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Johnson, Mickelson to start LIV golf season amid PGA threats, criticism of Saudis

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American Phil Mickelson hits a fairway iron on the first hole of his practice round for the LIV Golf Invitational London on Wednesday in Hemel Hempstead, England. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/814caf604100aa83fedc6b96a7d5a602/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
American Phil Mickelson hits a fairway iron on the first hole of his practice round for the LIV Golf Invitational London on Wednesday in Hemel Hempstead, England. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo

June 8 (UPI) -- Favorite Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson are among the top players who will tee off the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series on Thursday near London, despite potential suspension or expulsion from the PGA Tour.

The LIV Golf Invitational London will run through Saturday at the Centurion Club in Hemel Hempstead, England. The 48-player, 12-team event will stream on the LIVGolf.com and on the league's Facebook page and YouTube channel.

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LIV Golf London coverage will start at 9 a.m. EDT Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

"Ever since I was first introduced to this idea, I thought it was great for the game of golf," Johnson told reporters Tuesday at a news conference. "I was excited about a new format, kind of a new kind of golf that I think is great for the game."

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The PGA Tour said last week that its members would be subject to discipline if they participate in the "Saudi Golf League's London event." A ban also would make the golfers ineligible to compete in the Ryder Cup and could put their status in doubt for major tournaments.

The breakaway league continues to be a controversial topic among golfers because of Saudi Arabia's record of human rights violations.

Mickelson will end a four-month hiatus to compete in the London event. He took the break for the sport after he made controversial comments about the PGA Tour's "greed" and the Saudis' "horrible record on human rights." Mickelson later apologized.

RELATED Phil Mickelson to return for first Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series event

The six-time major winner was asked Wednesday about the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi native Jamal Khashoggi. A U.S. intelligence report from 2021 said that the operation to murder Khashoggi was directly approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

"I don't condone human rights violations at all," Mickelson said. "Nobody here does, throughout the world. I'm certainly aware of what's happened with Jamal Khashoggi, and I think it's terrible.

"I've also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history, and I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good for the game, as well. I'm excited about this opportunity, and that's why I'm here."

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LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman recently told the Washington Post that Tiger Woods was among the golfers who was offered a large financial sum, but declined an invitation to join the PGA Tour rival. Golf legend Jack Nicklaus also declined involvement in the league.

But other active top golfers opted to flee the PGA Tour in what Norman has called golf's "free agency." They will compete for much more lucrative prize purses that those offered by the PGA Tour.

Sources told ESPN, the Telegraph and USA Today on Wednesday that Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed also plan to join LIV Golf, but they are not in the London field.

"You know, golf is a worldwide sport," No. 34 Kevin Na said Tuesday. "I want to play all around the world. I want to be able to reach fans in all parts of the world, and they can still see me live and play.

"Being a free agent gives me that opportunity to play different parts of the world in the game I love to play. I'm looking forward to this new free agency world, and like I stated in my social media, I think this is the beginning of something very cool for the golf world."

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Each of the seven regular-season LIV Golf competitions will offer a prize purse of $25 million, with the same $4 million payout for first place. Winning teams also will split a $3 million prize four ways.

The Players Championship is the most-lucrative PGA Tour tournament, outside of Tour Championship play, with a winner's share of $3.6 million.

Johnson, a former world No. 1 and the No. 15 player in the current Official World Golf Ranking, told reporters Tuesday that he resigned from the PGA Tour. Na also resigned from the U.S.-based league to compete in Hemel Hempstead.

"Yeah, this is something that I thought was best for me and my family, and I'm very excited about playing," Johnson said. "Obviously, this is the first week and yeah, it's something exciting. It's something new. I think it's great for the game of golf. That's why I'm here."

Johnson is the top player in the field, and will serve as one of a dozen captains for the 54-hole, no-cut event.

Mickelson, who said he doesn't plan to resign from the PGA Tour, will serve as a captain. On Wednesday, he would not confirm, or deny, if he had been suspended or banned by the PGA Tour.

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No. 21 Louis Oosthuizen, No. 35 Talor Gooch, No. 57 Sergio Garcia, No. 92 Ian Poulter, No. 139 Sihwan Kim, No. 215 Martin Kaymer, No. 265 Wade Ormsby, No. 327 Peter Uihlein, No. 374 Graeme McDowell and Na will join Johnson and Mickelson (No. 72) as captains in the first LIV Golf event.

"It's just something fresh and fun and speaking personally from my point of view, it's been energizing to kind of have this opportunity in front of us. It's been incredibly polarizing," McDowell said Tuesday.

The league-appointed captains selected three players apiece Tuesday in a tournament draft. Gooch, Oosthuizen, Garcia and Na are among the other favorites to win the individual competition.

The PGA Tour's RBC Canadian Open also tees off Thursday. RBC, the Royal Bank of Canada, announced last week that it ended sponsorships with Johnson and McDowell after their decision to play in LIV Golf London.

The LIV Golf Invitational Portland will be held from June 30 to July 2 at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Ore. Future events are planned this year in Bedminster, N.J., Boston, Chicago, Bangkok, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Miami.

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The courses in Bedminster and Miami are Trump Organization properties.

LIV Golf Invitational London Teams

4 Aces: Dustin Johnson, Shaun Norris, Oliver Bekker and Kevin Yuan

HY Flyers: Phil Mickelson, Justin Harding, Chase Koepka and amateur Ratchanon Chantananuwat

Iron Heads: Kevin Na, Sadom Kaewkanjana, Hideto Tanihara and Viraj Madappa

Majestics: Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Sam Horsfield and Laurie Canter

Cleeks: Martin Kaymer, Pablo Larrazabal, J.C. Ritchie and Ian Snyman

Smash: Sihwan Kim, Scott Vincent, Jinichiro Kozuma and Itthipat Buranatanyarat

Stinger: Louis Oosthuizen, Hennie Du Plessis, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace

Fireballs: Sergio Garcia, Jediah Morgan and amateurs David Puig and James Piot

Niblicks: Graeme McDowell, Bernd Wiesberger, Turk Pettit and Oliver Fisher

Torque: Talor Gooch, Hudson Swafford, Adrian Otaegui and Andy Ogletree

Crushers: Peter Uihlein, Richard Bland, Phachara Khongwatmai and Travis Smyth

Punch: Wade Ormsby, Matt Jones, Ryosuke Kinoshita and Blake Windred

Moments from the LIV Golf Invitational

South African Charl Schwartzel lifts the inaugural LIV trophy at the Centurion Club in Hemel Hempstead, England, on June 11, 2022. Schwartzel won $4 million for winning the event. Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo

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