Cameron Smith defects to LIV golf after conclusion of PGA Tour season

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The LIV Golf Invitational Series announced Tuesday that it was adding Cameron Smith, the world’s second-ranked golfer and this year’s British Open champion, giving the Saudi-backed breakaway league its highest-ranked golfer.

Smith, a 29-year-old Australian, has three wins this season, including the British Open in July and the Players Championship in March. He also has finished in the top 10 in four of his six trips to the Masters — with a tie for third at this year’s tournament — and was 20th at the season-ending Tour Championship, which concluded Sunday.

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Joaquin Niemann also will leave the PGA Tour for LIV, giving him another golfer ranked in the top 20. Niemann is ranked 19th in the world and has two career PGA Tour wins, one of them this year at the Genesis Invitational in California. LIV also announced the additions of Harold Varner III (No. 46 in the world), Cameron Tringale (55), Marc Leishman (62) and Anirban Lahiri (92).

Smith has been rumored to be jumping to LIV for weeks, with speculation that he would receive a nine-figure paycheck simply for joining the new league, which offers a somewhat shorter schedule than the PGA Tour and guaranteed tournament paydays. The next LIV event begins Friday outside Boston, and Smith will join major-championship winners such as Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson.

The PGA Tour has banned players who have defected to LIV, and on Friday, the new league attached its name to an antitrust lawsuit filed by some of its players against the PGA Tour. In the amended complaint, the LIV players say the PGA Tour is “an entrenched monopolist with a vice-grip on professional golf” and that it violated federal antitrust laws in its efforts “to crush nascent competition before it threatens the Tour’s monopoly.”

LIV also is seeking to have its tournaments recognized by the Official World Golf Ranking, which would help its players qualify for major championships (which are not run by the PGA Tour). Without OWGR sanctioning, most of LIV’s players will struggle to qualify for the four biggest tournaments on the professional golf schedule.

Smith and the other recent major winners defecting to LIV — it now features the winners of 12 of the last 24 grand slam events — will not have that problem, at least in the short term and assuming that the major championships do not alter their qualifying rules. By winning the British Open, Smith received a five-year exemption into the other majors, and he has an invitation to play in the British Open until after he turns 60.

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Last week, the PGA Tour announced sweeping changes in an attempt to keep its biggest names from jumping to LIV. The tour’s top 20 players will commit to playing in at least 20 events, including the four majors and the FedEx Cup playoffs, and the tour also beefed up the prize money for four non-major tournaments, offering $20 million in prize money at each. Plus, the tour will expand its Player Impact Program, a bonus system introduced last year as a way to reward players who help promote the game, and will give all of its players a guaranteed minimum of $500,000, mainly to smooth the way for players who might struggle to keep their tour cards (tour rookies will receive the money at the start of the season).

A number of high-level PGA Tour players, such as 2022 rookie of the year contender Cameron Young and former Masters champions Hideki Matsuyama and Adam Scott, were rumored to be mulling a move to LIV but for now are sticking with the more established tour.

“We don’t know who’s going to go after this week or next year,” Young said Sunday at the Tour Championship. “I think there’s a really nice core group of guys that are just going to stay, and a lot of them are highly ranked players in the world. I don’t think the competition on the PGA Tour is going to go downhill significantly.”

The defections of Smith and Niemann to LIV also will open up spots on the International team at the Presidents Cup, which is next month. Smith and Niemann both had earned enough qualifying points to earn places on Captain Trevor Immelman’s team, but their PGA Tour suspensions also apply to the Presidents Cup.

LIV Golf, which has held three tournaments and still has five remaining on this year’s schedule, is funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. LIV’s detractors have criticized it as an attempt to “sportswash” the nation’s shaky human-rights record.

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