getting staggeringly rich - a reported 200 million and more than 100 million, respectively - just to sign up with LIV. Now, they say they're doing it to fit their lifestyles. Mickelson has said he's doing it to challenge what he and some others say is the PGA Tour's greed and iron grip on their careers. Now, that's a claim that's refuted by many other players, who are remaining loyal to the PGA Tour.
PFEIFFER: It's the Saudi money behind this tour that's controversial. It's being called sportswashing (ph)...
PFEIFFER: ...This idea that Saudi Arabia is backing the tour to polish an image that's tarnished by human rights abuses. Are the players who played in it addressing that?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, they are, and they're doing so very uncomfortably. In London this week, journalists grilled the players about being - what one reporter said - Saudi stooges. Mickelson has been embroiled in this since he was quoted as saying the Saudis have a horrible human rights record, but he's going to play LIV to gain leverage against the PGA Tour. At his press conference this week - Mickelson's first public appearance in months - he was asked whether he's being used in a sportswashing effort, and here's a bit of what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PHIL MICKELSON: Nobody here condones human rights violations, and nobody's trying to make up for anything. Um...
GOLDMAN: And Sacha, after that um, Mickelson shrugged, and that was the end of his answer.
LIV Golf, on the other hand, was assertive in its response to the PGA sanctions. In a tweet, it said the sanctions were vindictive, and it deepens the divide between the tour and its members, adding, the era of free agency is beginning.
PFEIFFER: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
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