Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s bottomless well of petrodollars, LIV Golf has boosted the earnings of the top ten golfers by an estimated $370 million since June, bringing their combined haul to a record $650 million over the last 12 months.
The breakaway LIV Golf tour, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion (assets) sovereign wealth fund, is many things. It’s faster than the PGA Tour, with a 54-hole (“LIV” in Roman numerals) format played over three days. It’s louder, with music blaring before tee-off. It’s less frequent, with one-sixth as many events. But mostly it’s richer. LIV Golf is about money. Piles and piles of it.
The government of Saudi Arabia is pumping an estimated $2.4 billion into LIV over the next couple of seasons to get the league off the ground, a big chunk of which is to lure top talent. In total, LIV has boosted the earnings of the ten highest-paid golfers by an estimated $370 million since May, bringing their combined haul to a record $650 million.
“I wanted to be a part of something from the ground up,” says Bryson DeChambeau, who won the U.S. Open in 2020 as a 27-year-old and joined LIV in June. “The resources, the time, the rest and then the enjoyment factor were why I was able to make that jump and wanted to make that jump.”
Sure. But it probably helps that he’s likely getting north of $125 million as a guarantee from LIV, half of which Forbes estimates he received upfront. That $62 million payment has propelled DeChambeau to No. 3 among the world’s highest-paid golfers, with total pretax earnings of $86 million over the past 12 months—and ranks him as the 11th-highest-paid athlete on the planet, ahead of Tom Brady.
The downside? No more PGA Tour, no more Players Championships and no more international competition in the Ryder Cup. Like all other PGA Tour defectors, DeChambeau had his membership suspended. But the Saudi-backed golfers should still be able to compete in the Masters and golf’s three other majors, none of which are run by the PGA Tour.
Two-time major winner Dustin Johnson, who finished tied for sixth at the British Open at St. Andrews this month, did even better than DeChambeau. The 38-year-old pro from South Carolina, who is married to Wayne Gretzky’s daughter Paulina, pocketed $97 million in the last year, including an estimated $62 million signing bonus from LIV in May. The Saudi money makes Johnson the fifth-highest-paid athlete in the world. It was an easy choice, he says: “Play less golf, play for more money—it just made sense.”
The biggest winner of all? Phil Mickelson. With six majors and 45 PGA Tour wins under his belt, the second-most-accomplished golfer of his generation was one of the first to voice support for the new tour. Back in February, he was vilified (and took a subsequent break from playing) after seeming to dismiss Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record in exchange for a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” Several sponsors dropped him. But what does he care? LIV more than made up for it, guaranteeing Mickelson an estimated $200 million, half of which he likely got upfront. In all, the 52-year-old pulled in $138 million in the past year, making him the world’s highest-paid athlete in 2022, edging out soccer superstar Lionel Messi ($130 million).
There are risks. LIV Golf has no major U.S. broadcast partner and barely any event sponsors. The LIV-curious are forced to watch on YouTube. And the tour is incinerating cash. There are limited revenues, and in addition to the enormous signing bonuses and multimillion-dollar-per-event production budgets, LIV has guaranteed $255 million in prize money for 2022. In 2023, that will expand to $405 million for 14 events. “Just like any startup, you’ve got a burn rate, and whether it was, heck, Amazon or Uber or whatever, they’re all burning certain cash up until they reach the point of profitability,” says LIV Golf president and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive Atul Khosla.
The PGA Tour isn’t sitting still. In June, it raised the prize purses of eight tournaments by a collective $53.8 million, with the Players Championship rising to $25 million. On the flip side, the PGA Tour’s hard line against giving its members permission to participate in LIV events has triggered a Department of Justice antitrust investigation.
One golfer who refuses to play LIV’s game: Tiger Woods. LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, known as the Great White Shark during his Hall of Fame playing career, told the Washington Post that Woods rejected a “mind-blowingly enormous” offer in the “high nine digits” from LIV. That decision knocked Woods, who was once the world’s highest-paid athlete ten years running, into unfamiliar territory—he’s now just fifth among the highest-paid golfers, with total earnings of $68 million. He has no regrets. “I just don’t understand it,” he said ahead of the British Open. “I just don’t see how that move is positive in the long term for a lot of these players.”
Additional reporting by Brett Knight.
THE WORLD’S HIGHEST-PAID GOLFERS 2022
#1. $138 mil
AGE: 52 | ON-COURSE: $102 mil • OFF-COURSE: $36 mil
Lefty crossed $1 billion in career earnings thanks to his LIV deal. One of only a handful of players (including Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Vijay Singh and Tom Watson) to earn a lifetime membership on the PGA Tour, Mickelson had that privilege suspended after he joined LIV.
#2. $97 mil
AGE: 38 | ON-COURSE: $68 mil • OFF-COURSE: $29 mil
Now ranked No. 17 in the world, Johnson was the first star to jump to LIV in May, for an estimated $125 million. He cashed out his stake in Bodyarmor for an undisclosed sum in November. Sponsors Adidas and TaylorMade have stuck with him after he resigned from the PGA Tour.
#3. $86 mil
AGE:28 | ON-COURSE: $66 mil • OFF-COURSE: $20 mil
DeChambeau earned $560,000 from his first LIV event in July, nearly triple what he had earned in his seven prior tournaments in 2022.
#4. $69 mil
AGE: 32 | ON-COURSE: $53 mil • OFF-COURSE: $16 mil
Koepka, who has won four majors and nurtures a fierce rivalry with DeChambeau, secured an estimated $100 million guarantee from LIV.
#5. $68 mil
AGE: 46 | ON-COURSE: $43,500 • OFF-COURSE: $68 mil
Golf’s only billionaire, Woods has no need for Saudi money.
#6. $43 mil
AGE: 33 | ON-COURSE: $9 mil • OFF-COURSE: $34 mil
McIlroy has been vocal in his support of the PGA Tour, telling CBS “there’s no room in the golf world for LIV Golf.” It may be paying off. Workday agreed to sponsor the Northern Irishman in February, the same month the software company announced it would not renew its deal with Mickelson.
#7. $42 mil
AGE: 42 | ON-COURSE: $35 mil • OFF-COURSE: $7 mil
The Spaniard, the 2017 Masters champion, was part of the first wave to join the upstart Saudi tour.
#8. $39 mil
AGE: 29 | ON-COURSE: $8 mil • OFF-COURSE: $31 mil
The former world No. 1 reasserted his loyalty to the PGA Tour in July, saying, “Any reports that I am contemplating competing anywhere other than the PGA Tour are categorically untrue.” After signing a new deal, he will remain the face of Under Armour’s golf business through 2029.
#9. $37 mil
AGE: 31 | ON-COURSE: $34 mil • OFF-COURSE: $3 mil
Reed starred for years in the Ryder Cup, earning him the nickname “Captain America.” Now ineligible for the biennial Europe vs. United States contest, he’s flying a new flag: The 31-year-old wore the LIV Golf logo on his hat, collar and sleeve at the British Open.
#10. $34 mil
AGE: 37 | ON-COURSE: $30 mil • OFF-COURSE: $4 mil
In 2011, Schwartzel won $1.4 million in prize money at the Masters, his first and only major championship win. The South African’s victory at LIV’s inaugural London event in June landed him more than triple that sum.
METHODOLOGY: This year’s list of the world’s highest-paid golfers tracks earnings between July 3, 2021, and July 3, 2022, to coincide with the completion of the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic and LIV Golf’s Portland Invitational. The on-course earnings figures include prize money and bonuses, as well as upfront payments for signing on with LIV Golf. Based on conversations with a dozen industry sources, Forbes estimates top-tier LIV players received half of their guarantees upfront while lower-tier players received smaller sums in bulk. The off-course earnings figures are an estimate of sponsorship deals, appearance fees and memorabilia and licensing income for the 12 months leading to July 3, 2022, plus cash returns from any businesses in which the athlete has a significant interest. Bonuses from the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program are included in off-course income. Forbes does not include investment income such as interest payments or dividends but does account for payouts from equity stakes athletes have sold. Forbes does not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees.
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