Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 6, 2022

Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall, Who’s The Greediest Of Them All?

The mercenaries got paid.  That is hardly news of course, since it was the plan all along.  More than two dozen members of the PGA and European Tours, including four of the top eleven golfers in the current world rankings, abandoned their home tours this week, lured by undisclosed millions in appearance fees to the aptly named King Abdullah Economic City on the banks of the Red Sea for an Asian Tour event sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund. 

In the case of the PGA Tour members, which included instantly recognizable names like Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, former world number one Dustin Johnson, and perpetual fan favorite Phil Mickelson, among many others, the players were skipping the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.  That event is not just a venerable tour stop played at one of the most distinguished layouts in the United States, but also an important opportunity for many of the titans of American industry whose companies contribute millions in sponsorship fees to the PGA Tour every year to rub shoulders with Tour stars during the four days of pro-am play.  While the CBS cameras dwell on Bill Murray’s antics and the network’s announcers dissect the swing of Mookie Betts, it is the more anonymous CEOs and Board Chairs among the amateur hackers who are of far greater concern to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.

But the field of Tour players the celebrities and business leaders were paired with at Pebble was unusually weak this year, and were it not for a strong opening round by Patrick Cantlay and a weekend charge by Jordan Spieth, many viewers might well have recognized more of the amateurs than the professionals at the top of the leader board Sunday afternoon.

Strictly forbidden on the PGA Tour but common in the rest of the world, appearance fees are a private matter between a golfer who cashes the check and the tournament sponsor who writes it.  Thus, we will never know just how much blood money the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) rinsed through the sportswashing cycle by staging the Saudi International golf tournament.  But however many millions it cost to beef up the field of a tournament that had been abandoned by the European Tour because of the human rights record of the Saudi regime, it appears for the most part to have been money well spent.

Especially at the international level, sportswashing – sponsoring, hosting, or even owning sports events or teams as a means of improving a national or corporate image and diverting attention from unsavory acts – is common.  It is not much of a stretch to suggest that the 17-day winter spectacle now underway in and around Beijing is the practice writ large.  But the Saudi PIF has deployed the tool aggressively, wanting to move discussion away from especially heinous acts.

Created in 1971 to invest the oil-rich kingdom’s wealth, the PIF is run by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of a notoriously authoritarian regime.  The government he leads has been condemned by human rights groups for crackdowns on Saudi activists and for lending support to China’s repression of its minority Uyghur population.  Worst of all, intelligence agencies from multiple countries have identified bin Salman as having authorized the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  Yet last year the English Premier League approved the sale of Newcastle United to a consortium led by the PIF, and more recently the fund stepped forward as the sponsor of a fledgling international golf tour, led by Greg Norman, which is seeking to woo the world’s top players with promises of massive paydays.  All that was before the PIF sought to not just rescue but legitimize a golf tournament that seemed doomed after being dropped by the European Tour.

The success of that effort can be measured by the strength of the Saudi International’s field.  It is the rare week that the PGA Tour’s stop doesn’t offer the most official world rankings points, which are based on strength of field.  But this week the AT&T was a distant second on that score to the Saudi event, which also received considerable airtime on the Golf Channel, not normally a home for Asian Tour coverage.  But the real prize for the PIF came in the reporting on the event, which focused on its dramatic ending, when Harold Varner III improbably sank an eagle putt of more than 90 feet on the final green to catch and pass Bubba Watson for the win.  The stories on both Golf Digest’s and the Golf Channel’s websites had nary a whisper about the PIF’s blatant sportswashing.

It might have been a clean win for bin Salman and the PIF, but for the beyond obnoxious greed of one of the Saudi International’s well-paid American contestants.  It was Mickelson, the reigning PGA Championship titlist, who strode to victory on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island last spring basking in the adulation of thousands of cheering fans.  Throughout his career Mickelson has cultivated an image as a man, or golfer, of the people.  Lefty’s ready if somewhat goofy grin and his thumbs-up salute patterned after Arnold Palmer’s, along with a propensity for shot making equally likely to produce results heroic or horrific, have endeared him to the sports’ faithful since he won his first PGA Tour event while still an amateur, more than thirty years ago. 

But Mickelson rained on the Saudis’ expensive parade by picking this week to remind everyone that he is anything but one of us.  Interviewed by Golf Digest while in Saudi Arabia, Mickelson accused the PGA Tour of greed “beyond obnoxious,” claiming that he had been forced to pay $1 million for the media rights to each edition of “The Match,” the recent made-for-television exhibitions that have featured him with a varying supporting cast.  As Mickelson told it, this rapacious greed on the Tour’s part is what has opened the door to alternatives like the proposed Norman-led tour.

The assertions were, to be polite, untrue.  The rights to broadcast a golf event featuring PGA Tour members are owned – appropriately – by the Tour, as is the case with every major sports league.  This time next week fans won’t have the option of watching the entire Super Bowl on NBC or an isolated view on the Joe Burrow Channel.  Whatever it cost for those rights, the fee was paid by Turner Sports, which broadcast the various iterations of “The Match,” not by Mickelson.  The price was negotiated up front, and Turner executives would not have gone ahead with the event unless they believed it would generate sufficient interest and advertising revenue to offset those and other costs.

As absurd as Mickelson’s claims were, the greater damage was done by his idiotic decision to make them while he was taking Saudi blood money half a world away from this week’s PGA Tour event.  Did he really need that extra boost to his bank account?  For that matter, did any of the golfing mercenaries?  It is worth noting that with his win Harold Varner III will climb into the top 50 in the world rankings for the first time ever.  The victory is just his second as a professional, following a 2016 European Tour title.  Yet despite that meager resume, which includes no PGA Tour wins, his official Tour earnings have averaged more than $1 million a season since he joined the Tour eight years ago.  That of course does not count the million he won with that absurdly unlikely putt, nor whatever he, Mickelson, and the rest each got paid to show up this week and pretend the Saudi Public Investment Fund was just another tournament sponsor.  Seems like professional golf has an ample supply of beyond obnoxious greed.

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