Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 12, 2022

The PGA Tour Stands Up To Saudi Sportswashing

“Now the battle is well and truly joined.”  Golf fans of a certain age will recall the signature phrase of legendary announcer Peter Alliss.  The “voice of golf” on British television for forty years, and a regular commentator on American broadcasts of the Open Championship, Alliss would often liken the fight for a tournament trophy to a military encounter when a pursuer, with a timely birdie putt or well-executed approach shot, moved to within striking distance of the golfer holding the lead.  Before his broadcasting career Alliss played professionally for two decades, winning twenty times on what would, at the very end of his playing days, officially become the European Tour.  He was also a member of eight Ryder Cup teams for Great Britain, in the days before the inclusion of golfers from continental Europe made the biennial matches more competitive. 

That playing experience gave Alliss a deep respect for the ancient game and its traditions of civility, to go along with his unique ability to distill the drama of a tournament down to a few well-chosen words.  Because of that, on the rare occasion’s broadcaster Alliss criticized players, it was nearly always for their behavior rather than their shotmaking.

Alliss retired from broadcasting in 2015 and passed away two years ago, but both his catchphrase and his demeanor came to mind this week, as professional golf appeared headed for a decidedly uncivil battle, to be fought not on a links but in courtrooms and through press releases.  Tuesday the PGA Tour denied requests from multiple players for releases that would have allowed them to skip the Tour-sponsored RBC Canadian Open the second week in June in favor of the first of eight tournaments announced for this year by putative rival LIV Golf.  Within hours of that announcement, the European Tour, now known for sponsorship purposes as the DP World Tour, followed suit.  The PGA Tour’s decision also left no doubt that any member who plays the LIV event at the Centurion Club in London will face a suspension and possibly loss of their Tour membership.  For its part the startup league, which is funded by billions of the Saudi Investment Fund’s sportswashed dollars, sent out CEO Greg Norman the following day to meet the press and promise legal action.

Whatever momentum the Saudi-funded venture once had in its efforts to woo big name golfers away from the two main tours was largely attributable to Phil Mickelson’s interest in signing on.  As a six-time major winner, including last year’s improbable PGA Championship victory at the age of fifty, and a hugely popular star attraction, Mickelson would have provided cover for other familiar names who were enticed by the fat checks being offered by the new tour.  That all blew up in February, when sportswriter and author Alan Shipnuck released excerpts from his forthcoming biography of Mickelson.  While he did not authorize the book, he did sit for interviews with Shipnuck, and in the portions the writer made public Mickelson characterized the Saudis as “scary motherfuckers to be involved with,” who “killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights.  They execute people over there for being gay.”  Mickelson then asked and answered a rhetorical question about why he would even consider joining the Saudi league, characterizing it as a way to get leverage on the PGA Tour, which he accused of displaying “obnoxious greed.” 

Coming from a golfer who has won just a few dollars shy of $95 million in prize money at PGA Tour events during his career, plus untold millions more from endorsement deals made possible by the play that produced those winnings, the justification seemed especially tone deaf.  In addition to sending Mickelson into a self-imposed exile from which he has yet to emerge, Shipnuck’s revelation of his subject’s brazen and, well, obnoxious reasoning, stopped the Saudi league bandwagon, if there ever was one, in its tracks.

As a result, the players who have either acknowledged or been widely reported as asking for the required conflicting event releases have mostly been older Tour members on the downside of their career arc.  The “former world number one” that Norman has crowed about turned out to be either Martin Kaymer, who was indeed atop the rankings for eight weeks in 2011, or Lee Westwood, whose twenty-two weeks as the top-ranked golfer in the world were sandwiched around Kaymer’s brief tenure.  But the two of them have five PGA Tour titles combined, or one more than Scottie Scheffler has won in the past three months.  The short list of American golfers includes Jason Kokrak and Robert Garrigus, certainly two of the finest golfers in the world simply based on their ability to hold a PGA Tour card, but hardly major draws for fans.

It would be easy to dismiss the LIV Golf Invitational Series as “dead in the water,” to use the phrase Rory McIlroy has employed more than once in assessing the new league’s status.  Yet doing so would almost certainly be unwise, even though Norman did nothing to help his cause this week, when in his media appearance he dismissed the Saudi’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying “we’ve all made mistakes.”

That’s in part because one or more of the golfers who were denied releases to play next month’s LIV event may yet decide to tee it up in London anyway, and then take the PGA Tour to court when he is suspended or loses his card.  While that litigation could take years to unfold and center around dry and dusty legal issues, at its core the lawsuit would challenge the arrangement that has made the PGA Tour so successful for both players and fans, as well as the scores of local charities who benefit from individual tournaments.

But ultimately the greater threat is not from some judge’s decision rendered four years from now, but from the immediacy of Saudi money.  Norman may have been indignant about the PGA Tour’s actions this week, but he was surely ecstatic about his chief sponsor’s commitment of another $2 billion.  LIV Golf may not have a TV contract or any household names in the field when its first tournament tees off next month, but it does have a very healthy bank account.  In the months ahead those funds will surely be deployed to entice that first big star to join Greg Norman and everyone else dutifully scrubbing in this latest Saudi sportswashing effort.  Though Peter Alliss surely would not have approved of such crass behavior, fans of all our games know that money talks.

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