LALI STANDER: Will big bucks of Saudi-backed series eventually beckon too boldly?
The second Major of the year tees off on Thursday at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. The PGA Championship may be regarded as the least attractive out of golf’s “big four”, but 136 of the world’s best golfers — and 20 PGA professionals — will be going all out to win it.
Southern Hills has a special connection for Southern African golfers. Nick Price won his third and final Major there, the 1994 PGA, while Retief Goosen won his first — the 2001 US Open. For those who believe in omens, this could signal good fortune for the SA posse, but let’s not kid ourselves: the last Major champion produced by SA was Ernie Els a decade ago, and our players hardly seem to be beating down the door.
SA fortunes aside, we have a rather messy storm gathering around the world of golf that is taking some attention away from the tournament proper, and the absence of defending champion Phil Mickelson is just adding fuel to the fire.
The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series is threatening to disrupt professional golf with events soon to be held in the UK and the US. The prize money in the 54-hole no-cut series is staggering — think $25m per event, with the winner taking home $4m — and has certainly turned a few heads. Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer are among the players who have applied for releases to play in the UK event in early June.
The PGA Tour, understandably, has said no but they will now come head to head with an entity that is bankrolled by a seemingly limitless amount of oil money, and headed up by one of the biggest egos in golf, Greg Norman.
LIV argues that players are independent contractors and should be free to play where they choose, but the PGA Tour is hardly likely to condone and support a rival tour, particularly with the conflicting events. One can understand it trying to protect its greatest assets — the players.
Those who leave, at this stage, are unlikely to be missed.
Westwood, Garcia, Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Bubba Watson, Graeme McDowell and Mickelson may be Major champions, Ryder Cup heroes or former world No 1s, but they are past their prime. Others, such as Americans Jason Kokrak and Kevin Na, have never really moved the needle. If they want one last crack at amassing a small fortune, good for them. But these guys are hardly short of cash.
Garcia has won more than $54m on the PGA Tour, Westwood has pocketed a tidy €39m on the DP World Tour and Mickelson has won $95m on the PGA Tour in his career.
Even Na has collected nearly $40m, so let’s not buy into the “I have to think about my family” nonsense.
“People can see it for what it is — a money grab,” said Rory McIlroy. “That’s fine if what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible. Then go and do that if that’s what makes you happy. I’m playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world.”
The core of the world’s top 100 golfers, including the likes of McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, as well as young talents like Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland, will be staying put, but for how long?
The Saudi war chest runs deep, and I get the feeling LIV’s strategy is to play the long game. How long will the likes of Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, two marquee names that have been linked to LIV, be content to watch a relative nobody like Robert Garrigus pocket millions each week for coming fifth?
At some point they will likely look to claim their share of the pot. Norman knows this, so while I expect the first year to be something of a flop, it’s the following years that worry me.
It’s not the fact that it’s a new tour trying to buy its way onto the main table that bothers me, but rather the source of those funds. We can’t pretend that this whole operation is anything short of another case of Saudi sportswashing, an attempt to clean its image through sports sponsorship.
This is the same country that ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. In March 2022, it executed 81 citizens for various offences, yet Norman thinks we should forget all of that and move forward; like it’s no big deal.
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes. You just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” he argues.
I suspect that journeyman PGA Tour professional Joel Dahmen echoes the sentiment of a lot of golfers when he says that “the money is very tempting, but it’s the morality of it all and the money coming from Saudi will turn most people off. I think some people are worried about the golfing world hating them and all the stuff they would have to hear on social media and at events. But I think people will slowly jump ship if some random guys are winning 10+ mil a year.”
Let’s hope it doesn’t get to that point.
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