Saudi-backed golf tour faces sportswashing charge

STORY: One of the biggest and most controversial shake-ups in golf history got under way Thursday (June 9).

The LIV Golf Invitational Series teed off at the Centurion Club just north of London.

The money on offer from the Saudi-backed venture has lured some of golf’s biggest names away from the established PGA Tour.

Major winners like Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson have agreed to join the series.

Mickelson is reported to be getting a $200 million appearance deal, while Johnson reportedly cashes in $125 million.

But the U.S. PGA tour has threatened participants with unspecified disciplinary action.

Meanwhile human rights campaigners have accused the Saudi organisers of sportswashing - using the event to distract from controversies over the country's record.

Speaking earlier in the week Northern Irish golfer Graeme McDowell said politics was none of his concern:

"I think as golfers, if we tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world that we play golf in, we wouldn't play a lot of golf. It's a really hard question to answer. We're just here to focus on the golf and to have what it does globally for the role models that these guys are and that we are."

The Centurion competition is the first of eight events.

It takes place during the PGA’s Canadian Open.

That event is one of the world’s oldest continuously running golf competitions and offers more established prestige.

But the Centurion event's purse of $25 million is almost triple the $8.7 million on offer from the Canadian Open.

The money hasn’t pulled away all the big names, though.

Reports say Jack Nicklaus turned down a $100 million offer to be the face of the series.

Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy also stuck with the PGA and will look to defend his Canadian Open title.

He warned LIV Golf defectors that decisions made purely for money motives usually don't work out well.