Lee Westwood confirmed Wednesday what has long been suspected – that he has asked the PGA and DP World tours for a conflicting-event release to play in the first LIV event next month in England.
“It’s an opportunity to play in a big tournament against some of the best players in the world in England,” he said in an on-camera interview Wednesday with Sky Sports at the British Masters. “I love playing in England in front of the home fans. Any time there are opportunities like that, I feel like I should take it.”
DP World Tour chief executive Keith Pelley has threatened to come down hard on those who asked for releases to play in the inaugural event of the Saudi-backed rebel tour, with speculation that those players could then be ruled out of any future Ryder Cup captaincy. When pressed by Sky Sports, Westwood, 49, said that he didn’t have to think “long and hard” before submitting his request despite the possible repercussions.
“That ball is in the European tour’s court,” he said. “I have no influence over the way they think. I’m an independent contractor, I work for myself, it’s my job, and I have to do what’s right for me.”
LIV officials have said that 15 of the top 100 players in the world have registered for the opening event, though an official field list won’t be released until the end of the month. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has until May 10 to decide whether to grant players’ releases, since the June 9-11 event in England conflicts with the Tour’s RBC Canadian Open. Reigning PGA champion Phil Mickelson said last week that he has also asked for a release.
In an interview this week with ESPN, Greg Norman, who is fronting the breakaway tour, said that Mickelson was still welcome at LIV events despite disparaging comments about the Saudis and that he was merely using the proposed circuit as a way to leverage the PGA Tour. Prior to Mickelson’s comments, Norman said that 30% of the top 50 players in the world had signed up for the league. But during the fallout, many of the game’s top players distanced themselves from the venture and pledged their loyalty to the PGA Tour.
Over the past few months, LIV officials have scrapped plans for the league concept until at least 2024. Instead, they’ve proposed eight tournaments, including five in the U.S., with a total prize fund of $255 million. Per PGA Tour regulations, players will not be granted releases to other events in North America.
When asked by Sky Sports if he had any qualms over where LIV Golf’s funding was coming from – it’s being financed by Saudi Arabia’s controversial Public Investment Fund – Westwood pointed to other sports that have done business in the country, including Formula 1 and boxing, events that were largely seen as sportswashing for some of the country's human-rights violations. The DP World Tour also previously hosted the Saudi International before it became an Asian Tour event.
“We’ve played European Tour events in Saudi Arabia; I’ve had releases from the PGA Tour saying that I go play in Saudi Arabia. It’s been no problem to them in previous years,” Westwood said. “Golf is not the first sport to have links with Saudi Arabia, but it seems to be coming under more scrutiny than anywhere else. So whether you think that’s right or not is the individual’s opinion. …
“I think Saudi Arabia, obviously, they know they’ve got issues – lots of countries around the world have got issues – and I think they’re trying to improve. They’re trying to do it through sport, which a lot of other countries do. I think they’re doing it a lot quicker than some countries are trying to do it, and that maybe worries people or scares people because people don’t like change, do they? They like continuity and things to stay the same.”
Richard Bland, the defending champion at the British Masters who recently broke into the world top 50 at age 49, also said that he has asked for a release but didn’t want to discuss his reasons behind it.
“Yes, I have,” he said, “but right now, this DP World [event] is my 100% focus this week. I want to make a good defense of my title, and we’ll leave it there, if that’s OK with you.”
British Masters host Danny Willett said that the series opener wasn’t a consideration for him but understood every player’s situation is different.
“I think it’s a very difficult one,” he said. “You’ve got guys in massively different situations in age, career, what they have achieved, what stage they are at and I think it definitely suits certain people. So if you feel like you fall into that category, then that’s on you.”