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‘The LIV Golf story: Billions, birdies and bust-ups’

Senior official Atul Khosla’s surprise departure from LIV Golf is the latest twist in an ongoing saga that has rocked men’s professional golf in 2022 like never before.

Khosla’s resignation this month as chief operating officer of the lucrative breakaway circuit was unexpected and follows calls by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy for LIV’s chief executive Greg Norman to stand down.

The soap opera shows little sign of slowing. The arrival of this Saudi Arabia-funded circuit has prompted unprecedented levels of controversy, rancour and uncertainty. 

This is in stark contrast to the normal way of things in the apparently seamless and serenely run game of golf.

‘The LIV Golf story: Billions, birdies and bust-ups’, charts these remarkable developments and is available on BBC Sounds.

The programme hears from key personalities involved in the LIV project, as well as journalists who have worked most closely on the story. 

It has resulted in the likes of Open champion Cameron Smith defecting from the status quo and 2021 PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson turning from hero to pariah when the controversy raged in the early part of 2022.

“LIV Golf has been fantastic for me,” former world number one Martin Kaymer, who turned his back on the DP World and PGA Tours, told the programme.

“I needed something new in my career. Doing this for 15 years, playing on both tours – now having a family – I needed something else and then LIV Golf popped up and I thought that’s for me.”

But the German admitted defecting was not a straightforward decision. “It was very difficult because you don’t know how the PGA Tour, the European Tour would react,” he said. 

“Do you want to live with those consequences? 

“But I believed what the guys said out here. When I spoke to Greg Norman and his staff I trusted them with their approach and with their vision.”

LIV players have been suspended indefinitely from the PGA Tour while the status of golfers such as Kaymer, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood on the European-based DP World Tour will be subject to legal proceedings next February. 

“I can really well live with the consequences because I have done more than I ever hoped for in my career,” Kaymer claims. “I would like to continue with majors and Ryder Cups but obviously that’s not up to us any more.”

The 37-year-old believes major events such as The Open, Masters, US Open and PGA Championship as well as the Ryder Cup – for American and European players – should remain available to LIV golfers.

But there are staunch opponents including Woods and McIlroy, as well as tour hierarchies who firmly believe the opposite should apply. 

Fans at LIV’s season-ending team championship in Florida said that LIV, with its 54-hole shotgun start format, is “definitely what the golf world needed”.

Donald Trump, the former US president whose courses have staged two LIV events so far, told the show he is a big fan. “You know, it’s unlimited money,” he said over music blaring across his Doral Blue Monster course in Miami.

“They actually love golf and the Saudis have done a fantastic job. The enthusiasm, it’s different, you hear the music. We’re having a good time.”

Trump, who is is seeking to become US president again in 2024, added: “Ultimately something might get worked out but the tour mishandled it so badly.” 

The programme also hears from recreational golfer Pat McCabe, who protests against LIV, citing Saudi Arabia’s links with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Kingdom’s track record on women’s rights.

“The Saudi government, through its public investment fund, has decided to spend billions of dollars in the US to basically make them look like good guys,” said McCabe.

He is also scathing about the motivation behind players decisions to sign for LIV.

“It’s just a brazen attempt to get money,” he said. “Somebody’s got to stand up and say it’s morally wrong and that’s why I’m here.”

LIV’s initial season was a series of eight invitational events which started last June at the Centurion Club near Hemel Hempstead. 

It has surprised many with the quality of its recruits, having been branded by staunch opponent McIlroy as “dead in the water” earlier in the year. 

Those who have signed up include major champions and Ryder Cup heroes. Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson are among the big US names, while Europeans including Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell, Poulter and Westwood have also jumped over.

But so far recruitment has fallen short of what will be needed to make the project viable, according to a New York Times report last week. 

It suggested secret analysis had shown a need to recruit the top dozen players in the world as well as 15-times major champion Woods. On current trajectory, the report claims, it could lose $355m (£292m) before interest and taxes in 2028.

“Our business plan is built upon a path to profitability,” LIV spokesman Jonathan Grella said in a statement quoted by the NY Times. “We have a nice, long runway and we’re taking off.”

This year LIV shelled out about $750m (£615m) and sports industry veteran Khosla was expected to steer the business towards a franchise model for its team element.

This is where the process of making a return is due to begin. Signing a television deal, with tournaments so far having been streamed on YouTube and the LIV website, would be another vital component. 

“I do expect that we will find ourselves with a TV partner both in the US and with multiple partners internationally, so we are progressing down that path,” Khosla said in an interview for the 5 Live programme prior to his resignation.

“Our investors are absolutely looking for a return,” he added. 

Khosla, like Trump, was also convinced LIV would be announcing new playing recruits for the $405m (£332m) 14 tournament season planned for next year. 

So far, though, there have been no newcomers. The only movement is the departure of Khosla.

Norman called that “a personal decision” but it is one that provides yet more intrigue to a story that has fascinated golf fans throughout the year. It has a long way still to run.