Eye on the prize? Epic turf war has PGA Tour, LIV Golf playing from the rough
LIV Golf, a controversial Saudi-backed competitor to the PGA Tour, is luring players with lucrative purses and payouts
How do you compete against a business that doesn’t care if it makes a profit; and can easily afford not to? That’s the dilemma the PGA Tour faces as it takes on a challenger with the billions it has collected from oil and slave labor and yet wants the world to like them.
If you’re one of those who doesn’t think golf offers much excitement, then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s been happening lately — off the course. There is a full-blown war underway between the established PGA Tour and the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf Tour. It’s old money versus new money (and lots of it).
The LIV — Roman numerals for 54, the number of holes the upstart’s tournaments consist of — offered Phil Mickelsen $200 million merely to join the LIV, and he agreed, even though he confided that he found his employers “scary”; the Saudis nabbed Dustin Johnson by offering him $125 million, which is more money than Tiger Woods has earned during his career; they offered Bryson DeChambeau $100 million and he took it. Just like that, those golfers are going to be paid more than they have earned in their entire careers, just for showing up. So far, LIV has poached about 50 players from the PGA Tour (with more coming), among them Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Talor Gooch, Martin Kaymer, Kevin Na, Ian Poulter, Rickie Fowler, Charl Schwartzel, Patrick Reed and Graeme McDowell.
The Saudis have money to spend and don’t even care if they get a return on their investment, at least not a financial one. The consensus is that they simply want to polish their image for a world that sees Saudi Arabia as a slave state and serial human rights abuser.
It’s called sportswashing — buffing the state’s image through sports (look, we play sports, so we must be normal!). Qatar, another country accused of human rights abuses and slave labor, somehow won the bid to host the 2019 World Track and Field Championships and soccer’s 2022 World Cup even though host city Doha is so hot and inhospitable for athletic events that the marathon for the track championships had to be held at midnight and the World Cup is being pushed back from its normal summer schedule until November and December. Bribery can overcome a lot of obstacles, or so it has been widely reported.
Hitler had the same idea when Germany hosted the 1936 Olympic Games. He was hoping to showcase the greatness of Nazi Germany and the Aryan race (then Jesse Owens showed up).
The LIV Golf series of tournaments is being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world, with estimated assets worth $600 billion. That can buy a lot of golfers.
The Saudis have dumped $2 billion into their new golf venture. They’re offering $255 million in prize money for eight events. In the LIV’s inaugural event in London, $4 million went to the winner and $120,000 to the 48th-place finisher.
The Masters, meanwhile, paid a tournament-record $2.7 million to the winner and $41,100 to the 48th-place finisher. All eight LIV events will offer $25 million in prize money ($20 million to individual players, $5 million to teams) — the Masters offers $15 million. In other words, LIV Golf guarantees every player a six-figure pay day at each event — all 48 entries. There are no cuts.
The prize money will jump to $50 million for the eighth and final tournament of the season.
The PGA Tour, seeing the dilution of its talent and the loss of big names, has responded by banning players who signed with LIV Golf, but how effective will that be? The PGA Tour does not oversee any of the four majors.
The U.S. Open is under the auspices of the USGA, the British Open by The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, the Masters by The Masters, and the PGA Championship by PGA of America (not the same as the PGA Tour). Why should Mickelson care if he can’t play in the Byron Nelson Classic or the Farmers Insurance Open?
For the players, the LIV means fewer tournaments, more time at home, less travel, more money and a break from the way the PGA Tour treats players. What’s the downside?
Well, this is where a lot of the moralizing begins, and it’s what separates, say, the argument that broke out between, say, the NFL and the upstart AFL decades ago. There’s a lot of pontificating about accepting “dirty” money from a country where there is so much human rights abuse.
Amnesty International asserts that Saudi Arabia is guilty of public floggings, torture, rising executions, imprisoning activists, discrimination against women, religious discrimination and forced labor of workers from Bangladesh, India and Nepal (some of them to build athletic facilities).
At an LIV press conference, reporters asked some of the squirming PGA Tour defectors questions such as, “If Vladimir Putin had a tournament would you play there?” Or, “Would you have played in apartheid South Africa.” The Golf Channel ran a story under the headline: “In golf’s turf war, players choose what means most to them: History, money, morality or security.”
Even while Mickelson was agreeing to take Saudi money he was telling his biographer “They’re scary (bleeps) to get involved with. We know they killed (Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal) 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.”
This subject has been an open debate in sports for decades. The Olympic Games have been held in China twice in the last 14 years, and another Olympics was held in Russia eight years ago. The NBA does a lot of business in China while taking highly sanctimonious stands on domestic issues. Probably more than a few of the LIV critics wear shoes made by Nike, which has long been accused of making its products in sweatshops.
The LIV’s money hasn’t been enough to lure Rory McIlroy to sign on. “Look, I’ve lived it — for the top guys, all that money really isn’t going to change their life,” McIlroy told Golf Digest’s Dan Rapaport. “I’m in a way better financial position than I was a decade ago and my life is no different. I still use the same three, four rooms in my house. I just don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions.”
Woods also has not been tempted by the LIV. “I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is,” Woods said a few months ago. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships. … So I have allegiance to the PGA Tour.”
The PGA has a fight on its hands, but not a great argument for keeping players unless it’s the one that radio host Dan Patrick made the other day. “The novelty will wear off,” he said. “It (the LIV) is not interesting golf to me because there’s nothing attached to it. … There’s nothing there. … I want to know what I’m watching. … It’s about tradition.”