Rory McIlroy understands why players are joining Saudi-backed breakaway tour

Dustin Johnson will play in the opening event of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series next week in Hertfordshire – with Rory McIlroy admitting he understands the lure.

The former world number one will headline the new competition’s inaugural event at the Centurion Club from June 9-11, just four months after committing himself to the PGA Tour.

Johnson, currently world number 13, is the biggest name so far to announce he will take part and risks sanctions by the PGA, which has not granted members permission to play.

The Centurion Club in Hertfordshire will host next week's opening LIV Golf Series event
The Centurion Club in Hertfordshire will host next week’s opening LIV Golf Series event (Steven Paston/PA)

The 37-year-old American’s agent David Winkle said in a statement: “Dustin has been contemplating the opportunity off-and-on for the past couple of years.

“Ultimately, he decided it was in his and his family’s best interest to pursue it. Dustin has never had any issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him, but in the end, felt this was too compelling to pass up.”

McIlroy sympathised with those who have been criticised for supporting the breakaway tour.

“You know, you have some guys in a position where like they are literally not guaranteed a job next year,” he told a press conference.

“As we’ve seen, it’s a young man’s game nowadays. So someone that isn’t guaranteed their Tour card next year, another entity comes along and says, we’ll guarantee you this amount for three years, plus you’re playing for a ton more prize money, and you’re playing less events, you can spend more time with your family.

Rory McIlroy File Photo
Rory McIlroy understands why players are involved (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I mean, whenever you sit down and look at some of those things, you know, it’s very appealing to some of those guys that are in that position.

“Again, I’m not in that position, and it’s not something that I would do. But you know, you at least have to try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see where they are coming from.”

The winner at the Centurion Club will receive GBP 3million out of a total prize fund of GBP 20m and Johnson will join the likes of Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Kevin Na, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell in a 48-man field.

Johnson had been scheduled to play in the Canadian Open, which also starts next week, but will now line up in the first of eight new worldwide LIV Series events to be held from June to October.

His decision is in conflict with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), which is one of his sponsors as well as the title partner of the Canadian Open.

RBC said in a statement that it was “extremely disappointed” in Johnson’s decision but added: “We wish him well.”

LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman has been heavily criticised for heading up the breakaway tour, with its Saudi investors accused of “sportswashing” their country’s poor human rights record.

But Norman said: “Free agency has finally come to golf. This is an opportunity to start a movement that will change the course of history by bringing new and open competition to the sport we all love.

LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman says the new series 'will change the course of history'
LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman says the new series ‘will change the course of history’ (Matt Morton/PA)

“The desire shown by the players to participate in LIV Golf demonstrates their emphatic belief in our model and confidence in what we’re building for the future.”

The LIV Golf Series will adopt a new format in a bid to make the sport more exciting for fans, with 12 teams of four players contesting in each three-round event to determine team and individual winners.

Amnesty International UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh said the human rights group was “not telling golfers to boycott this tournament”, but that it was a bid by the Saudi authorities to distract from their human rights record.

DP World Tour declined to comment on any possible sanctions for players who compete at Centurion after being denied the required release.