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THE WORLD DOESN’T NEED RICH GOLFERS MADE EVEN RICHER BY KILLERS
In an uprising that ignores society’s real problems, the conflict between disruptor LIV Golf and the PGA Tour is inappropriate and unappetizing, exacerbated by Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing fortunes
In my town, in your town, even in the towns of Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson — Jupiter and Rancho Santa Fe, double ahem — homeless tents aren’t going away. There are enough, in fact, to line the collective fairways of America’s 15,000 golf courses. So what we don’t need is a controversy about a rival professional tour funded by Saudis who murder targeted enemies, while participating in other human rights atrocities.
Imagine, in 2022, squabbling about whether filthy rich golfers should trigger a politically vile mechanism to become obscenely rich. That’s where we are, unfathomably enough.
While respecting the right of any man, woman or drone to make a buck, the big-ticket names who sell out to the LIV Golf Invitational Series — as in the Roman numeral for 54, as in the reduced number of holes in events with endless monetary enticements and pleasing perks — should be ashamed anyway. The Saudi Arabia government is diving head-first into the same squalid bathwater used by Russia, China and Qatar, a tactic known as sportswashing, an attempt to conceal its violations via the power and charm of elite-level sport. For the same reason Vladimir Putin masterminds massive doping conspiracies to help his Olympic athletes, for the same reason China shines up to host the Games and Qatar opens its stadiums for the World Cup, the Saudis want this to be the first link when we Google their nation:
Johnson took $125 million as a commitment to their league. Mickelson took more than $200 million. Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed snatched the scratch, too. And this Saturday at Centurion Club, outside London, someone will walk away with the $4 million winner’s check from a $25 million total purse in the inaugural LIV tournament. By comparison, the Masters — a piece of sports bedrock nearing its 90th birthday; “a tradition unlike any other,” as Jim Nantz reminds us incessantly every April — paid out $2.7 million this year to winner Scottie Scheffler as part of a record $15 million purse.
Fortunately, in this case, Google doesn’t forget crimes on humanity.
The Saudis are trying to buy and market the world’s greatest golfers as a way of flaunting their financial might and burying their sins. Any self-respecting human would say no, particularly self-respecting top players already blessed with wonderful lives and bulging portfolios. They would cede to screaming consciences that blare the savage reminder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist killed in 2018 after his published condemnation of Saudi rulers.
But Johnson, who only weeks ago rejected any chance of joining the LIV crusade, has piggybacked Mickelson in the money grab. They are the only premier current players who’ve jumped to the other side and resigned from the PGA Tour — so far, anyway. “I’m very thankful for the PGA Tour and everything that it's done for me. This is something that I thought was best for me and my family," Johnson said Tuesday. “I’m very excited about playing. Obviously, this is the first week. It's just something exciting, something new. I think it's great for the game of golf.”
Is it? How? Isn’t it only great for the betterment of Johnson’s quality of life, already flying high above the one-percent threshold? A niche sport that must be unified amid an uncertain future, as Tiger Woods fades away and Mickelson goes off the deep end, has splintered over the almighty dollar when money never will be a problem for the game’s upper crust and middle class. It is incumbent on the PGA Tour to acknowledge the LIV’s largesse and continue to create bigger purses and bonuses. In sports, competition for monopolies usually is a healthy thing, as seen when the AFL challenged the NFL and the ABA challenged the NBA — before you were born, kids.
But not when the competing venture is bankrolled by murderers.
It’s understandable why LIV Golf would interest players out of college, or a fair-to-middling veteran such as Kevin Na, or best-days-behind-them sorts such as Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter. Sure, try to build a bank account or stay relevant on the new circuit, which is offering $255 million in prize money for eight tournaments this year and a $120,000, no-cut guarantee simply for showing up and finishing last.
But Johnson and Mickelson? This is greed at its most grotesque and amnesia at its most unprincipled. The PGA Tour helped both stars and numerous others achieve wealth, fame and historic achievement — including Woods, who summarily rejected an offer of nearly $1 billion to join the upstart operation, even if his body is so battered he can’t play in the U.S. Open next week and might be pondering retirement. If anyone has a legitimate beef, it’s Tiger, who created the boom that led to TV riches for the Tour yet has only $120 million in career winnings. Compare that to Canelo Alvarez, who made $85 million in the boxing ring last year alone; Lionel Messi, who made $75 million on the soccer field; and Steph Curry, who made $45.8 million on the basketball court.
The LIV ringleaders, Mickelson and Saudi frontman Greg Norman, will say it’s exactly why the PGA Tour should be under siege. Again, what is appropriate in theory becomes inappropriate with funding from the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Mickelson lost his popularity, his legacy and his endorsement relationships when he supported the Saudis in a rant about the Tour’s “obnoxious greed,” saying with utter disregard for his thuggish new business partners: “They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as (Tour commissioner Jay Monahan) comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want (the Saudi league) to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the Tour.”
Somehow, Norman only further inflamed tensions as LIV Golf’s chief executive when he said last month of Khashoggi’s assassination: “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.” Like Mickelson, he has tried to soften the remarks, but no amount of backtracking or spin ever will be enough. This week, after telling the Washington Post that “every country has got a cross to bear” — a shot at the United States, no doubt — Norman defended the Saudi government’s sportswashing scheme.
“If you go back into Saudi Arabia, they’re making a cultural change from within to change that. They don’t want to have that stigma sitting over there,” he said. “The generation of kids that I see today on the driving range, they don’t want that stigma going on into generations and their kids. They want to change that culture and they are changing it. And you know how they’re doing it? Golf.”
At least Graeme McDowell, a journeyman from Northern Ireland, has the gumption to voice what he’s getting into. “Take the Khashoggi situation. We all agree that’s reprehensible. Nobody is going to argue that fact,” he said. But a breath later, he was positioning golf as a global elixir, saying, “I really feel like golf is a force of good in the world — I just try to be a great role model to kids. We are not politicians. I know you guys (in the media) hate that expression, but we are really not, unfortunately. We are professional golfers. … 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 kind of what it does globally.”
In truth, McDowell isn’t our focus. As significant figures in golf history, Mickelson and Johnson are drawing our attention as the battle continues. Asked to express his views on Saudi Arabia, Johnson referred to McDowell and mumbled, “I would pretty much say the exact same thing. I’d agree with what Graeme said.”
That’s cowardly. And spoken like a man who will take the $125 million, if not more, and run back with Wayne Gretzky’s Instagramming daughter to Palm Beach County, Fla.
Like all else in golf, the four traditional major championships will carry the most weight in the end. For now, the U.S. Open has chosen to remain just that — open — in allowing Johnson, Mickelson and 10 other exempt players to play outside Boston at The Country Club. In a statement, the U.S. Golf Association explained, “Regarding players who may choose to play in London this week, we simply asked ourselves this question — should a player who had earned his way into the 2022 U.S. Open, via our published field criteria, be pulled out of the field as a result of his decision to play in another event? And we ultimately decided that they should not.”
It remains to be seen if the Masters, PGA Championship and the Open Championship — at St. Andrews, next month — are so inviting. Ultimately, the LIV series will have to prove its worth beyond huge payouts. Norman and the Saudis have no broadcast or streaming rights deal, forced to hand over their debut to YouTube for free. You won’t see a U.S. network locked into a longstanding relationship with the Tour and the majors — CBS, NBC, ESPN — doing any LIV dances. Tell me: Other than rubberneckers and golf junkies, who would set aside a June weekend to watch a bitter Mickelson, an opportunistic Johnson and a bunch of others launch a startup with, fittingly, shotgun starts?
There’s a place in the 21st century for disruptors. But radical change must be accompanied by measures of morality and virtue. The disruptors must not break bread with killers.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.