Sports·The Buzzer

The Super League of golf, explained

CBC Sports' daily newsletter examines how a renegade golf league with very deep pockets is threatening the PGA Tour.

A rebel tour with extremely deep pockets is trying to lure big stars

Phil Mickelson has reportedly been offered $100 million US to join golf's version of the Super League. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

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There's another Super League. For golf.

The European soccer Super League's spectacular and humiliating flameout two weeks ago is not deterring some other very rich people from trying to launch a similar concept in another sport. It appears they might even name it the Super Golf League or Super League Golf, which is either incredibly brave or incredibly tone deaf (or both). Whatever they call it, here's what to know about the renegade circuit that's threatening the golf establishment:

It's not actually a new idea.

Last winter, a British former investment banker named Andy Gardiner began publicly promoting the launch of a new, global pro golf tour he'd been trying to get off the ground for years. Meant for the world's elite players, the Premier Golf League would tee off in January 2022 and, he hoped, one day overtake the PGA Tour. The plan was for 18 events — 10 in the U.S., plus stops in Europe, Asia, Australia and the Middle East — that worked around the existing four majors and the biennial Ryder Cup.

The Premier Golf League would feature several gimmicks. Tournaments would be only 54 holes (instead of the standard 72), with shotgun starts (everyone tees off at the same time, on different holes) for the first two rounds. Players would be grouped into teams of four and compete simultaneously for individual and team prizes. In Gardiner's vision, only the top 48 players would be invited, but golfers could play their way in every year via a soccer-style system of promotion/relegation using the PGA Tour as the lower league.

To convince the best players to jump ship (and play in more events than most of them do now), they'd be offered tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed money, plus $10-million purses at each tournament — below what the majors offer, but more than your standard PGA Tour stop. Gardiner's financial backers included the Saudi Arabian government, whose state-owned investment fund controls an estimated $350 billion US in assets. Pockets that deep get attention, and the buzz about players being pitched grew loud enough that four-time major champion Rory McIlroy felt compelled to say he wouldn't join the new tour. Tiger Woods said he'd been approached, but wouldn't commit one way or the other. Then the pandemic hit, and the idea went dormant.

Now it's back — and as serious as ever.

According to a report yesterday by the British outlet The Telegraph, the Premier Golf League (or Super Golf League, or whatever it ends up being named) has made formal offers guaranteeing between $30-50 million US up front to 11 of the best golfers in the world — including No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who's too old now to be a real contender but remains one of the biggest names in the sport, was reportedly offered $100 million to lead the would-be rebels. Phil sounded today like a guy who's thinking about taking the money, claiming to reporters "I think the fans would love it because they would see the best players play exponentially more times." (What a swell guy, eh? Always thinking of the fans.)

Reportedly, people representing the Saudis have set up shop in Florida, where many pro golfers live, and are pressing top players to sign right away. Their plan now is to tee off in September 2022 — presumably, after the PGA Tour's lucrative FedEx Cup playoffs wrap up.

The PGA Tour seems pretty worried.

To preserve his circuit's dominance, commissioner Jay Monahan is taking the old carrot-and-stick approach. The first carrot went out last fall to the European Tour, after it made it known that the Premier Golf League had approached it with "a very compelling offer to take the Tour to another level but in a different direction," in the words of European Tour CEO Keith Pelley (you might remember him from such jobs as president of TSN, president of the Toronto Argos and president of Rogers Media). The PGA Tour struck a "strategic alliance" with the Euro Tour that involved paying $90 million for a stake in its media arm and gave Monahan a seat on its board. Now here's Pelley in a statement today: "We are aligned with the PGA Tour in opposing, in the strongest possible terms, any proposal for an alternative golf league."

The players got their carrot earlier this year when the PGA Tour began its new Player Impact Program — essentially free money for the biggest stars. Players "earn" their slice of the $40-million bonus pool not merely with their performance on the course but by helping the tour "move the needle" as measured by stuff like Google search popularity and social media "presence." The leader gets $8 million, and 10 players in total get paid. The PGA Tour isn't doing this out of the goodness of its heart. It's clearly an answer to the guaranteed money offered by the rebel tour.

Monahan broke out the stick last night, reportedly, when he met with the players at this week's tour stop in North Carolina and told them that joining the new league would result in an automatic suspension from the PGA Tour and maybe even a lifetime suspension. The organizers of the four majors and the Ryder Cup haven't weighed in yet, so it's unclear whether a player who jumps ship would risk his eligibility in those.

Most players are keeping quiet too, though world No. 2 Justin Thomas said today he's not interested and McIlroy slapped the rebel tour with the harshest possible insult at the moment for a fledgling sports league — he compared it to the soccer Super League.

"They first contacted me back in 2014, so this is seven years down the line and nothing has really changed," McIlroy said. "Maybe the source of the money's changed or the people that are in charge have changed, but nothing has happened. No sponsorship deals, no media deals, no players have signed up, no manufacturers have signed up. There's been so many iterations at this point.

"You go back to what happened last week in Europe with the European Super League in football. People can see it for what it is, which is a money grab."

Rory McIlroy is a vocal opponent of the rebel tour. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Quickly...

The New York Rangers fired their GM and their president. Interesting timing. The team leaked to reporters that Jeff Gorton and John Davidson were let go because owner James Dolan was unhappy with the Rangers' performance this season (they were eliminated from playoff contention on Monday). But the moves comes a day after the Rangers put out a stunning statement calling for NHL Department of Player Safety head George Parros to lose his job because he didn't suspend Washington's Tom Wilson for his role in an on-ice scuffle with the Rangers on Monday night. Read more about the firings here.

Canada is back from the dead at the women's curling world championship. After a 1-5 start, Kerri Einarson's rink won its fourth game in a row today, beating last-place Estonia 10-4. The win moved Canada (5-5) into the sixth and final playoff position, just ahead of China and Denmark (4-4). The Canadians have still only beaten one team with a current winning record — Scotland (5-3) last night. But their next two games are against relative lightweights Denmark and Japan (2-6), so there's renewed hope that they can finish in the all-important top six, which means not only a playoff spot but an automatic berth in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Otherwise, the best curling country in the world would have to suffer the indignity of a last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament. Read more about Canada's comeback at the curling worlds in this story by CBC Sports' Devin Heroux.

The Blue Jays are going back to Buffalo. This was kind of the plan all along, but the team made it official today, announcing it will move its home games from Dunedin, Fla., to Buffalo's Sahlen feeling starting June 1. This is where the Jays played last season, but they're making a few more renos to the minor-league ballpark, including new outfield grass (they upgraded the infield last year), better lighting and moving the bullpens from foul territory to behind the outfield walls. Fans will be allowed at one quarter of the stadium's capacity. The Jays reiterated that they still want to return to Toronto "as soon as it is safe to do so." But with the Canada-U.S. border looking like it might remain closed until late summer or early fall, that might not be in the cards until next season. Read more about the Jays' move back to Buffalo here.

Canada won its fifth medal at the Diving World Cup. Caeli McKay took bronze in the women's 10-metre competition today at the Olympic test event in Tokyo. Meaghan Benfeito, who won bronze in the 10m at the Rio Olympics and is expected to be Canada's top medal contender at the Tokyo Games, did not compete in this event at the World Cup. She and McKay teamed up to win gold in the 10m synchronized event last weekend. Canadian divers have also won silver in the women's 3m synchro and bronze in the men's 10m synchro and solo events. There's one more final left at the Diving World Cup — the men's 3m. The lone Canadian entry is 18-year-old Thomas Ciprick, who will have to get through the semifinal. Watch the final live Thursday at 3 a.m. ET here.

And finally...

The world's oldest person won't be taking part in the Olympic torch relay after all. Not to end on a sour note, but remember back in March when we told you that 118(!)-year-old Kane Tanaka would do a leg near her home in Japan? The plan was for her to cover most of her 100 metres in a wheelchair pushed by family members, but Tanaka wanted to get up and walk the final few steps and pass the torch to the next person. Inspiring stuff. Unfortunately, relay organizers said yesterday that Tanaka and her family decided she should sit this one out. Her health is fine, but with coronavirus cases rising in Japan she'd have to spend two weeks in quarantine after the relay. Can't blame her.

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