Smith, Johnson top stars as expanded LIV Golf season opens

Reigning British Open champion Cameron Smith and two-time major winner Dustin Johnson are among the big names as the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf League opens its 2023 campaign on Friday.

The series of 54-hole events offering record purses of $25 million expands to 14 stops in seven nations, starting at Mexico’s Mayakoba resort.

Several big names were lured to LIV Golf from the US PGA Tour, prompting a PGA ban that set up a court fight scheduled to begin in January 2024.

Top-ranked Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Masters champion Scottie Scheffler were among those who stayed with the PGA as a split in the sport brought chaos, but so far LIV players remain able to play in majors if they qualify.

LIV Golf continues to fight to earn world ranking points, but with new players making the jump the 2023 season could see top talent from LIV and older tours meeting only at the four majors, adding to the tension around April’s Masters showdown at Augusta National.

Johnson won last year’s individual LIV Golf crown after taking a title in Boston with an eagle on the first playoff hole and led an all-American 4Aces squad to the team title.

Australia’s Smith, the 2022 PGA Player of the Year, won his first major title at St. Andrews but made the jump to LIV Golf after the US PGA’s Tour Championship.

Smith captured the Chicago title in September in his second LIV start and in November claimed his third Australian PGA Championship triumph as LIV players remain eligible for DP World Tour events amid an ongoing court battle.

Critics brand LIV Golf as a bid by Saudi Arabia, which backs the circuit via its Public Investment Fund, to “sportswash” its human rights record.

But LIV Golf commissioner Greg Norman sees the league carrying the sport to a younger audience with fast-paced shotgun starts, on-site concerts and increased interaction between stars and fans.

“In less than a year, LIV Golf has reinvigorated the professional game and laid the foundation for the sport’s future,” Norman said.

“Our league format has already begun to build connections with new audiences around the globe. Major champions, current and future Hall of Famers, and up-and-coming stars are all committed to creating this new platform for world-class competition as the sport evolves for the next generation.”

– 13 major winners –

PGA officials have made changes to combat defections, including the creation of elevated events with prize money boosted to $20 million at nine tournaments and to $25 million at the Players Championship.

LIV Golf, however, boasts 13 major winners, including Johnson, Smith, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel.

The series includes stops in April at Adelaide and Singapore, events on back-to-back weekends at the start of July at Spain’s Valderrama and England’s Centurion courses and a November season-ender in Saudi Arabia.

US events include three at courses owned by former US President Donald Trump — May at Trump National near Washington, August at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey, and at Doral in October.

Other US stops include Tucson and Orlando in late March and early April, Tulsa in May, Greenbrier in August and Chicago in September.

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