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Will the PGA Tour Survive the Challenge of Saudi-Sponsored LIV Pro Golf Tour?

The recent fury of LIV (rhymes with Give) Golf, the upstart league sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and fronted by golf legend Greg Norman, can be difficult to understand, so let's break it down into layman’s terms for all us duffers out there. 

Dimers.com contributor Kent J. Landry tells you everything you need to know to get up to speed on this major disruption to the world of professional golf.

 

The three primary players in this fiasco are the aforementioned Saudi Arabian government, Greg Norman, the greatest golfer to ever come from Down Under, and the PGA players themselves—who either believe they are free agents who should be allowed to play anywhere they want, or ones who consider the PGA the one true tour and are loyal to its monetary system and core concepts.

What makes this start-up tour so contentious is the backing of the Saudi government, who even Phil Mickelson, a member of the new tour, says are “scary motherfuckers.”

When your most prominent member saddles the financiers with that moniker, you know you’re off to a banging start. True, the Saudis are “scary motherfuckers,” but the Saudis also have a lot of money — and oil.  They are also, ostensibly, an ally to the U.S. countering the ‘bad guys’ in Iran. So, with all that money and oil, the Saudi government can sponsor this new golf league and use it to “sports-wash” — a new term meaning to gloss over apparent governmental indiscretions due to the veneer of a wholesome, democratic sports league, in turn making those transgressions more acceptable. 

To oversee this “sports-washing” they called on the Dr. Evil of golf, the Shark himself.

Greg Norman was basically the Tiger Woods of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Casual fans knew only two golfers from this period, an aging Jack Nicklaus, and a swash-buckling, fair-haired pirate from Australia, with the greatest nickname in Golf—The Great White Shark. The Shark was brazen, fearless, aggressive, hitting it long and looking cool doing it, parlaying his looks and talent into multiple business successes.  However, he is best remembered now for what he didn’t accomplish — never being able to win a Major on U.S. soil (his only two majors in his career both occurred at the British Open), and his collapse at the ‘96 Masters after leading by 6 shots while shooting a 78 on Sunday.  

The Shark was never one to walk lock-step with the PGA tour, nor anyone else for that matter, so he seemed like the obvious choice to be the “face” of this new league. Except, he wasn’t. 

The Saudis reportedly offered Jack Nicklaus, the greatest major winner of all time, that honor, along with much cash. Nicklaus, for whatever reason:  his age, his wealth, his unsullied legacy, turned down the offer, so the next logical icon was Norman. He was still a powerful figurehead in the world of golf, with his brand on everything from polos to Pinot Noir, and to boot, he had once—way back in 1994—already tried to start a rival league to the PGA, known as the World Golf Tour. The tour shanked and never did take off, but the idea of Norman’s, that players were really “free agents” who should have the right to play when and where they want, unbeholden to a governing tour, never escaped his mind. 

This brings us to the players. 

Where not long ago, a majority of the players genuflected to the PGA tour, now it seems that the idea of huge cash payouts, the free-agent moniker, and being treated like esteemed knights-in-shining armor, was too much for some of the players to pass up.  

True, Phil Mickelson was crucified for his comments at the beginning of the year, so much so that he “went dark” as one golfer characterized it, retreating from the spotlight in order to do some soul-searching and to plot his next move. Many players encouraged him to make amends with the tour, apologize, and get back into their good graces for the sake of his career and his legacy.

But Phil is always the smartest man in the room — just ask him — and this was not the course of action he took. Rather, he came back sporting his logo on his hat (not the familiar KPMG, his long standing, but now defunct sponsor); a shadowy beard (one favored by villains everywhere), and his big ole grin (presumably laughing all the way to the bank). 

And now the rub: He wasn’t alone anymore.

It was first widely assumed that along with Phil, the only other golfers to “take the money and run” from the upstart league were slightly over-the-hill professionals such as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, and a few others that were long-in-the-tooth and short on championship trophies.  

Then a strange thing happened; golfers who once professed their loyalty to the PGA flagship suddenly started jumping overboard.  The first major name to don the life-vest was Dustin Johnson, a former world-number one, still in-his-prime player, and box office gold. 

Following suit were golfers Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau—their popularity ambivalent, but with enough star power to move the needle—and now a lower-level, yet popular golfer, Pat Perez has also come out of the closet and said that he, too, will play in the LIV league.

Suddenly, things were not so rosy for the PGA anymore; any other defections by primetime players could lead to a snowball effect with other prominent players leaving for seemingly greener pastures. It hasn’t happened yet, but a desertion of Top-10 players could lead to an avalanche and douse the argument of many players like Rory Mcllroy and Justin Thomas who say they are sticking with the PGA Tour because that is where the best players play.  

What would a PGA Tour look like without the likes of a John Rahm or Cameron Smith?  And more importantly, what would the LIV golf tour look like with them?

So what do we make of all this?  

Well, with any new upstart league, the biggest hurdle is how do they overcome the sheer amount of years that the opposing league has on them? Legacy and history are a big part of the overall value of a league and why many players will choose to stay with the PGA. Numbers and records mean something. They give players something to compete for other than monetary benefits, allow fans a way of keeping score—encouraging debate about who is better—and allows us to compare players from across generations.  

If Patrick Mahomes suddenly goes to the XFL and wins 20 Championships, will that make him the GOAT?  Probably not.  But winning 5 or 6 in the NFL surely gets him to the front of the line.

Also, if any other country sponsored this league, say Great Britain for instance, would there be the same amount of vitriol against it? Probably not.  But then again, what other country can throw such outlandish sums of money at their potential employees as Saudi Arabia?

And finally, what it will all boil down to is this—are PGA touring pros beholden to the league they represent or should they be considered free-agents, allowed to play in whatever tour that tickles their fancy? 

Beyond the human rights issues, and geo-political machinations, it really comes down to this question—free agency? True, other sports have free agency, but it is within the existing confines of their respective leagues.  I doubt the Chiefs would allow Patrick Mahomes to suit up for the New Orleans Breakers in the summer and Kansas City Chiefs in the fall.  

So, what happens now and where do we go from here? 

Probably to court, where players will argue for their sovereignty while retaining the rights and privileges of the PGA tour. Also to the court of public opinion because the Majors, especially the Masters have not weighed in on the controversy just yet.  

The majors could be the ace-in-the-hole for both the PGA and LIV Golf, based on how they choose to regulate their tournaments.  One thing for sure is that golf as we know it is gone, and in my opinion, that is a bad thing. But legacy and history notwithstanding, it’s also an exciting time for golf.  

There could very well be a new normal. Can golf really save the face of a morally infected country as the players suggest?

Right now, the ocean is vast between the players who defected and the PGA tour, so litigation is probably on the horizon…and a Great White is lurking.

 
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