Golf's Brave New World
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Let me start off by saying this: the Saudi government, as Phil Mickelson so eloquently put it, are “scary motherf***ers,” - and that was just a few months ago. But the PGA Tour has no one to blame but themselves for the exodus of professionals who have defected to the new LIV Golf Tour, funded by the oil money of the Saudi Arabian government.
With the new upstart golf league wrapping up its inaugural tournament, the London Invitational, this is a good time to take stock of how exactly we got to this point.
For years and years, the PGA Tour has operated, mostly, the same way since its inception. Sure, purses have grown with revenues. But the gritty, day-to-day grind of the Tour remained the same.
For many, this is the charm of the PGA Tour. It’s egalitarian. You pay your own way onto each tournament, you score the best you can, and you leave with the money you earn. Sometimes, you finish high up the leaderboard. That’s where the big payday is. Sometimes you don’t make the cut. That’s when you make nadda. Zilch. Zero.
That’s a big problem for some of the world’s top golfers. Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, they don’t want to be traveling constantly, grinding over tournaments no one knows or cares about. They don’t want to be paying for their own room, board and travel expenses.
The LIV Golf Tour caters to their biggest names. They know that the public comes to see the players, not the tour. In the end, money talks. And the Saudis have a lot of cash. Gobs and gobs of it.
The Saudi Public Investment Fund (aka oil money) is estimated to be as large as $620 billion. Your eyes might pop out of your head when you hear that Dustin Johnson was offered $125 million just to join the Saudi Tour. Your brain might melt when you hear that Mickelson was offered as much as $200 million. But that’s just fun money to the Saudis.
Sportswashing is a term that you may have heard thrown about, but it really does explain the actions and motivations behind the Saudi government. Allow me to clarify sportswashing: it's the idea that a foreign government or international body, like Saudi Arabia, can improve its image by throwing money into sports investments, like the LIV Golf Tour, a new Formula 1 circuit in Jeddah, or the Saudi Cup, the world’s wealthiest horse racing event. By getting more involved in Western culture, especially sports, the Saudis are attempting to “motivate” the West into forgetting about some of their horrific human rights violations or the fact that a squad of Saudi hitmen killed and dismembered Jamal Khashoggi in an embassy in Istanbul.
It’s up to us not to forget. But it’s up to the PGA Tour to get with the times.
This is less about who in particular is running the LIV Golf Tour, and more about the tough position the PGA Tour put some of its best and most iconic players. The Canadian Open, which is wrapping up today as well, has a purse of $8.7 million, which is pretty healthy for a PGA Tour event. The London Invitational? The purse is $25 million.
For golfers like Mickelson, Johnson and Garcia, the money talked. Loudly.
The massive payout wasn’t the only benefit of the Saudi Tour. Those pesky cuts? Gone with the wind. Every golfer, no matter how poorly they performed, will get a paycheck at the end of the tournament. The London Invitational is a three-day tournament, as opposed to four. Charl Schwartzel, who just earned $4 million by winning the Invitational, just made more money over those three days than he had over the last three years combined.
In a lot of ways, this is like the NIL-situation playing out in big-money college sports right now. For a long time, the people in charge of these leagues were able to make boatloads of cash without compensating their primary workforce appropriately. The PGA Tour has gotten away with archaic practices for too long. It’s had a monopoly on professional golf since its inception in 1929. Maybe if the PGA Tour was willing to pony up a $25 million purse, we wouldn’t even be talking about some silly LIV Golf Tour. Instead, the PGA, like the NCAA, really, really liked the status quo.
It’s come back to bite them. If it wasn’t the Saudis, it would be some other foreign government. It’s time for the PGA Tour to wake up and smell the roses. This didn’t have to be inevitable, but thanks to the PGA Tour’s inaction, it became inevitable.
As it stands, the PGA Tour has suspended every former PGA Tour player who competed in the London Invitational indefinitely, which means no Ryder Cup and no President’s Cup. None of the suspended players will be eligible for the FedEx Cup, either. It’s the majors, though, that really hold all the cards. If they say LIV golfers can compete in their tournaments, then the PGA Tour is officially S-O-L. If they say otherwise, then we might see a few of these defectors returning to the PGA Tour with their tail between their legs.
It’s sad to see all this happen to such a historic sports league like the PGA Tour, but they created this mess. There have been some attempts to modernize, such as offering increased incentives and payouts to players and a Player-Impact Program, which will reward the top 10 golfers who most resonate with the golf-consuming public. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough to stem the tide.
This could be good for golf. Maybe competition brings out the best in the PGA Tour. Maybe the new Saudi League will grow the popularity of the sport in the Middle East, Asia and beyond. Maybe that newfound popularity helps propel the PGA Tour as well, and maybe everyone can co-exist and be all hunky dory together.
Okay, maybe that’s wishful thinking. But the PGA Tour is at a crossroads. If the PGA Tour wants to continue to be the premier golf league in the world, then it has to start acting like it. The LIV Golf Tour may be run by terrifying autocrats who think nothing of butchering a journalist from their own country, but they called the PGA Tour out on their B.S. There’s still time for the PGA Tour to save face, but instead of pointing fingers at the Saudis and at the defecting players, maybe they should think about pointing a finger at themselves.