TThroughout 2022, LIV Golf, backed by Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion public investment fund, has competed with the PGA Tour for the services of the world’s top golfers. As spring turned to summer, the stakes kept getting higher, with LIV Golf signing some of the sport’s biggest names, such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, with huge guaranteed deals in the eight- to nine-figure range, and hosting events that honored them Pay the last place finisher in the 48-man field as much as most PGA Tour events pay the top 10 finishers.
Threatened by their first serious market competitor in decades, PGA Tour officials upped the ante, banning LIV players from attending Tour events and paying nearly half a million dollars to lobbyists who worked to lobby lawmakers and executives to change before antitrust proceedings were launched against them to go to court in September 2023 and accuse LIV CEO Greg Norman and his roster of all-star golfers of the crimes of a Saudi government likely involved in the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was involved in “sportingly washing” (it must be noted that the country’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war, which has killed tens of thousands, has received considerably less attention from those who level the criticism).
All this noise and anger from the PGA Tour obscures a fundamental truth: LIV Golf, the name is the Roman numeral for 54, which corresponds to the fact that the players complete three-day, 54-hole events, did not anger the Applecart by Saudi supported by money, but because it is extraordinarily well capitalized and therefore does not behave like so many previous cash-strapped startup sports organizations that have attempted to topple established professional leagues. In the case of the NFL, think of the USFL in the 1980s and the XFL in the 2000s. The PGA Tour is also particularly vulnerable to competition because the golf landscape is divided among several governing bodies: the DP World Tour, formerly PGA Europe, administers the sport of golf in Europe, the LPGA administers the women’s LPGA Tour, and the PGA Tour oversees most events for North America and PGA Tour Champions, formerly the Senior PGA Tour.
The PGA Tour certifies players for attendance at its events, a rigorous and utterly secretive practice that includes a qualifying school for amateurs and a secondary tour, the Korn Ferry Tour, for lower-level players who do not qualify for the PGA Tour to have. The process of elevating amateurs and relegating underperforming PGA Tour players to the Korn Ferry Tour or even back to “Q-School” is equally opaque and further complicated by the fact that the four highest-grossing events in golf, known as the Majors (the Masters, US Open, PGA Championship, and British Open) that fans follow to see their favorite stars compete aren’t even run by him, but use the power of the PGA Tour to determine if players can participate. Hence the complications with the PGA Tour player bans, which only apply to PGA Tour events and not DP World Tour events, for example. This means the likes of Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open champion who signed with LIV in August and was banned from the PGA Tour as a result, will be allowed to continue competing in Europe against fellow top star Rory McIlroy, who ranks for has condemned the jump to the Saudis Arab trip.
The PGA Tour makes an odd underdog. It recently announced millions more in prize money, although its commissioner bemoaned its lack of resources compared to LIV. The idea of challenging the PGA is not new. In 1968, a number of top professionals, dissatisfied with the way the PGA of America divided tour earnings, formed the Association of Professional Golfers and threatened to tour independently in 1969. The PGA Tour was formed from the resulting compromise with PGA of America America formed a “tours only” organized organization that began sharing a larger portion of the growing television revenue with the players. 25 years later, LIV’s Norman, then one of 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 excite him to LIV’s challenge.
There is certainly room for innovation. The PGA Tour and the “big” events associated with it are notoriously stuffy. For example, shorts were only allowed in big-time golf on the LPGA Tour until LIV approved their use in early September. LIV also has a fixed 48-man roster, an easy-to-follow regular season made up of seven individual events and a team championship, and guarantees its players can compete in and finish all eight events. The PGA is far from user-friendly, with players missing out on cuts at major events and hopping in and out of either the Korn Ferry Tour or the PGA Tour Champions or the DP World Tour. Although Norman views LIV as merely an “add-on” to the existing golfing ecosystem, former President Donald Trump, whose golf courses have hosted and will continue to host LIV events, recently argued that PGA defectors like Brooks Koepka and Bubba Watson were right, to take the money. Trump believes LIV’s market power could be enough to force a merger with the PGA Tour, as the rapidly expanding American Football League did with the rival National Football League in the 1960s (Trump had also hoped for the USFL to be in who created the New Jersey franchise could have created a similar merger with the NFL).
As for the “sportswashing” claims, the sports business is simply too complex and crammed with bad actors to position any particular owner or sports federation as purely “good” or “bad.” By that standard, WNBA star Brittney Griner, whose arrest and conviction in Russia became a celebrity for transporting a small amount of hashish, was certainly the Russian Premier League’s UMMC Ekaterinburg franchise, a team backed by Russian mining billionaire Andrei Kozitsyn heard Griner was able to pay the millions of dollars that the cash-strapped WNBA couldn’t. The same goes for the foreign fighters seeking six-figure paydays in Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA promotion — hard cash that aging veterans like 36-year-old Tony Johnson would never get from the UFC. Most athletes are aware that their career has an expiration date and just follow the money and if an organization like the PGA Tour isn’t paying enough and LIV comes up to pay more, they will take it.
Plus, the PGA Tour’s track record is far from flawless. Before the aging Tiger Woods brags about turning down a Norman-claimed guaranteed payday anywhere near $700-800 million, he should consider, or rather remember, the PGA Tour’s pathetic track record, something he’s talked about a lot after Fuzzy Zoeller made a lewd racial joke about him at the 1997 Masters tournament. Points the younger Woods preferred to address than the current Woods vs. the PGA: a near-nonexistent relationship with black athletes almost until Woods’ arrival, numerous country clubs that were segregated by race or religion well into the 1980s, the Banning women from competition by then 1978—they still only play in the LPGA, a separate organization, for the same physiological reasons that WNBA players aren’t in the NBA—their well-known 1998 attempt at an otherwise qualified golfer with a pre-existing medical condition, which would eventually culminate in the amputation of his leg for driving a car in the square, and countless other crimes that are certain to result in sniffles among the very same woke up guys who are talking about Saudi -Carping about Arabia’s dark presence in the Gulf world.
Unfortunately, whether it is FIFA or the FIA, the governing body of F1 or the NFL, moral and financial and even geopolitical corruption is the norm at the highest level of international sporting competition. I don’t like it and neither should you. But neither should you engage in a narrative about LIV and Saudi Arabia that is circulating publicly out of business interests rather than moral or argumentative clarity. Rather than lash out at LIV Golf to save its embattled brand, the PGA Tour should seek peaceful coexistence.
Oliver Bateman is a journalist, historian and co-anchor of the what’s left podcast. Visit his website: www.oliverbateman.com.