Atul Khosla, the veteran sports executive who was expected to guide LIV Golf into the franchise model on which it has staked its viability, has resigned from the venture that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund financed in a challenge to the PGA Tour.
Khosla’s exit, just more than a year after LIV announced his appointment as its chief operating officer, comes as the start-up struggles to gain sustained traction and, confidential records reported by The New York Times this week suggest, is far from reaching the benchmarks that would make it successful.
LIV did not immediately comment on Friday, days after players and agents were privately told that Khosla intended to step down.
Khosla is not the first senior official to leave LIV this year, and the outfit has faced open questions over the future of its commissioner, Greg Norman, a two-time winner of the British Open and a vociferous critic of the PGA Tour’s design. But while a departure by Norman threatened to deprive LIV of one of men’s golf’s most familiar and time-tested voices, Khosla was increasingly seen as the LIV executive most integral to fashioning a way forward and had taken a deep pride in his work.
At the same time, suspicions about the true scope of his power swirled in the weeks before he left LIV. In a recent court filing, the PGA Tour accused the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, as the wealth fund is formally known, of having an outsize role in managing an operation that has attracted a handful of the world’s top players, including Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith.
But even with the defections of those players and some others from the PGA Tour, LIV has not secured the television and sponsorship arrangements that are the lifeblood of top-tier professional sports. Such deals were seen by McKinsey & Company consultants, in an analysis privately prepared for Saudi officials last year, as vital to the new league’s prospects for success.
Moreover, LIV has not achieved other benchmarks identified by McKinsey as crucial to realizing even a “coexistence” with the PGA Tour, including signing most of the world’s top 12 golfers and facing “no/mild response” from the golf establishment.
LIV has insisted, though, that it remains on track as it heads toward a system in which its teams will act as franchises. In a statement to The Times last week, Jonathan Grella, a LIV spokesman, said that it “has repeatedly made clear that our stakeholders take a long-term approach to our business model.”
“Despite the many obstacles put in our path by the PGA Tour, we’re delighted with the success of our beta test year,” Grella said. “And we’re confident that over the next few seasons, the remaining pieces of our business model will come to fruition as planned. Our business plan is built upon a path to profitability. We have a nice, long runway and we’re taking off.”
One week later, word of Khosla’s departure became public.