LIV Golf has spent the past several months trying to secure its own invitation to the exclusive, and critical, Official World Golf Rankings, the system which determines invitations to golf’s four majors.
Now, in a deft move, LIV has decided to join the party as a plus-one, aligning itself with a tour already on the inside.
LIV announced Wednesday it will form a “strategic alliance” with the MENA Tour, a circuit representing (in theory) the Middle East and North Africa. The MENA Tour, designated as a pathway to the Asian Tour, began operations in 2011, but has not held a tournament since the pandemic.
“We are taking this mutually beneficial action to support the game at the developmental level and because of the importance and fairness of LIV golfers qualifying for OWGR points,” said Atul Khosla, LIV Golf president. “We’re pleased to create pathways that give more opportunities for young players, while also giving fans rankings that include all the world’s best golfers.”
With all due respect to the playing opportunities for young players, the second halves of Khosla’s awards are the crucial part of this “strategic alliance.” The MENA Tour is already part of the Official World Golf Rankings’ tour database, and has been since 2016. By designating LIV events, starting with this weekend’s tournament in Bangkok, as part of the MENA Tour, LIV is contending that it’s now part of the OWGR already.
It’s aggressive bureaucratic chess, and it puts the OWGR — and, by association, the PGA Tour and others seeking to block LIV’s certification — on the defensive. LIV Golf and its CEO Greg Norman have essentially forced OWGR into either recognizing LIV tournaments for ranking purposes, or figuring out a legal way to rewrite their own rules protecting the validity of smaller tours.
The OWGR is the key to the one element of professional golf that LIV can’t simply buy its way into: the majors. LIV disrupted the entire golf world earlier this year when it lured many of the game’s biggest names via astounding signing bonuses and tournament purses, all underwritten by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund. LIV quickly grew from 19th-hole grill room joke to existential threat, and the PGA Tour is engaged in legal action against LIV as both plaintiff and defendant.
While LIV’s players, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and defending Open Championship winner Cam Smith, appear content to sidestep PGA Tour events for the foreseeable future, the majors are another story. The history of golf runs through the four majors — the Masters, the PGA Championship, the US Open, and the Open Championship — and for those golfers with an eye on legacy in addition to the bottom line, LIV’s inability to guarantee a route into the majors is a significant drawback.
The OWGR ranks players based on a rolling two-year average, using a formula that awards points based on the strength of field of both tours and tournaments. But since LIV players haven’t had their non-major tournaments counted since they joined LIV in the spring, they’ve seen their rankings plummet. Johnson, for instance, was ranked 12th in the world when he jumped to LIV; he’s now ranked 23rd.
Certain players with past success in majors win exemption regardless of which tour they play; for instance, Johnson, Mickelson and several others, as past Masters champions, will (in theory) be able to travel to Augusta for the rest of their lives. For the rest of the field, the majors select players based on their world rankings — top 50 for the Masters, top 100 for the PGA Championship, for example. One projection from earlier in the summer indicated that notable LIV players like Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed would fall out of the top 50 by the end of the year if they didn’t play in any more OWGR-sanctioned events.
This is why the world rankings are so important, and why LIV is turning to MENA. The MENA Tour alone won’t solve LIV’s challenges in qualifying for majors, but it could stop the statistical bleeding.
The pandemic halted the MENA Tour’s 2020 season after its March 4, 2020 “Journey to Jordan 2” tournament. The season resumed, and concluded, earlier this year with a four-tournament circuit in association with the Asian Development Tour. That year’s winner, Tom Sloman, took home a prize of $28,870, about three zeroes short of what LIV champions could theoretically earn. The MENA Tour’s last full-season winner, Mathiam Keyser, is currently ranked No. 1,473 in the world, or 1,470 spots behind Smith.
As a result, LIV still faces challenges on both legal and mathematical fronts. The MENA Tour is part of the OWGR rankings in only the broadest sense, and carries minuscule statistical weight compared to the PGA Tour and Europe’s DP World Tour.
The OWGR awards points based on both the individual tournament’s merit and the strength of the field. The 2022 Masters, for instance, awarded 100 points to a player’s rolling total, and had a strength of field of 785. This week’s PGA Tour event, the Shriners Children’s Open, has a strength of field of 249.39, and projects to add 42.89 points to the winner. The most recent MENA-only tournament from March 2020 had a strength of field of 0.00, and awarded all of three points to the winner’s total.
OWGR ranks tournaments’ strengths by combining the Individual Strokes Gained World Rating of all players in the field. Theoretically, the strength of the LIV field would raise the ranking of the Bangkok tournament. Smith and Johnson’s presence alone would add more than 3.5 points to the tournament’s rating.
MENA’s website now lists LIV’s Bangkok event as its “next” tournament. (The listing still carried a “$50 entry fee” requirement, probably not a tough ask for the LIV players.) However, as of noon ET on Tuesday, the OWGR had not listed the LIV Bangkok event among its upcoming tournaments.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.