Saudi Arabia Astroturfs the Golf Course

Saudi Arabia Astroturfs the Golf Course


People who hate golf can be forgiven for knowing nothing about LIV Golf, because people who love golf haven’t been paying close attention, either. LIV—which rhymes with “give”—is a new professional tour, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. LIV‘s Web site describes it as “golf, but louder,” and says it exists to “supercharge the game of golf.” Its player roster, so far, consists almost entirely of has-beens, soon-to-be has-beens, and nobodies, but the PGA Tour is worried about future defections. Last week, it suspended all of its members who signed up for the inaugural LIV tournament and banned them from playing in its own events.

LIV‘s real attraction, for players, is not louder golf but louder money. Each of its eight 2022 tournaments has a purse of twenty-five million dollars—exactly double that of this year’s US Open, which is being held this week, at the Country Club, in Brookline, Massachusetts. At each LIV tournament, those millions are divided among just forty-eight players, with four million going to the winner. The workload is light; LIV Events are fifty-four holes, played over three days, rather than seventy-two, played over four. (LIV is fifty-four in Roman numerals.) The tournaments have a team component in addition to the individual competition: each week’s field is divided into twelve four-man “golf clubs,” which compete for five million dollars. The clubs’ names were created by an advisory group of fourth-grade boys, apparently: Crushers, Fireballs, Hy Flyers, Iron Heads, Punch, Torque, Smash.

The two biggest stars on the LIV roster are Phil Mickelson, who has reportedly been guaranteed two hundred million dollars, and Dustin Johnson, who is rumored to have asked for a jet but to have settled for less. It’s possible that Mickelson, who has been admitted to a gambling addiction, needs the money. The sportswriter Alan Shipnuck, in an unauthorized biography, published last month, concludes that Mickelson lost forty million dollars between 2010 and 2014 alone, based on information from a source familiar with an insider-trading case that Mickelson was implicated in. (Mickelson didn’t go to prison but had to surrender more than a million dollars in stock proceeds and interest. Billy Walters, a friend of Mickelson’s, did go to prison, although Donald Trump commuted his sentence. Walters is also writing a book. )

Johnson’s decision is harder to make sense of. He won the US Open in 2016 and the Masters in 2020, and he was ranked No. 1 in the world as recently as last summer. But he’s thirty-seven, and he’s said that he doesn’t want to play forever. LIV will presumably enable him to retire earlier and richer, although it’s hard to imagine his father-in-law, Wayne Gretzky, making a comparable choice at this stage of his career.

LIV Money is ugly money: the chairman of the Public Investment Fund is Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi leader who, among other human-rights violations, in 2018 sent a fifteen-member hit squad to murder the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (The assassins cut his body into small pieces with a cadaver saw and packed them in suitcases.) The LIV lineup includes Graeme McDowell, who won the US Open in 2010 but has had only sporadic tournament success since then. When he was asked about Khashoggi’s assassination, at a press conference last week, McDowell referred to it as a “situation,” and added, “If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want.” To be, and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.” At a press conference in May, LIV‘s CEO, the former superstar Greg Norman, seemed to view the assassination as a potential teaching moment for bin Salman. “Take ownership of no matter what it is,” he said. “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.” The Saudis hired Norman after being turned down by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Eamon Lynch, a columnist for Golfweek, has described Norman as “the Crown Prince’s finger puppet” and called golfers who signed with LIV Golf “stooges for sportswashing.” Sportswashing is the attempt to improve a vile reputation by investing in popular sports or athletes—which the Saudis have also been accused of doing with Formula 1 racing and Premier League football. Another function of LIV Golf may be to funnel Saudi money to you-know-who, since two of the eight golf courses on the 2022 schedule—one in Florida and one in New Jersey—have “Trump” in their name. If that’s the strategy, it’s consistent with two other recent Saudi investments: two billion dollars in a fund partly managed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a billion dollars in a fund partly managed by Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin. Both of those outlays were made within months of Trump’s grudging departure from the White House.

Fraught relationships with money are nothing new in golf. In 1930, the great amateur Bobby Jones “stormed the supposedly impregnable ‘quadrilateral'” by winning all four of that era’s major tournaments in a single calendar year, a feat unequalled before or since. Then, with no worlds left to conquer, he retired from competition, at the age of twenty-eight.

That, at any rate, is how the story is usually told. In fact, Jones retired at least partly because Warner Bros. had hired him to star in instructional films, and the United States Golf Association ruled that he was therefore no longer an amateur. Jones, who was a lawyer in his day job, looked down on people who played golf for money—he once referred to a typical pro as “an uneducated club servant”—and was unwilling to be labeled a professional in competition. Besides, preserving his amateur status would have been costly. In 1933, his golf-related business ventures paid him more than a hundred thousand dollars, big money in the worst year of the Great Depression, while Paul Runyan, the year’s most successful touring pro, earned less than sixty-five hundred, despite winning nine tournaments. In those days, about the only golfers who got by just by playing golf were the hustlers. Even champions like Runyan had to earn their keep as “sweater folders,” competing only when they were able to take time away from their pro shops. The tournament circuit, such as it was, was a loosely organized extracurricular activity overseen by the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA), which was founded, in 1916, as an alliance of club pros.

In the nineteen-sixties, television and Arnold Palmer helped turn competitive golf into a money sport. As that transformation was occurring, Jack Nicklaus and other star players came to feel that the PGA was too focused on sweater folders and not enough on them. A period of intense internal conflict ensued. The result, ultimately, was the establishment of an entirely separate organization, the confusingly named PGA Tour. By almost any standard, the PGA Tour has been a boon to the world’s most talented professional players. There are thirteen events still to go on its 2022 calendar, but ninety-two of its members have already earned more than a million dollars, sixty-seven of them without having won even one event.

Watching the first LIV The tournament—which was held last week on a nine-year-old golf course thirty miles outside London—was a chore. The broadcast was amateurish, and, in the United States, it was carried only on livgolf.com, YouTube, and a Web site whose name I keep forgetting. Each round’s coverage began with an introductory video, narrated by (of all people) Dennis Quaid. “Evolution can be uncomfortable,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion, “but we love this crazy game enough to try.” One of LIV‘s evolutionary innovations is “shotgun starts”—meaning that the twelve foursomes begin their rounds simultaneously, on twelve different golf holes, rather than setting out, one after another, from the first tee. The advantage of a shotgun start, for someone watching online, is that, from the moment the tournament begins, there’s a lot of simultaneous action. The disadvantage is that the competition never settles into anything like a narrative. The leader could be playing anywhere on the course—maybe on the hardest hole, maybe on the easiest—while his principal rivals are playing somewhere else, without necessarily knowing that they’re his principal rivals. Then, all at once, the whole thing is over, with little sense of a story having built to a climax.

LIV‘s format may be a product of the nightmares of Greg Norman, whose most enduring legacy in golf is probably his spectacular collapse in the final round of the 1996 Masters. He began that round leading by six strokes and ended it losing by five—an eleven-stroke swing in eighteen holes. The winner was Nick Faldo, who was playing with him. If the Masters that year had ended after fifty-four holes, Norman would have won, and, if the tournament had had a shotgun start and a team component, he probably wouldn’t have had to play with Faldo, who hasn’t received As much credit as he deserves for engineering Norman’s implosion, by steadily reeling off brilliant shots as Norman fell apart beside him. (If all four majors in 1986 had lasted just three days, Noman would have stormed Bobby Jones’s “impregnable quadrilateral”—an imaginary achievement sometimes referred to as Norman’s “Saturday Slam.”)

At LIV last week, the only real story was the money; it certainly wasn’t the golf. Just eight of the forty-eight players finished under par—on a course that, to put it mildly, was not the Country Club—and, of those eight, not one managed three under-par rounds. The winner was Charl Schwartzel, a thirty-seven-year-old South African, who won the Masters in 2011 but hasn’t done much in the eleven years since then. His LIV team—called Stinger Golf Club—also won, so his reward for three afternoons of workmanlike golf was $4.75 million. Mickelson, who looked haggard, tied for thirty-third—seventeen strokes behind Schwartzel but fourteen ahead of Andy Ogletree, the 2019 US amateur champion, who got $120,000 for finishing last. That’s not a lot of money, by comparison with what most of the others got, but it quadrupled Ogletree’s career winnings as a pro.

When I mentioned LIV at lunch on Sunday to twenty guys in my regular weekend-golf group, only one said that he had watched even a little. One reason may be that there were three more appealing golf alternatives on regular TV: the Canadian Open, which is on the PGA Tour schedule (and was won by Rory McIlroy, from Northern Ireland); the ShopRite LPGA Classic, which is held on a great old course in New Jersey that most of my friends and I have played (and was won by Brooke Henderson, a Canadian); and the Curtis Cup, a biennial competition between the best amateur women players from the United States and from Great Britain and Ireland. Of those three tournaments, the gem was the Curtis Cup. It was held on one of the world’s greatest courses—Merion Golf Club, outside Philadelphia—and the play was spectacular, even though the Americans dominated from the beginning and none of the players was paid a cent. ♦

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