Greg Norman bullish on Premier Golf League’s prospects, with or without Tiger Woods

February 7, 2020
Greg Norman talks during a town hall at the PGA Show.

Greg Norman says the much-buzzed-about Premier Golf League is for real, and he should know, because much of the proposed tour’s structure originated with … yep, Greg Norman.

Norman, who was the face of his own ill-fated would-be world tour in the early 90s, told GOLF.com that he’s been in conversations with the Raine Group, the New York-based investment firm and PGL backer, dating back to late 2018.

“They asked me a few questions — ‘what are the potential hurdles and stopping blocks?'” Norman said. “They were already deep into their business concept and proving it out. [The initial meeting] was just trying to understand a little bit more from someone with experience.”

Norman isn’t working with the league in any official capacity, but at the Saudi Golf Summit last week, he met with the league’s financiers, who are reportedly tied to the Saudi Arabian oil industry. “I’m getting a little bit more of an insight and understanding of it,” Norman said. “Quite honestly, I do love the concept.”

The proposed tour snapped the attention of the golf world in January when golf writer Geoff Shackelford reported that purse amounts on the 18-event, 48-player circuit would run in the neighborhood of $10 million per tournament. The league would reportedly follow a Formula 1-based team model, including four 12-player teams simultaneously competing against one another weekly and together toward a larger, end-of-season prize money pool.

Norman sees several similarities between the PGL and his brainchild, the World Golf Tour: smaller fields, fewer events, bigger purses. Norman even had a TV rights deal negotiated with Fox’s Rupert Murdoch. But the WGT never panned out, partially because the environment of professional golf wasn’t warm to the idea of players as independent contractors, unrestricted by any larger entity.

“I’m not saying I’ve been vindicated, but my concept had legs and the timing was not right, perhaps because of the individuals behind the scenes,” Norman said. “My thought process, my vision was right. It was probably just at the wrong time.”

The PGL came to the attention of several pros early in 2020, shortly after representatives reportedly began making pitches for the league to players.

“I love the PGA Tour, but they definitely, these guys have exploited a couple of holes in the system the way golf at the highest level is nowadays and how it’s sort of transitioned from a competition tour to entertainment,” Rory McIlroy said at the Farmers Insurance Open. Phil Mickelson also sounded intrigued by the PGL, saying, “It seems very well put together. I think a huge aspect of it is about the fans.”

But between cryptic press releases and shadowy ownership, not much is known about how the PGL plans to entice players to join its league. (The Raine Group did not respond to GOLF’s request for comment.) One possibility is money, which the league appears to have no shortage of.

“Why would they rule it out when you actually look at the financials?” Norman asked. “If you’re a player, my gosh, you’re a professional, so you play golf for a living to make money. When you see the compelling numbers that are in front of these guys, you wonder: how could you not pay attention?”

Cash, and lots of it, is the price of admission if you’re trying to challenge the PGA Tour, but Norman says the league has an ace in the hole: the chance for select players to earn ownership equity in PGL teams.

“The whole concept of owning a team, I think that’s brilliant,” he said. “So, as you fade away as a top player, you still own a team, like Formula 1. The whole idea of owning a team is something I wish I’d thought about in my concept.”

If player ownership won’t move the needle, then management is next in the PGL’s crosshairs. Convincing agents and managers that defecting to the PGL is in their clients’ best interest will be essential to the league’s success.

When Shackelford asked Mark Steinberg, Tiger Woods’s agent, about the prospect of the new tour, Steinberg was highly complimentary of the PGA Tour, adding “it’s getting better by the year.” But he didn’t write off the PGL, saying, “you have to listen to everyone and all options.”

While Woods himself hasn’t said anything publicly about the proposed league, it stands to reason that a large portion of the league’s viability among golf fans is tied to its ability to draw a star of Woods’ magnitude into the fold.

Norman, though, sees it differently.

“I’m not talking about the players very much, and that’s because, if the concept is right, the players will always be there,” he said. “These guys are pass-through entities. The Tiger Woods’ of the world, the Rory McIlroy’s, the Koepka’s, the Dustin Johnson’s. These guys are eventually going to move on in time. But the concept is not.”

The would-be league is still two years away from its proposed launch. There’s plenty that can happen in that time, including a reported $700-millon-dollar-per-year network TV deal for the PGA Tour. That contract would throw considerable financial weight back behind the Tour, which seems less than thrilled by the new kid on the block.

“If the Team Golf Concept or another iteration of this structure becomes a reality in 2022 or at any time before or after, our members will have to decide whether they want to continue to be a member of the PGA Tour or play on a new series,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan wrote in a letter to players last week.

Regardless of the Tour’s wishes (or the PGL’s start date), it doesn’t appear the new league is headed to the backburner any time soon.

“There are smart people behind this. The Raine Group, they’re Wall Street geniuses,” Norman said. “They’re not doing this to give away money, they’re doing this to get a return on their investment.”