Two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson confirmed his move to Saudi-backed LIV Golf on Friday as marquee recruit Henrik Stenson snagged a share of the first-round lead on his debut.
Former world no. 2 Watson, currently ranked 86th, has been sidelined since May and said he won’t actually play on the fledgling circuit until next year as he continues to recover from surgery on his right knee.
“So I should be 100% in the next couple of months,” Watson said in an interview during the live stream of the first round of the LIV Golf Invitational at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey.
“I’m good now, it’s just now getting the leg to loosen up so I can hit the shots full-bore,” he said.
Although he claimed the most recent of his 12 US PGA Tour titles four years ago, Watson remains a fan favorite and is another former major winner to make the leap to the lucrative series that has roiled the golf world.
Sweden’s Stenson was stripped of the European Ryder Cup captaincy last week after confirming his defection to the LIV Golf series spearheaded by Greg Norman.
Stenson birdied his last two holes in a seven-under effort at Bedminster, where he shared the first-round lead with former Masters champion Patrick Reed.
“I have to be extremely pleased with my focus,” Stenson said after a round that featured eight birdies. “It’s been pretty busy the last 10 days, so to come out and be able to focus on the golf as well as I did today — I’m very happy with that.”
The fledgling tour has sparked the ire of both the DP World Tour and the US PGA Tour, luring golfers with $20 million purses this season for its 54-hole, shotgun start events as well as millions in appearance fees for some star names.
European players must be members of the DP World Tour, formerly known as the European Tour, to be eligible to compete for Team Europe in the Ryder Cup, although Stenson has denied that his move to rebel circuit is incompatible with his obligations as Ryder Cup captain .
The third event of LIV’s inaugural season again sparked protests, with families of the 9/11 attacks slamming the enterprise funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund on grounds the kingdom was complicit in the attacks — allegations the Saudi government has denied.
Human rights groups say the series is a “sportswashing” exercise designed to boost Saudi Arabia’s international reputation.
– ‘Very fair’ –
But Watson said he’d heard “nothing but great things” from the golfers who have risked the wrath of the established tours to participate.
Watson said he was particularly attracted to the team aspect of the events, with players part of four-man teams battling for another $5 million in prize money this week.
“It’s not an individual sport any more,” said Watson, who plans to join LIV as a non-playing team captain until he is ready to resume competition.
Stenson said he enjoyed his first LIV experience.
“It’s obviously very fair when we’re all playing at the same time,” he said of the shotgun start, which eliminates the chance of differing weather conditions for early and late starters.
He also enjoyed the fan-friendly but non-traditional touch of music at the practice facilities.
“I do that at home,” he said.