Saudi Arabia’s contentious effort to buy its way into professional golf created a new flash point in the sport on Wednesday with the announcement that Europe’s team for next year’s Ryder Cup was dropping its captain, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, just ahead of his expected move to the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series.
Stenson, whose affiliation with LIV Golf was announced Wednesday afternoon, became the latest player lured by the riches being offered by the series, which has upended the once polite world of professional golf since hosting its first event earlier this summer.
By guaranteeing players more money than they could earn in the biggest tours and tournaments that make up the traditional golf calendar, the LIV series has created an ugly fissure in the golf world. The fight has split golf into two camps: a group of traditionalists that includes some of the sport’s titans, including champions like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, and a growing band of rebels, a group that includes Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and, now, Stenson, who won his only major championship at the 2016 British Open.
“In light of decisions made by Henrik in relation to his personal circumstances, it has become clear that he will not be able to fulfill certain contractual obligations to Ryder Cup Europe that he had committed to prior to his announcement as Captain on Tuesday March 15, 2022, and it is therefore not possible for him to continue in the role of Captain,” Europe’s Ryder Cup team said in a statement. The announcement did not specifically reference Stenson’s expected defection to LIV.
The Ryder Cup, a wildly popular event that pits a team of United States players against a European squad, is set to be played at the Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Rome next September. European officials said Stenson’s ouster would take place “with immediate effect,” and that they would name a new captain soon.
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In a statement announcing he had joined LIV, Stenson said he had made arrangements with the series that would allow him to continue as Ryder Cup captain and disagreed with his removal.
“It goes without saying that I remain on hand to support Ryder Cup Europe in any way I can and very much hope the opportunity to represent Team Europe in some capacity will come my way again at some point in the future,” he wrote.
The LIV Golf series has started fires across the golfing spectrum, with the main tours in the United States and Europe barring any players who compete in LIV events. That dispute has sparked a legal fight in the United States, where the Justice Department earlier this month announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior in its dealings with the upstart competition.
While its events have created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played — LIV tournaments feature no cuts, millions of dollars in guaranteed prize money and are played over 54 holes rather than the usual 72 — the series also has become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Earlier this week, relatives of people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, wrote to former President Donald J. Trump, urging him to cancel an event set to be held later this month at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey. The event is one of two set to be played at Trump-owned courses; the LIV Golf series finale in October is scheduled for Trump National Doral in Florida.
“We simply cannot understand how you could agree to accept money from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s golf league to host their tournament at your golf course, and to do so in the shadows of ground zero in New Jersey, which lost over 700 residents during the attacks,” the family members wrote in their letter, which noted that even Trump had in the past blamed Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks.
“It is incomprehensible to us that a former president of the United States would cast our loved ones aside for personal financial gain,” the letter to Trump continued. “We hope you will reconsider your business relationship with the Saudi golf league and will agree to meet with us.”
Brett Eagleson, the president of 9/11 Justice, the group that sent the letter, said Sunday that he had not received a response.
Trump, though, weighed in on the LIV Golf feud on his social media site, Truth Social, on Tuesday. In a brief post, he criticized the PGA Tour and told players to “take the money now.”
“All of those golfers that remain ‘loyal’ to the very disloyal PGA, in all of its different forms, will pay a big price when the inevitable MERGER with LIV comes,” Trump wrote. He said a merger between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour was “inevitable.”
“If you don’t take the money now,” Trump wrote, “you will get nothing after the merger takes place, and only say how smart the original signees were.”
The LIV circuit, backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has billions of dollars at its disposal. It already has used its wealth to poach star names with eye-watering signing on fees. Mickelson, a six-time major winner, reportedly received $200 million to join, and DeChambeau recently suggested on a podcast that his deal with the series was worth more than $125 million. The series is being led by the Australian Greg Norman, whose central role in luring talent has led him to becoming a pariah figure within the golf establishment. He was barred from this year’s edition of the British Open, for example, despite being a past winner of the tournament.