Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 9, 2022

LIV Grows Bank Accounts, Not Golf

The RBC Canadian Open teed off Thursday morning at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Etobicoke, the one-time city that was incorporated into Toronto a quarter-century ago.  Thanks to COVID, it is the first time Canada’s national men’s golf championship has been played since 2019, which alone guarantees large crowds and an enthusiastic reception for the PGA Tour pros.  On Friday the LPGA’s ShopRite Classic begins in New Jersey, one of just two stops the women’s tour will make this year in the heavily populated northeastern United States.  Meanwhile, almost four thousand miles away, the top men’s and women’s tours in Europe – the DP World Tour and Ladies European Tour – are staging a unique joint event on the west coast of Sweden.  One of the co-leaders of the 156-player field after the first round of the Volvo Car Scandinavian Mixed was both a woman and an amateur, Carolina Melgrati of Italy, who just finished her freshman year at the University of Arizona.

There are, in short, plenty of stories worthy of attention from golf fans and those in the media who make their living covering the sport.  Inevitably though, much of that latter group’s focus on Thursday was on the Centurion Club in London, where a tournament for the obnoxiously greedy got underway with an afternoon shotgun start.  Perhaps that method of starting the event, so familiar to weekend golfers who take part in charity fundraisers held throughout the summer at courses all around the world, is what the LIV Golf Invitational Series means when its marketing materials boast about “growing the game.”  Surely a tournament that begins the same way as a local 18-hole scramble will be deemed relatable and attractive to millions of potential new golf fans.

The truth, which no amount of marketing can disguise, is that the LIV tour’s sole purpose has nothing to do with expanding golf’s appeal.  For what exactly is appealing about a group of golfers, many of them already extremely wealthy, volunteering as money launderers for a nation-state willing to spend whatever it takes to manufacture a positive image?  From Formula One racing to Newcastle United of the English Premier League to heavy investment in eSports, Saudi Arabia has poured money into various athletic endeavors through the country’s Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund controlled by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, the nation’s de facto ruler.  But that track record doesn’t make the scope of Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the LIV tour any less breathtaking.

Like the six events scheduled to follow on LIV’s 2022 schedule, the London tournament features a $25 million purse, payable to a field of just 48 golfers who earn their pay over only 54 holes, not the usual 72.  Those seven tournaments are to be capped off by a championship event that will offer $80 million in prize money.  In contrast, the field in Toronto is playing for $8.7 million, and more than half the golfers will go home empty-handed after missing the 36-hole cut.  There will be no cut at the Centurion Club, and the player who finishes last will win $120,000.  With the richer purse at the final event, scheduled for late October in Miami, a LIV Series member could play just 24 rounds of very bad golf, spread out over five months, and claim roughly $1 million in Saudi riches after finishing dead last in every tournament.

As large as those numbers are, they don’t represent the serious money, which has been reserved for appearance fees going to the players with name recognition.  While no contract amounts have been confirmed, neither have any of the parties denied reports that Dustin Johnson’s five-year contract with the LIV Series is worth $125 million, or that Bryson DeChambeau’s soon to be announced deal carries a similar value, or that those two combined barely match Phil Mickelson’s reported guarantee of $200 million.  All that money, along with smaller but still eye-popping payouts to Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Kevin Na, Sergio Garcia and assorted others, is simply for showing up.  The checks will be good whether the recipients win a tournament or fail to break 80 in a single round.

With numbers like that being heavily discussed the last week or two, it’s easy to forget that at the professional level golf remains a lesser sport.  It’s appeal rests largely on the broad popularity of the game as an active participation sport for fans.  There are many times the number of duffers out on golf courses on any given weekend than there are middle aged men and women playing in local baseball, football, or basketball leagues.  But with annual revenues of just over $1 billion, the PGA Tour is small compared to the NFL, the NBA, or MLB.

So as a business model, the LIV Series makes no sense.  But it doesn’t have to, because the PIF isn’t pouring money into golf and other sports as a business.  It’s doing so to get dupes like 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell to say, as he did this week, that he was “proud” to help the Saudis “use the game of golf to get to where they want to be.”  The comment was made moments after McDowell referred to the murder of a Washington Post journalist as the Khashoggi “situation,” a remarkably polite substitute for the more accurate “execution and dismemberment.” 

As the LIV tour’s field was setting off down the Centurion Club’s fairways following Thursday’s shotgun start, the PGA Tour announced that it had banned the 17 players who defected to tee it up in London from future participation in Tour events.  Those who perhaps thought they might escape punishment by resigning their Tour membership were included, as all PGA Tour events are barred from offering those golfers sponsor’s exemptions.  It was exactly what commissioner Jay Monahan had promised to do, so it came as no surprise.  Nor did the decision of yet another corporate sponsor to cut ties with a player headed to the LIV Series – on Thursday Rocket Mortgage canceled its deal with DeChambeau.

Yet while welcome, actions like these could be overwhelmed by the allure of Saudi cash.  One can bet that Monahan is spending long hours listening to the concerns of the Tour’s top young stars, when he isn’t jawboning the likes of USGA CEO Michael Whan and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.  All of the top ten male golfers in the world, along with those close to that line, have so far remained vocally loyal to the Tour.  At age 33, Rory McIlroy is the oldest of that group.  He and 29-year-old Justin Thomas, who just won his second major, have been especially strong in defense of the PGA Tour.  McIlroy and Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm and Cam Smith, Viktor Hovland and Patrick Cantlay, Colin Morikawa and Sam Burns – these are the players fans pay to see.  Their loyalty, along with that of Tiger Woods, remains Monahan’s strongest defense.

But the trump card is held by those in charge of the four majors, none of which are run by the PGA Tour.  Whan and Ridley, along with the heads of the R&A and PGA of America, must decide how they will respond to the LIV Series.   This week the USGA said LIV players who had qualified would be welcome next week at the U.S. Open, but specifically left open the possibility of changing the criteria for the 2023 tournament at Los Angeles Country Club.  Given the short timeframe, it was a legally sensible decision, though notable for its careful wording.  Still, if the entities behind golf’s majors ultimately decide this isn’t their fight, then in time one, or three, or more of the names listed as stalwarts in the previous paragraph may succumb to the succubus of Saudi cash.  But if, like access to the PGA Tour, the door to the game’s majors is closed to those who have chosen riches over principle, then in time the LIV Series will be remembered as just the latest example of Greg Norman going into the final round with a big lead, only to see it all disappear. When that happens, golf will still have many stories worthy of attention.     

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