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Perspective: The PGA Tour betrayed both its players and fans

Too often, internet outrage seems contrived. But widespread anger at the PGA Tour is about ethics, not optics

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David Puig, Sebastián Muñoz, Mito Pereira, Captain Joaquín Niemann of Torque GC and their caddies celebrate on stage with the team trophy during LIV Golf DC at the Trump National Golf Club.

Team champions David Puig, Sebastián Muñoz, Mito Pereira, Captain Joaquín Niemann of Torque GC and their caddies celebrate on stage with the team trophy during LIV Golf DC at the Trump National Golf Club in Washington Sunday, May 28, 2023, in Sterling, Virginia. The most disruptive year in golf ended Tuesday, June 6, 2023, when the PGA Tour and European tour agreed to a merger with Saudi Arabia’s golf interests, creating a commercial operation designed to unify professional golf around the world.

Chris Trotman, LIV Golf via Associated Press

To hear the PGA Tour tell it, its shocking merger with LIV Golf, a Saudi-bankrolled golf tour, is a triumph of diplomacy, the kind of bridge-building coup that the whole of America could use.

“Conversations about how to heal a divided golf world began two months ago,” the PGA Tour’s website says, and then goes on to talk about “growing” the tour as if it were a major economy, understanding each other and building trust. 

“Where there was once rivalry, there is now unity,” it proudly says, exhibiting the kind of spin the average duffer can only dream about. In fact, if there is unity over the merger, which Donald Trump predicted a year ago and yesterday called a deal that is “big, beautiful and glamorous,” it’s in the largely horrified response to the news on both the left and right.

Deals can be glamorous without being moral, and this one raises troubling ethical questions.

The most obvious, of course, is the PGA Tour’s 180-degree pivot on LIV, which critics rightly say makes the merger look like it’s all about money — not fans, players or even the sport.

A year ago, as players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson left the PGA Tour for the larger paychecks provided by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said that Saudi Arabia was trying to “buy the game of golf.”

“We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that,” Monahan said, adding that the PGA Tour could not compete with the resources of LIV.

That may be true, but “If you can’t beat them, join them” is rarely the basis of sound, moral decisions.

Then there are the poignant objections from the families of those lost or injured in the 9/11 terrorists attacks. The group 9/11 Families United said it was “shocked and deeply offended” by the merger and accused Saudi Arabia of “sportswashing,” the practice of trying to improve a tarnished reputation by participation in sports.

As Sports Illustrated puts it, for countries, sportswashing attempts to present “a sanitized, friendlier version of a political regime or operation.” And Saudi Arabia, with its long list of human rights violations, could certainly stand to benefit from a cozy relationship with the PGA Tour from a public relations standpoint.

The State Department’s list of the country’s “significant human rights issues” is long, and includes unlawful or arbitrary killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative, “particularly severe” restrictions of religious freedom, and the criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity. Saudi Arabia has also come under fire for mass executions and for the killing of Saudi citizen and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Saudi government has denied involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, although 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens and 9/11 families sued the country over the attacks.

You don’t have to believe, as the group says, that the Saudi government spent billions of dollars to fund terrorism “and spread their vitriolic hatred of Americans,” to understand — and share — their objections.

The PGA Tour is not just linking arms with LIV, but giving Saudi Arabia considerable power over the new organization that will be formed. Its chairman will be Yasir al-Rumayyan, managing director of the country’s Public Investment Fund and a confidante of the Saudi crown prince.

As sports columnist Mark Zeigler wrote for the San Diego Union-Tribune, the deal looks more like an acquisition than a merger.

The secrecy of the deal also adds to its stench. Some PGA Tour players have called for Monahan to resign and reportedly expressed outrage in a meeting in which they pointed out that he previously said no players who went to LIV would play for the PGA Tour again.

Many players turned down mind-boggling offers from LIV — reportedly, Tiger Woods declined more than $700 million — and remained loyal to the PGA Tour. Mickelson reportedly took $200 million from LIV in a signing bonus alone, despite his reservations about the relationship with the Saudis (for which he later had to apologize). Now Mickelson and others who left will be back in the fold, with those who chose principles over paychecks and who now feel betrayed.

The PGA Tour doubtless thinks that the uproar will pass — it had to know how the announcement would land. And what follows may be a classic case of cancellation — initial outrage, an ineffectual boycott or two, and then it’s back to business as usual.

Already, a PR firm working for the PGA Tour has ended the relationship, and people on social media are saying they’re not watching golf again.

Too often, internet outrage seems contrived and partisan. But there is cynicism and disgust about this deal that rises above politics. Those disturbed by the deal include former GOP presidential candidate Joe Walsh and U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Democratic congressman in California who said he has already filed legislation seeking to end the PGA Tour’s corporate tax exemption.

Americans find little to agree on these days, but apparently many of us can rally around the idea that countries with troubled human rights records shouldn’t have outsized influence in our sporting games. Thanks for that, at least, PGA Tour.