Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf is just more big-time sports as usual

Throughout 2022, LIV Golf, underwritten by Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion Public Investment Fund, has battled with the PGA Tour for the services of the best golfers in the world. As spring turned to summer, the stakes got progressively higher, with LIV Golf signing some of the most recognizable names in the sport, such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, to enormous guaranteed contracts in the range of eight to nine figures and hosting events that pay last-place finishers in the 48-man field as much as most PGA Tour events pay top-10 finishers.

Threatened by their first serious market rival in decades, PGA Tour officials have upped the rhetorical stakes, banning LIV players from participating in tour events, paying nearly half a million dollars to lobbyists working to shift legislative and executive opinions prior to antitrust litigation brought against them hitting the courts in September 2023, and accusing LIV CEO Greg Norman and his roster of all-star golfers of “sportswashing” the crimes of a Saudi administration that was likely complicit in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi (it bears mentioning that the country’s participation in the Yemeni Civil War, which has killed tens of thousands, has received considerably less attention from those serving up this critique).

All this sound and fury from the PGA Tour obscures a fundamental truth: LIV Golf, the name is the roman numeral for 54, corresponding to the fact that the players complete three-day, 54-hole events, has upset the applecart not because it is backed by Saudi money but because it is extraordinarily well capitalized and therefore not behaving like so many past strapped-for-cash startup sports organizations that have tried to topple established professional leagues. Think of the USFL in the 1980s and the XFL in the 2000s in the case of the NFL. The PGA Tour, moreover, is uniquely vulnerable to competition because the golf landscape is split across multiple governing bodies: The DP World Tour, formerly PGA Europe, administers golf in Europe, the LPGA handles the LPGA Tour for women, and the PGA Tour oversees most of the events for North America as well as PGA Tour Champions, formerly the Senior PGA Tour.

The PGA Tour certifies players for participation in its events, a rigorous and altogether arcane practice that involves Qualifying School for amateurs and a secondary tour, the Korn Ferry Tour, for lower-level players who didn’t qualify for the PGA Tour. The process of elevating amateurs and relegating underperforming PGA Tour players to the Korn Ferry Tour or even back to “Q-School” is equally obscure, complicated further by the fact that the four biggest-money events in golf, the so-called majors ( the Masters, the US Open, the PGA Championship, and the British Open), which fans watch to see their favorite stars compete, aren’t even run by it yet do use PGA Tour performance as a way of determining whether players can participate. Hence the complications with the PGA Tour’s player bans, which apply only to PGA Tour events and not, say, to DP World Tour events. This means allowing the likes of Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open champion who signed with LIV in August and was therefore banned by the PGA Tour, to continue competing in Europe against fellow top star Rory McIlroy, who has condemned colleagues for jumping to the Saudi Arabian tour.

The PGA Tour makes a curious underdog. It recently announced millions more in prize money even as its commissioner bemoaned his lack of resources relative to LIV. The idea of ​​challenging the PGA is hardly a new one. In 1968, a number of top professionals, dissatisfied with the way the PGA of America was splitting tour revenue, formed the Association of Professional Golfers and threatened to tour independently in 1969. The PGA Tour was formed out of the resulting compromise, with PGA of America creating a “touring-only” organization that began to share more of the growing pool of television revenue with players. Twenty-five years later, LIV’s Norman, then among the world’s top golfers, explored the idea of ​​starting a players’ tour, an idea that came to nothing at the time but would later draw him to the challenge presented by LIV.

The room to innovate is certainly there. The PGA Tour and associated “major” events are notoriously stuffy. For example, shorts were only allowed in big-time golf on the LPGA Tour until LIV authorized their use in early September. LIV also has a set 48-man roster, an easy-to-follow regular season consisting of seven individual events and a team championship event, and guarantees that its players can compete in and finish all eight events. The PGA, with players missing cuts at key events and cycling in and out of either the Korn Ferry Tour or the PGA Tour Champions or the DP World Tour, is anything but user-friendly. Although Norman views LIV as merely “additive” to the existing golf ecosystem, former President Donald Trump, whose golf courses have hosted and will continue to host LIV events, argued recently that PGA defectors such as Brooks Koepka and Bubba Watson were right to take the money. Trump believes LIV’s market clout may eventually be sufficient to force a merger with the PGA Tour, as the fast-growing American Football League did with the rival National Football League in the 1960s (Trump had also hoped the USFL, in which he owned the New Jersey franchise, could’ve managed a similar merger with the NFL).

As far as claims of “sportwashing” go, the business of sports is simply too complex and too laden with bad actors to position any particular owner or sports federation as purely “good” or “evil.” By that standard, WNBA star Brittney Griner, whose arrest and conviction in Russia for transporting a small amount of hashish became a cause celebre, was surely “sportswashing” the Russian Premier League’s UMMC Ekaterinburg franchise, a team owned by Russian mining billionaire Andrei Kozitsyn that could pay Griner the millions of dollars the cash-poor WNBA could not. The same goes for the foreign fighters seeking six-figure paydays in Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s Absolute Championship Akhmat MMA promotion — ready cash that aging veterans such as 36-year-old Tony Johnson would never get from the UFC. Aware that their careers have an expiration date, most athletes simply follow the money, and when an organization like the PGA Tour isn’t paying enough and LIV shows up to pay more, they will take it.

Besides, the PGA Tour’s track record is anything but spotless. Before aging Tiger Woods boasts about turning down what Norman claimed would be a guaranteed payday in the neighborhood of $700 million to $800 million, he should consider, or rather remember, the pitiful track record of the PGA Tour, something he spoke about a good deal after Fuzzy Zoeller made an off-color racial joke about him at the 1997 Masters Tournament. Points the younger Woods was keener to bring up than the current Woods against the PGA: a near-nonexistent relationship with black athletes almost until Woods’s arrival, numerous country clubs segregated by race or religion well into the 1980s, the barring of women from competition until 1978 — they still play only in the LPGA, a separate organization, for the same physiological reasons that WNBA players aren’t in the NBA — its well-publicized 1998 attempt to bar an otherwise-qualified golfer with a preexisting condition who would eventually end up having his leg amputated from riding the course in a cart, and innumerable other offenses that are certain to cause conniption fits among the very same woke sorts carping about Saudi Arabia’s dark presence in the golfing world.

Whether it’s FIFA or the FIA, the governing body of F1, or the NFL, moral and financial and even geopolitical corruption is sadly the norm at the highest level of international sports competition. I don’t like it, and neither should you. But neither should you buy into a narrative about LIV and Saudi Arabia that circulates in public more for reasons of business interests than moral or argumentative clarity. Instead of lashing out at LIV Golf as a way of saving its embattled brand, the PGA Tour ought to pursue peaceful coexistence.

Oliver Bateman is a journalist, historian, and co-host of the What’s Left? podcast. Visit his website: www.oliverbateman.com.

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