Held for three years on the European Tour, the Saudi event will be on the Asian Tour schedule in 2022 as part of Greg Norman’s bid to shake up golf by pumping $200 million into the sport in his new role as CEO of LIV Golf Investments.
It was reported last week that the European Tour and PGA Tour would be telling members that they wouldn’t be getting permission to tee up in the $5 million event at Royal Greens Golf Club in King Abdullah Economic City and anyone ignoring that advice would face stern sanctions.
But a list of confirmed players released earlier this week by the Saudi International contained two-time winner Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson, as well as European Ryder Cup players Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell, Paul Casey, Shane Lowry and Tyrrell Hatton.
McIlroy has been consistent in saying he has no desire to play in Saudi Arabia, but the chairman of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, believes players should still have the option to play on tours around the world.
“I think we're independent contractors and we should be able to play where we want to play,” said the four-time major winner, speaking in the Bahamas, where he is among 20 players teeing up in this week’s Hero World Challenge. “So, in my opinion, I think the tour should grant releases.
“It's an Asian Tour event, it's an event that has OWGR rankings, I don't see any reason why they wouldn't. I do see reasons why they wouldn't grant releases.
“But, if they're trying to do what's best for their members and their members are going to a place other than the PGA Tour and being able to earn that money, I feel like we should be able to do that if that's what our personal choice is.
“My personal choice is not to do that, but obviously a lot of players are doing that and I think it's fair to let them do that.”
It is feared that legal battles could ensue if the European Tour and PGA Tour do try to block players. “I think the professional game needs to get to a point where we as professionals need to know where we stand,” added McIlroy.
"Are we actually independent contractors? Are we employed by a certain entity? There's a lot of gray area in that and that's what sort of needs to be sorted out, I think.”
McIlroy believes “most players” share his opinion about releases and also feels the PGA Tour board will be taking that into account. “I think they understand where the players are coming from, too,” he said.
“I think some of the things that you're seeing the Tour put in place are maybe a reaction to some of that sentiment. But my view as a professional golfer is I'm an independent contractor, I should be able to go play where I want if I have the credentials and I have the eligibility to do so.”
Also speaking in the Bahamas, where he is the tournament host, Tiger Woods said on Tuesday that he is “supporting the PGA Tour” over Norman’s plans due to the fact his “legacy” is on the US circuit.
That was a major blow to Norman and McIlroy believes that a proposed Golf Super League could not co-exist with the PGA Tour. “No,” he said of that possibility. “For me, the PGA Tour is the best place in the world to play.
“I'm not saying that the whole thing needs to be blown up and we do a different thing here. I think if people want golf to be more innovative and they want it to be more engaging and they want to see different concepts, there's no reason why the PGA Tour can't do that themselves.
“They have the know-how how to put golf tournaments on, they have all the staff, they have everything, they have the best structure in place to do it.
“I'm certainly not saying that I want anything else to come of this, but there are certain elements to different concepts of professional golf that I do see merits in, but I don't see any reason why the Tour couldn't do it themselves.”
Open champion Collin Morikawa also offered his views on golf’s hot topic as he prepared to cap a memorable year by becoming world No 1, which will happen if he can back up his recent DP World Championship by also landing the title in the Bahamas.
On the proposed team element in a Golf Super League or Premier Golf League, the 24-year-old said: “Anything can happen, right? But you have to think back at like what the PGA Tour has always been and what the sport is.
“It is an individual sport and to change that and to think about all that at 24, knowing that like I'm in the midst of like changing up what professional golf is, it's crazy, right? So stepping out of those lines, stepping out of those comfort zones of what I've dreamt about doing my entire life is kind of weird to think about.
“To be in this position so young, so early on in my career, it's been great, right? But these are decisions that a lot of guys are making. You see some guys or hearing some guys that might be a little older, might be a little later into their careers, want to do this versus the other. Slowly guys are taking their position.”