LIV Golf is not yet another sportswashing exercise by the Saudi regime, claims the Asian Tour’s CEO Cho Minn Thant, as he warns golf’s leading tours not to challenge the breakaway series or things will get ‘messy’.
The Saudi-backed £180million series parked their tanks on the PGA and DP World Tours’ lawns as they finally held their inaugural event at the Centurion Club on Thursday.
With lucrative, and rather obscene, deals LIV Golf have attracted some of the biggest stars, who seem more than happy to overlook human right abuses for a pay check.
But where the PGA and DP World Tours are seemingly heading for a full-out battle with the Saudis, the Asian Tour are fully embracing the positive implications of golf’s rebellion.
LIV Golf have invested in the Asian Tour to ‘to support the development of the “sleeping giant” of golf’ and CEO Cho Minn Thant spoke exclusively to Sportsmail on the controversial implications of his tour’s newfound Saudi partnership.
CEO Cho Minn Thant speaks exclusively to Sportsmail on the implications of the Asian Tour’s newfound partnership with LIV Golf
LIV Golf Invitational Series held its inaugural event at the Centurion Club featuring rebels Dustin Johnson (left) and Phil Mickelson (right)
Cho admits the Asian Tour have faced questions over the Saudis’ mega-money offers and their sportswashing agenda but claims they are not the first to establish a working relationship with the Gulf state.
‘We’ve been asked a lot of questions,’ he says. ‘There’s been a lot of reference to money coming out of Saudi, but all I say to that is we’re not alone.
‘The Saudi relationship with golf started with the European Tour at the Saudi International three years ago.
‘It’s transformed into sponsorship for the ladies tour. A lot of players are being sponsored by Golf Saudi, and now there’s a whole host of international players playing the LIV Golf competition.
Cho admits the Asian Tour have faced questions over the Saudis mega-money offers
‘We’re in it together, but we are conscious that there is going to be some criticism.’
While the Asian Tour may not be the first to partner with the Saudis in the sporting world, it is debatable whether it stands as a sufficient excuse to continue doing so.
The money coming out of Saudi Arabia of course refers to the staggering prize pot that has managed to turn the heads of some of the game’s biggest stars.
Former World No 1 Johnson is said to be collecting upwards of £100million in appearance fees, just months after pledging allegiance to the PGA Tour. Clearly, money talks.
Meanwhile, Saudi defectors Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood were left squirming on Wednesday when quizzed over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and questioned if they would have the same outlook to participating in the event if it was connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin or the South African apartheid.
When faced with a similar question, Cho tells Sportsmail the Asian Tour would of course evaluate each situation but admits that a country’s ‘history’ probably would not hold them back from holding an event there.
‘We play all over the world,’ he says. ‘We go to countries with a checkered history. We play in China, we play in Vietnam, we play in Cambodia, the Middle East. If we had to consider every country’s past, we probably wouldn’t have a tour built on playing golf all around the world. We understand that each country has their own history.
Ian Poulter (left) and Lee Westwood (right) faced awkward questions over their involvement in the Saudi-backed LIV series on Wednesday
‘We played in Thailand when they’ve been under military rule. I don’t think it would stop us but we look at things on a case by case basis and see what’s happening at that point in time.
‘A lot of the time for us one of the main major considerations for us is the safety of our members, officials and fans at those events as well. If it’s dangerous in that respect, we won’t host any events (there).’
When pressed on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, in particular the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Cho claims that the country is not trying to cover up its blood-soaked reputation with sport.
Despite the Gulf state’s foray into the golfing world being a clear attempt at sportswashing, he insists the Saudis’ venture comes purely from their passion for the sport.
Greg Norman (right), the face of the Saudi breakaway, branding the murder of journalist Khashoggi as a ‘mistake’
‘For us, there’s quite clearly a transformation happening in Saudi Arabia,’ he claims. ‘We’re hoping that Saudi Arabia and their ethics to modernise the country can really improve their image and we’re lucky that it’s through golf.
‘They are involved in all sorts of sports and other businesses as well – football and F1. Golf is a large part of that sponsorship strategy because they loved golf.
‘I don’t think they are trying to cover anything up because they addressed the histories when asked. I think it’s just the way for them to progress as a nation.’
If ‘addressing the histories’ consists of Greg Norman, the face of the Saudi breakaway, branding the murder of Khashoggi in 2018 as a ‘mistake’ then by all means let’s call it ‘progress’.
It is undeniable that the Saudi regime has made efforts in recent years to polish its image through sport but whether underneath that surface the Gulf state actually has grounds to claim improvement is questionable at best.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan accused players of ‘willfully violating regulation’
A bombshell letter from the PGA Tour announced that all defecting members to rebel Saudi Invitational series have been suspended, in a huge shake-up for golf’s biggest names
The LIV Series has not only caused upset on a political level but has also created deep rifts within the golfing community, splitting the sport into two camps – PGA and DP World Tour allies versus Saudi rebels.
Just 30 minutes after the opening tee shots at Centurion on Thursday, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan released a letter full of righteous fury announcing the suspension of 17 members competing in the LIV series event.
Until the shotgun was fired, the debate had merely consisted of a series of threats and snide jabs made through the media but Monahan’s unprecedented statement marked the beginning of the battle for the soul of men’s professional golf.
However, Cho insists the infighting and squabbling could have been easily avoided if the PGA and DP World Tour had only been more amenable to harmonious co-existence.
He admits LIV Golf and the Asian Tour’s strike certainly posses a competitive edge for the Old World tours but appears to place the blame at their doors.
He says: ‘What we’ve done and the splash that we’re making now is obviously very competitive for the PGA Tour and the European Tour. But we do believe we can co-exist.
The LIV series led by Greg Norman branded the PGA Tour’s suspension ‘vindictive’
‘We would have liked to have had a round table conversation with LIV Golf, with the PGA tour, with the DP World Tour but it’s not been forthcoming. We are where we are.’
When asked if that discussion – or now better described as a truce – will ever take place, Cho says: ‘I think the Tours will have to take note.
‘I wouldn’t say after one event, but at least the first full season, I think up until now, it’s been a discussion. We’ve been talking about a concept that wasn’t here yet, but we’re here this week. It’s happening.’
The Asian Tour CEO said he would have liked a discussion with the PGA and DP World Tours
The Asian Tour faced a similar threat when a rival circuit, called OneAsia, was established 10 years ago, which was taken through the legal courts but ultimately resulted in Cho and Co losing the battle to eliminate their opposition.
Cho appears to sympathise with the position the PGA and DP World Tours find themselves in but warns them from his own past experience that they have to allow players to be free agents.
‘We’ve been through the fight and at the end of everything, we realised that we shouldn’t and can’t restrict the movement of our members,’ he says.
‘I would say the PGA tour and the European Tour are in a very difficult position right now. It’s uncharted, it’s never before been like this.
‘But if players can’t play on the PGA tour or choose to play elsewhere because they’re attracted to another tournament, we’ve got to let them play as professional golfers and free agents.
‘I’d never want to be in the position of alienating members or alienating the top players and give them a reason to not want to play my tour. I would really have been encouraging them to come and play rather than trying to restrict them.
‘You see the names who were playing here this weekend and committed to the future, they’re future Ryder Cup captains or current Ryder cup players. Big name draws.
Former World No 1 Johnson saw his Ryder Cup career end with the PGA Tour suspension
Westwood and Poulter could face similar punishment if the DP World Tour follows suit
‘I’d be doing anything in my power to try and keep them and stay on their good side rather than trying to alienate them.
‘We don’t want it to go to court. We don’t want it to get messy. These guys just want to play golf.
‘I don’t think anyone wants to go there. I don’t think it’s anyone’s best interest to go through the legal system and prolong it. I think we’ve got to reach an agreement for the sake of the sport.’
If the Saudis are so insistent on providing freedom for golfers, why don’t they first look to offer it to their own citizens?
Political dissidents, human and women’s rights activists, journalists and online critics have historically been harassed, detained, prosecuted and incarcerated for denouncing the Saudi government, according to Amnesty International.
But instead golf’s Saudi agenda has focused on liberating some of the sport’s biggest names as a priority.
The Saudi rebellion managed to lure away the likes of six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, former World No 1 Johnson and European stars Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Poulter and Westwood.
The Saudi rebellion managed to lure away the likes Sergio Garcia (left) and Poulter
Former European Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell resigned his membership from the tour
With Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed expected to join in the coming weeks, Cho believes we haven’t seen the last of the big hitters.
‘I think the strength of the field speaks for itself and it’s only going to get stronger based on what I’m hearing from the other players as well,’ he says.
‘There’s a hell of a lot of interest from a lot of the top players to play events further in the season.
‘A lot of the top players have chosen to participate in this event without restriction from other tours. It’s just the European Tour and the PGA who are trying to restrict it.’
However, as the steady drip of top players continues flooding towards the Saudi breakaway, those lower down the professional food chain could find that their LIV debut could also be their last.
‘I certainly think a lot of players are going to take note after this week,’ Cho claims. ‘I think the fields are going to get stronger.
Former US Open winner DeChambeau was confirmed to be the next big name to join
‘But we’re also limited by the field. There’s only 48 places and there’s a hundred players interested. We’re going to have to set criteria by ratings and some people are gonna miss out. The last man in the world rankings category is ranked about 120, as soon as there’s more interest, that’s probably going to go down.’
It is unclear where these 100 players so desperate to sign up have come from considering the LIV couldn’t even lockdown the top 48 players in the world.
However, while he concedes the number of Asian Tour players involved in the series will be reduced as more star power arrives, he insists he will protect ‘at least eight spots’.
Aside from the obvious monetary bonus, the Asian Tour’s alliance with LIV Golf could reap more rewards in terms of exposure and attractiveness to bigger names.
According to Cho, there will be a crossover between the two and he reveals there is the offer to players now suspended from the PGA Tour to use the Asian Tour events as preparation for the major tournaments – providing they aren’t suspended from those in future too.
Controversial figure Patrick Reeds is among the big hitter expected to join in coming weeks
‘The big names playing this week have taken notice of the Asian Tour’s growth,’ he claims.
‘There’s obviously the international series which we do with LIV and events with LIV as the promoter. There’s definitely going to be a crossover where players playing in the bigger events are going to come and play the Asian Tour.
‘If they’re eligible to play our tournaments, they’re more than welcome. We have a category in place for the top 300 in the world to participate in international series events.
‘We’ve also gotten some spots for former major winners, former Ryder Cup players and President’s Cup players. It’d be great to have those guys come over and play on the Asian Tour.’
One of those former major winners who will be needing the warm-up is Mickelson.
Mickelson insisted it was his intention to play the majors when he signed on to the LIV Series
The lefty made his first competitive appearance in four months on Thursday after taking a hiatus following his explosive comments regarding the breakaway.
Mickelson had been linked to LIV Golf but entered a self-imposed exile after facing backlash for admitting he was well aware of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and branded the Saudi’s ‘scary motherf*****s’.
However, his controversial comments appear to be brushed under the carpet along with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as he teed off to loud cheers on the first – with beers even being spilled over the hospitality balcony by his fan club.
‘He’s a big supporter of this concept,’ Cho insists. ‘I guess it was a slip of the tongue back then, but he’s very supportive of the event. I think the Saudis LIV Golf have forgiven him and they want him as part of this going forward.’
Mickelson tees off on the first hole during Round 1 of the LIV Golf Invitational Series
For all the talk of the breakaway series supposedly being for the growth of the game, their actions over the past two weeks have done little to promote or support the women’s game.
LIV Golf are hosting their first event this weekend at the same time as the DP World Tour’s Scandinavian Mixed hosted by Henrik Stenson and Annika Sorenstam.
While they also announced their 48-man field last week, coinciding with the women’s US Open, naturally detracting from their biggest major of the year with the furore.
However, Cho claims the move was by no means intentional as he tried to argue that women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are improving as they can now ‘drive and wear Western clothes’ – how revolutionary.
‘It’s difficult to schedule press releases and press conferences, because there’s so much happening in the world of golf,’ he claims.
The inaugural event is being held the same week as the Scandinavian Mixed hosted by Henrik Stenson (right) and Annika Sorenstam (left)
‘I think they’re doing their best to contribute to the ladies’ game. And I know for a fact that in terms of mass participation in Saudi, there’s a massive drive for women to start playing golf.
‘They’re giving away memberships, they’re giving away golf clubs and really trying to get to the younger population and in particular women to play.
‘The experience that I’ve had in Saudi Arabia and I’ve been there a number of times points to the fact that they’re trying to modernise the country. Women are allowed to drive. They can wear Western clothes if they wish.’
Norman also said last month that the organisation approached both the LPGA and Ladies European Tour with offers of investment.
However, the LPGA denied the claim, telling Golf Channel in a statement: ‘The LPGA Tour has not received an offer from LIV Golf.’
If LIV Golf can’t even back up its claim to be supporting women’s golf on the global stage, how can we be expected to believe the claims Saudi Arabia lifting the oppression of women in its own country?
Cho maintains that the LIV Golf’s investment is nothing but a ‘win-win’ for his tour but hopes that the Asian Tour’s growth means one day they will no longer have to rely on the funds.
‘We’ve certainly already seen it with us having our first event in Europe, which was solely sanctioned by the Asian Tour last week up at Slaley Hall and a lot more planning for events outside of Asia and the Middle East. So we’ve seen an immediate impact there.
Cho is pictured alongside Norman at the Asian Tour’s first event in Europe at Slaley Hall
‘There’s a lot of guys who are here this week in particular, who’ve said that they want to come and play international series events on the Asian tour as well. So getting better players come out to Asia, playing our events is a win-win for everyone.
‘We evaluated it long and hard and for us, it’s quite clearly the best decision we’ve ever made.
‘We’ve always been the younger brother to the European tour where we were always seen as a feeder to it. Players often go off to the European tour and they often go off to the PGA tour, perhaps rightfully so because the prize purse is bigger over there.
‘But hopefully with this new investment in the tour, they can apply their trade to showcase their talents, to play competitive golf in Asia, without having to go over there.
‘Hopefully there’s going to be a lot more interest, hopefully more sponsors and hopefully prize money organically increases as well. We won’t have to rely on the LIV investment solely going forward.’
However, the alliance naturally comes with negative consequences and alongside the accusations of sportwashing, the Asian Tour has already suffered from the fallout.
The R&A revoked its exemption into the 150th Open Championship for the winner of the Asian Tour Order of Merit, won by Sihwan Kim (pictured) this season
The R&A revoked its exemption into the 150th Open Championship for the winner of the Asian Tour Order of Merit and Cho admits he was ‘surprised’ by the move but believes it is in response to their alliance with LIV Golf.
‘Very surprised because it was very late for them to give us that information,’ he says. ‘We’d always relied on that spot being there because we’ve had it for so long.
‘It was certainly a surprise to get that news just weeks before then was the order of merit season.
‘I can’t speak for Martin Slumber and the R&A but we can speculate that it was somewhat connected.’