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Picture: 123RF/DIMITRI SHIRONOSOV
Picture: 123RF/DIMITRI SHIRONOSOV

In this column a few weeks ago I wrote about the Saudi-backed golf tour, and how it appeared to be a very expensive sportswashing exercise, with Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman playing key roles.

At that point it looked as though the uprising might have been quashed, yet the LIV Golf Invitational Series does not seem to be going away.

Just last week the organisation, headed up by Norman, announced a nine-event schedule, based mostly in the US, but also stretching to the UK, Asia and the Middle East — worth a mind-boggling $250m. The first event is scheduled for June despite no players having been named.

Played over 54 holes, with limited fields and no cut, there is just so much money being thrown at players that it seems impossible to turn down. Or, at the very least, carefully consider. And yet the timing of the announcement highlights the moral dilemma facing players, assuming they have a conscience.

Just three days prior, the Saudis executed 81 men for various offences, some of which were severe, including murder and rape, but most were anti-government protesters. I wonder whether any of them received a fair trial? Unlikely.

Now, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour are unlikely to grant players permission to tee it up on a rival tour, particularly when events take place in the same weeks as theirs, so one must wonder if some players might outright jump ship and abandon the aforementioned tours.

Certainly there is enough money being thrown around to justify it in financial terms, but what of the damage to their reputation? Joining the Saudi league, in my mind, is tantamount to condoning the myriad atrocities occurring in Saudi Arabia. It may not be fair to juxtapose sport and politics, but this is so obviously an example of reputation laundering that it’s hard for me not to.

And sure, golfers are not politicians. They will no doubt argue that they are just playing a sport, while trying to take care of their families. As much as I respect that noble intention, it is not as though the type of professional golfer who is being courted by the Saudis is short of cash. Most have more money, more assets and more sports cars than they will ever need.

Some will even offer the old chestnut of growing the game, as if this in some way would encourage young players around the world to pick up clubs and start playing. More likely the only thing they are interested in growing is their bank balance.

So, who are the likely candidates who might be tempted?

The timing of the announcement of Henrik Stenson as the next Ryder Cup captain, which also hit the press last week, was interesting. There were rumours circulating that the Swede was one of those preparing to sign on the blood-stained paper, but he will now have something far more pressing to keep him occupied — leading his European team in Rome in 2023. 

And what of the likes of Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter — two other names being bandied about? Both are in their late forties and, while still competitive, are arguably past their best and unlikely to take home a Major title at this stage of their careers.

If there were more wholesome underwriters of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, I’d fully understand the attraction. These players, in the twilight of their careers, can cash in during one last heist. All they might be surrendering is a certain Ryder Cup captaincy in the future.

The likes of Westwood and Poulter are unlikely move the needle when it comes to the breakaway league. To really catch the eye, the Saudis would need some major drawcards — some big name, young stars.

Prior to the Mickelson debacle, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau had been suggested as having had their heads turned by the oil money. Both have since pledged their loyalty to the PGA Tour, but Norman continues to leave the door open to players and — without naming any names — claims that, following the announcement last week, he has the attention of some of the top players in the world.  

“The amount of response has been unbelievably positive,” Norman said. “I’m talking about single-digit ranked players in the world, emailing me first thing this morning, just so excited to hear about what we have to say and what we’ve got.”

I have two worries about this.

The first is that should a handful of influential players make the move, it could open the floodgates. The second is how tempting this kind of money would be for a young player looking to establish himself on the world stage. Take, for example, the likes of Joaquin Niemann, the Hojgaard twins, Nicolai and Rasmus, or our own Wilco Nienaber or James du Preez, rising young stars who could make for an attractive acquisition based on their power hitting and potential.

The kind of money on offer would be life changing and almost impossible to turn down. I suppose the question they would need to ask themselves — if it ever happened — is whether it is worth giving up your dreams for? I’m not sure I would want to stick around to hear the answer.

 


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