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Dustin Johnson has quit the PGA Tour for controversial new Saudi-backed golf series

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of pro golf's biggest stars, Dustin Johnson, has quit the PGA Tour. The former world No. 1-ranked player made the announcement two days before he is due to compete in a controversial new breakaway golf series backed by Saudi Arabia. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Dustin Johnson - DJ to golf fans - is the most prominent of several players who this week announced their resignations from the PGA Tour. Johnson confirmed his decision at a press conference today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DUSTIN JOHNSON: I've done well on the PGA Tour. I'm very thankful for what they've given me, too.

GOLDMAN: Johnson's made more than $74 million in his 15 years on the tour. But a big attraction of the new Saudi-backed LIV Series is the guaranteed money for all participants. Johnson will make a reported $100 million aside from prize money. Golfer Graeme McDowell says those who criticize LIV players for chasing the money need to remember golf's a business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAEME MCDOWELL: You know, I hate using the word sacrifice. We're out here playing golf for a living. You know, it's a pretty sweet life. But still, you know, you're away from your family 30, 35 weeks a year. It has to be worth it financially. Otherwise, it's a big sacrifice that you're making for no return.

GOLDMAN: But this money is hugely controversial. Critics say LIV golf is another high-priced example of Saudi sportswashing - an attempt by the regime to cover up documented human rights abuses, including the 2018 murder of a Washington Post journalist. Players who've signed on, including popular star Phil Mickelson, have lost sponsors and been asked to defend their involvement.

Other questions persist. Will the PGA Tour, as it's warned, sanction its players if they tee off Thursday at the first LIV event in London? Johnson and the others who quit appear to be making proactive moves to avoid punishment. But if they're no longer tour members, will it prevent them from playing the popular Ryder Cup or major championships, which Johnson and Mickelson say they intend to do? At least one major won't ban them. At next week's U.S. Open, LIV players will be able to compete.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.