Saudi Arabia. Oil. Jamal Khashoggi. Human rights abuses. Donald Trump. Lingering 9/11 outrage. January 6. “Sports washing.” Department of Justice probe. Charles Barkley.
It all fits, albeit uncomfortably, a big, bulging bundle of disparate parts lashed together by an indestructible cord called … money.
The LIV Golf Tour has arrived.
And in the decorous, clippy-clap, well-played-Sir-Henry world of professional golf, a world of all-quiet-on-the-tee-box etiquette, it is like a swarm of desert locusts invading the members’ locker room.
Armed with billions in Saudi oil money — indeed, from the government’s sovereign wealth fund — the leader of the LIV Tour (pronounced as in “give”), maverick free-spirit Greg Norman, himself a two-time major champion, has for the past few months been poaching from the Professional Golf Association (PGA) roster dozens of golf luminaries to play in a competing rota of events.
What is the allure? In a few words: more money — guaranteed — and less golf.
Saudi Arabia wanted to showcase its innovation and sponsorship of world-class athletes by instituting a golf league to rival the long-established PGA Tour. But, since its launch in March, notwithstanding the recent remarks by President Trump, all anybody can talk about is the country’s history of human rights abuse, its connection to 9/11, and the assassination of Khashoggi — not exactly the publicity the desert kingdom had in mind. So does another effort at “sports washing” — hosting a lavish sports extravaganza designed to wash clean the stain of abuse that covers a nation — flame out miserably. Russia in the Sochi Olympics of 2014, China in 2008 and again earlier this year in the Beijing Winter Olympics — neither country’s world image has undergone much “cleansing” in the meantime. Let’s see how it works for Qatar, when that … ahem … well-known soccer haven hosts the World Cup in November.
The LIV Tour is about money, and nobody anywhere is saying it’s about anything else. Some LIVers are upset at the PGA Tour’s lack of communication, but mostly they’re complaining that the PGA won’t let them cherry-pick between LIV events and PGA (or its sister European tour, the DP World Tour) tournaments and so won’t allow them the best of both worlds. But no larger philosophical principles seem at issue. It’s about one thing, and a good number of top-tier golfers — like NBA stars raking in millions on the backs of Chinese slave labor — don’t seem to care where that one thing comes from.
Some of the poachees are household names: Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio García. Other are household names only in houses that have putting greens in their backyards (Kevin Na, Matthew Wolff, Ian Poulter, et al.), but, in a coup for the new league, Henrik Stenson was brought onboard, the man who holds — or held: He was fired within hours of jumping circuits — the prestigious post of captain of the Europe Ryder Cup team.
As for the money, the figures being thrown around are stratospheric — NFL-quarterback, NBA-superstar level numbers. Mickelson is said to have signed on for $200 million; Johnson and DeChambeau for a reported $125 million each. Jack Nicklaus rejected an $100 million offer to be the face of the new league, and Tiger Woods turned thumbs down on an offer in the “high nine digits” to join the Saudi loop.
So, what is the allure? In a few words: more money — guaranteed — and less golf. Eight events constitute this year’s LIV Tour, the first seven of which will boast a prize cache of $25 million each; $20 million of that will be spread out over 48 golfers. The winner gets $4 million; last place, $120,000. The remaining $5 million will be doled out to teams of players. The tournaments themselves are different, too: They will have a shotgun start, last three days, comprise 54 holes (wherein the LIV Tour derives its name — LIV is the roman numeral for 54), and have no cut.
Compare that to the current PGA regimen. All PGA Tour events last four days, with about half the original entries cut after two. The Masters, in April, offered $15 million in prize money; the winner, Scottie Scheffler, pocketed $2.7 million. The 39 players who missed the cut went home with nothing. The Open, completed earlier this month at St. Andrews, boasted a $14 million purse; the winner, Cameron Smith, earned $2.5 million. Last place got nothing; in fact, 73 players who started on Thursday left empty-handed after Friday’s round.
So far, the battle of the podiums has been a one-sided affair. Mickelson kicked things off by saying this about the Saudis: “They’re scary motherf*****s to get involved with. We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.” Since then, most Tour jumpers have emphasized that their leap was a “business decision” — to wit: less golf, more money, lifelong financial security. The LIV Tour gives them a chance for family time amid their peripatetic lives.
The LIV tour does have a prominent ally in former President Trump. Two of the start-up tour’s eight events will be held at his golf courses, including this weekend’s tournament, the third one, which will be held at Trump Bedminster, in New Jersey. Given that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudis, families of 9/11 victims have objected strenuously to Saudi money bankrolling a golf tournament so near the Twin Towers site. The PGA also bruised the former president’s ego by denying him the honor of hosting this year’s PGA Championship, moving it from Bedminster to a course in Tulsa in response to the events of Jan. 6.
Trump praised recent adjustments the PGA Tour has made to enhance player payout and relax cut policy — adjustments almost certainly made in response to LIV competition. “So INTERESTING to see the PGA Tour finally start to treat its players fairly now that the LIV Tour has opened to such a big BANG,” he said on his new social media app, Truth Social. He also sees a merger as inevitable. Messaged he:
All of those golfers that remain “loyal” to the very disloyal PGA, in all of its different forms, will pay a big price when the inevitable MERGER with LIV comes, and you get nothing but a big “thank you” from PGA officials who are making Millions of Dollars a year.
The PGA doesn’t seem to be thinking merger — it has banned the rebels from its events. This has prompted the Justice Department to announce an investigation into the PGA for possible discrimination against the LIVers. Also, it’s not altogether certain that the four major championships — which all the LIV Tour golfers want to play in — will allow LIVers to compete in future tournaments.
The PGA Tour pros, hurt and irritated, are playing the loyalty card, the tradition card, and are outraged that their peers could walk away from such a good thing. Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm, and other stalwarts have criticized the jumpers. Woods said, “I think that what they’ve done is they’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position.” McIlroy tweeted: “There’s no room in the golf world for LIV Golf. I don’t agree with what LIV is doing. If LIV went away tomorrow I’d be super happy.”
Said Billy Horschel:
They decided to go play a tour and they should go play that tour. They shouldn’t be coming back over here to play the DP World Tour or the PGA Tour. To say that they wanted to also support the PGA Tour or the DP World Tour going forward, while playing the LIV tour, is completely asinine in my opinion.
And Jon Rahm:
Shotgun three days to me is not a golf tournament, no cut. It’s that simple. I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. That’s what I want to see.
The fate of the new league is unclear. It scored a recruitment coup of a different kind last week by hiring David Feherty, resident funnyman of the NBC golf coverage booth, to call the LIV tour, and has even been eyeing Charles Barkley for a chair in that booth. All they need now is a straight man.
And a TV deal. The PGA Tour has locked in media rights with CBS, NBC, and ESPN+ until 2030. Fox is theoretically available to broadcast in America, but Fox bailed on a $1.1 billion agreement to call the U.S. Open not even halfway through its 12-year span in 2020, throwing coverage back to NBC, and doesn’t seem in the mood to jump back into golf.
Fans had to watch the first two LIV Golf tournaments on streaming services, and not many did. Their inaugural event’s final round drew an average of 68,761 eyeballs to YouTube and fewer than 5,000 to Facebook, while 812,000 viewers tuned in to the final round of that week’s PGA tournament on Golf Channel, which ballooned to 2.78 million when CBS took over the coverage.
Normally, start-up leagues without TV deals don’t make money, and they die. This one might survive. The Saudis are not in it to make money.
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