The most intriguing man in golf is on the phone from London.
Andy Gardiner, the 49-year old English brainchild/visionary/disruptor behind the proposed Premier Golf League, is talking about the concept he created, which he and others believe can transform professional golf as we know it.
What Gardiner and his supporters/investors envision – a 48-player, team-golf concept with 18 no-cut, 54-hole tournaments with $20 million purses, shotgun starts to assure five-hour broadcast windows and immense financial guarantees to players – is an audacious proposal.
Gardiner’s ties to professional golf stem from business relationships created by the Development Capital Group he built in the late 1990s. And after months of rumors, speculation and innuendo, his group officially debuted their vision last week through a website (premiergolfleague.com), a Twitter account (@premiergolfleague), a letter posted to social media and a calculated media blitz.
Gardiner, a former corporate finance lawyer, believes professional golf can be better than it is. He is, at heart, a golf fan and he says that is what has driven him for six-plus years to create a new model for the professional game. As Gardiner answers a series of questions, with more generalities than specifics, his passion and commitment are undeniable.
The intention is to begin play in January 2023. Whether it happens or not remains to be seen but Gardiner and his group believe a good thing can be better.
“Our intentions are entirely honorable,” Gardiner says.
For months, there has been smoke from a distant fire, the scent of something burning on the edge of the game. Bits and pieces have come to light about the concept – pulling the top players into an entirely new organization to play individual and team competition simultaneously – but until last week the PGL had not officially released anything.
That changed, and it was like the first notes to a song being played.
“There was so much being written and said about us, this is the first time we made the decision to share,” Gardiner says.
There have been reports for months about eight-figure offers to top players to join a new initiative. This, Gardiner stresses, is not tied to the Super Golf League being proposed by people from Saudi Arabia, but he doesn’t deny there were earlier talks with Saudi representatives.
Skeptics question whether the Saudi influence remains.
“We’ve spoken to numerous large funds around the world over the last two years including some of the very largest,” Gardiner says. “Part of that conversation for a time was with interests in Saudi Arabia. We were talking about a group coming in as minority shareholders. It didn’t happen.
“We took a different path.”
Names of who is in, who is out and who is on the fence have been thrown about in the media – Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Adam Scott and Justin Rose are a few rumored to be at least intrigued – but Gardiner isn’t saying.
Meanwhile, a meeting between representatives of the Saudi-backed Super Golf League and some player managers at last month's PGA Championship did not go well according to multiple people in the meeting.
The Saudi group apparently now is considering an investment in the Asian Tour, according to a source.
Let’s take a step back to explain how Gardiner and the golf world got to where they are today.
Gardiner himself is an avid golfer, though he says he’s not a particularly good player. What matters, he says, is the passion he shares with many others, including many of his friends who happen to be members of influential clubs throughout the game.
During a golf trip several years ago, Gardiner asked if the professional game was as good as it could be.
“I said, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ ” Gardiner recalls. “They went, ‘Go on, man.’ I said, ‘What’s the best that golf can be? Even with friends, let’s see their reaction. Some might say you’re a lunatic.’
“Some of those friends were messaging me this week saying, ‘Crikey, we can remember where this began. In this pub, on this day.’ ”
Gardiner understands how it looks at first glance – like a game-altering idea that changes professional golf as we know it. Well, yes and no.
Ideally, Gardiner and his group of 60-plus
investors want to create this with the buy-in from the PGA Tour, the European
Tour, the LPGA Tour, the PGA of America and others. That’s why Gardiner sent
letters to the leadership of those organizations including the PGA Tour’s Advisory Council and its Policy Board last week, in an attempt to at
least open discussion about a way forward. He is likely to be disappointed by
the lack of response from those organizations.
There is a strong argument to be made that professional golf is in a good place now. The PGA Tour has new media deals in the United States and worldwide that will bring in billions of dollars. The PGA Tour’s international television deal
with Discovery network and its United States media-rights deal both now extend
through 2030. The two major men’s golf tours struck an alliance in late 2020, and they have made it known they aren’t interested in what Gardiner and others are selling.
Whether the players are is still the biggest
question. It is unclear if rumored
eight-figure bonuses are part of the PGL plan. At least one prominent figure
within the game told GGP those
reports are incorrect.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan reportedly has told players privately that if they join the PGL they will lose their PGA Tour membership and all that comes with it. Whether those players would be eligible for major championships and the Ryder Cup is in question.
Some top players, including Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, already have declared their loyalty to the PGA Tour. Others have not been as definitive. Lee Westwood, now 48 years old, said if someone offered him $50 million to play golf for a few years, it would “be a no-brainer.”
Gardiner insists his group wants to, in effect, build bridges rather than fences. By September, Gardiner says, he hopes to announce the first group of players committed to joining the PGL.
“That very much depends on how our discussions go with the community we’re trying to embrace,” Gardiner said. “If those discussions go well, players will finally get their choice.
“It’s always the players’ choice to play where they want in whatever format. But a real freedom of choice only comes when you can make that decision without the fear of anything else that might happen. Of course, I’m talking about the fear of being banned.
“The PGA Tour has never actually said out loud or in the press that is their intent. In our conversations with players, they do have that concern. One way or another we will address that concern.”
During a 45-minute conversation, Gardiner talked often about “the community.”
He means the status quo in professional golf. The goal, Gardiner suggests, isn’t to blow up what exists but to change it. Privately, two leaders of major international golf organizations question whether the PGL initiative can succeed. Another said Gardiner’s group offered the European Tour a substantial amount of money in 2019 before that tour’s alliance with the PGA Tour.
One prominent executive said a press release and website don’t make it real. Another said if it’s such a great idea, why has it taken six years to get to this point?
Gardiner counters with his own arguments.
Asked about television and streaming agreements, the lifeblood of the major tours, he said:
“This has been described by sponsors and broadcasters as effectively nirvana to those types of parties,” Gardiner said. “We first went to sponsors and said, ‘How happy are you with golf? Is it working for you?’
“After half a dozen conversations (with television and sponsor executives) various themes were developing. The first theme was we’d like to know who is going to be playing every week. If we manage to get someone to a tournament we don’t want them to go home on a Friday night ideally. All these elements of the league have come from talking to those who are responsible for funding professional golf.
“There isn’t a single broadcaster in the U.S. who has looked at this and hasn’t said, ‘Yeah, well that’s better. Not only better for us as broadcasters but better for the game.’ ”
What may ultimately determine the fate of the Premier Golf League is whether it’s something fans and players truly want.
But when asked by GGP if there is room for, or appetite
for, a premier golf league on American airwaves, one senior television
executive answered with one word: “Zero.”
What Gardiner and his group are proposing – guaranteeing big-money contracts to 48 of the top players in the world and underwriting a series of tournaments with purses bigger than anything the game has seen – is eye-catching. Remember the old adage to follow the money.
As Westwood made clear, that’s important here. One PGA Tour player also said privately that if the PGL offered him $20 million across several years, he’s on his way.
So does the PGL really have the money it needs to start?
“It’s been said and put in writing that our shareholder base is diverse,” Gardiner said. “There are over 60 shareholders. There are a number of them that would be capable of funding our entire capital requirements on their own.
“We have others waiting in the wings.”
That’s another way of saying if money is a potential problem, then the PGL doesn’t have a problem.
“I want people focused on the key issue: Is this in the best interest of the game? If it is, then let’s have a conversation,” Gardiner said. “If the conversation goes well, then everybody does well. If it doesn’t we’ll go to Plan B, we’ll go to Plan C.”
When the PGA Tour’s $40 million Player Impact Program was revealed, it was a thinly veiled response to the looming threat from the PGL. It was another way to compensate the players who drive the professional game. Also, in late 2020 the PGA Tour and the European Tour announced an alliance to further strengthen their position.
What may ultimately determine the fate of the Premier Golf League is whether it’s something fans and players truly want. The game is built on history. Major championship victories define careers. There is a shared lineage through the game, a sport and story built on decades of what’s happened before.
There is a shared equity that stretches across generations. Would enough players abandon the PGA and European Tours to start something from scratch with no guarantee of anything but a rich contract?
Years ago, the structure of professional tennis changed. So did Formula 1 auto racing. Could golf be next?
“Golf is the last of the global sports that remains sort of stuck where it was back in ’68,” Gardiner said. “Eventually they will give the fans a global tour with the best players. It dawned on me it wasn’t going to happen unless we were the catalyst and we remain the catalyst.
“Now what we’re doing is we know the views of all the key parties. Wouldn’t it be great if this came together as a joint venture so nobody felt let down?
“The tours can do very well out of it. I talk about building trust. Trust is key. Give us the opportunity to show you what our model generates for the game but also in terms of value. There’s an awful lot of value to be generated and it can be shared in a way that is fair and equitable …
“This is not about destruction. This is about protecting and strengthening the entire pyramid with the PGL ideally being owned by the community but at the top of the pyramid.
“It’s more 10, 20, 30 years down the line, if I’m fortunate to still be around, the sense of pride when you’ve done something good. That’s more important than anything else.
“So long as this remains something that a majority of people that genuinely love the game think it’s in its best interest then we will continue to try and embrace the community.”
What is less clear is whether that
attempt to embrace will produce anything but skepticism.
“They have no players, no media partners, no venues,
no sponsors,” one high-ranking administrator in the community told GGP.
For the time being, Gardiner says he intends to sit back and enjoy the U.S. Open. He says he loves the game and respects the American national championship too much to distract from it.
When the U.S. Open is over, Gardiner says, the effort to build trust in what he and his group are proposing will be renewed. The question is simple.
“It’s a discussion to say quite simply, ‘Is it good? Is it something that will draw more fans to the game? Is it therefore something which is in the best long-term interest of the game of golf?’ And I’m talking decades,” Gardiner said.
The answer is still out there and the phone call from London clicks off.