ST. ALBANS, England — Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel banked $4.75 million on Saturday by winning the richest tournament in golf history, while the event's Saudi backers faced renewed backlash after a 9/11 victims' group called for American players to withdraw from the rebel series.
Schwartzel held on for a one-shot victory at the inaugural LIV Golf event near London to secure the $4 million prize for the individual victory — along with another $750,000 from his share of the $3 million purse earned by his four-man Stinger team for topping the leaderboard in that category.
Schwartzel collected more prize money from winning the three-day, 54-hole event than he had from on-course winnings the past four years combined. Not that it could match the sense of sporting achievement he felt after his win more than a decade ago at Augusta National.
"Money is one thing but there you're playing for prestige, history," he said of his triumph at the 2011 Masters, which remains his lone major tournament championship. "Winning a major will always top anything you do."
This hefty paycheck has come at a cost to Schwartzel's career status, having resigned his membership of the PGA Tour to play on the unsanctioned series without a waiver.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could play for that much money in golf," Schwartzel, who had not won a PGA or European tour event since 2016, told the crowd.
Pressed in the news conference, the 37-year-old South African dismissed criticism of the windfall coming from the sovereign wealth fund of Saudia Arabia.
"Where the money comes from ... is not something that I've ever looked at playing in my 20 years career," said Schwartzel, who has two career wins on the PGA Tour and 11 on the European-based circuit now known as the DP World Tour. "I think if I start digging everywhere where we played, you could find fault in anything."
Hennie Du Plessis, who was selected to play for the Stinger team by captain and fellow South African Louis Oosthuizen in the draft, earned $2.875 million by finishing second at Centurion Club, where there was no cut for the 48-player field.
Schwartzel entered the final day with a three-shot lead and did just enough to hold off Du Plessis, winning in wire-to-wire fashion despite closing with a 2-over-par 72 to finish at 7-under 203 overall.
It is the first of eight events in the first year of LIV Golf, which began against the backdrop of the PGA Tour banning players who signed up. The DP World Tour has yet to comment on any sanctions for players who jumped to the series without its approval.
Twenty players have now defected from the PGA Tour, with Patrick Reed the latest former Masters champion confirmed on Saturday as signing up to LIV Golf as the final round was being completed. However, the lucrative rewards for joining the series have not been enough to entice any players ranked in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking.
Reed, who has won almost $37 million in a decade on the PGA Tour, is ranked 36th. The 31-year-old American's only major win was the 2018 Masters.
Having appeared at three Ryder Cups, where he has been one of the brashest characters on the U.S. team, Reed's decision could make him ineligible for selection in the future. He said he would make his debut on the second stop of the LIV Golf series in Portland, Oregon, on June 30-July 2.
Pat Perez, a 46-year-old American who is ranked 168th in the world, also joined Saturday, saying he wants to travel less after 21 years on the PGA Tour.
Saudi Arabia's track record of human rights violations has sparked criticism from groups, including Amnesty International, that the country is "sportswashing" its image by investing in signing up sports stars. LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, who would not speak to the media at the event, called the series a "force for good" in a speech at the victory ceremony, without addressing criticism of the Saudi project.
LIV Golf plays up the financial largesse. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Saudi fund, said on stage that there would be a prize of $54 million for any player who has an implausible round of 54 at an LIV event. The series' name acknowledges its 54-hole events — as opposed to the 72-hole tournaments on the PGA Tour — via the Roman numeral for 54.
For many in the United States, Saudi Arabia will forever be associated with the collapse of the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City, a parallel jetliner attack on the Pentagon in Washington and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. All but four of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, and the Saudi kingdom was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaida and mastermind of the attack.
Terry Strada, the national chairperson of 9/11 Families United, has sent a letter to representatives of LIV Golf stars calling on them to reconsider their participation in the series. Her husband, Tom, died when a hijacked plane flew into the World Trade Center.
"Given Saudi Arabia's role in the death of our loved ones and those injured on 9/11 — your fellow Americans — we are angered that you are so willing to help the Saudis cover up this history in their request for 'respectability,'" Strada wrote, accusing the players of betraying U.S. interests.
Strada's letter was sent to agents for Reed as well as Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Kevin Na.
"When you partner with the Saudis, you become complicit with their whitewash, and help give them the reputational cover they so desperately crave — and are willing to pay handsomely to manufacture," Strada wrote.
"The Saudis do not care about the deep-rooted sportsmanship of golf or its origins as a gentleman's game built upon core values of mutual respect and personal integrity. They care about using professional golf to whitewash their reputation, and they are paying you to help them do it."
Victims' families are trying to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in New York, despite its government's insistence that any allegation of complicity in the terrorist attacks is "categorically false."