I’m glad that I’ve always hated golf. It makes hating golf today easier.
The only times I can recall watching with interest were in 1997, when that kid everyone was talking about tore up the Masters, and in 2019, when that old man everyone was talking about closed out the Masters. I had no skin in the game when the big news broke on Tuesday.
If I’m this disgusted by the new “partnership” between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, what must avid fans of the sport be feeling?
LIV is a project of Saudi Arabia’s rulers created in 2021 to compete with the PGA. The Saudis typically advance their interests in one of two ways—by murdering people or by raining unspeakable amounts of cash on them. Fortunately for America’s professional golfers, LIV chose the latter. Backed by funding from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (value: $620 billion and counting), the new league hired golf legend Greg Norman to serve as its commissioner and lured away superstars Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Bryson DeChambeau, among dozens of others, to play its tour.
Doing so was a political endeavor as much as an entertainment initiative. The word “sportswashing” has been used to describe what the Saudis are up to by gaining a financial foothold in popular Western sports like golf and soccer. (In 2021 the sovereign wealth fund led a takeover of the British soccer club Newcastle United and has begun to entice European megastars to sign with teams based in the kingdom.) A regime notorious for gross human-rights abuses, grisly assassinations, and laying waste to its southern neighbor has decided to try to buy Western goodwill via a very—very—expensive sports-related PR push.
And the PGA had been keen for golf fans to understand that.
Commissioner Jay Monahan and his allies framed their competition with LIV explicitly in moral terms, most famously in this interview from June 2022.
That righteous crusade against LIV raged on for the next year. Yesterday Sen. Chris Murphy recalled that the PGA had lobbied him just months ago to bar the Saudis from holding any ownership stake in a major American sport on human rights grounds.
As of 36 hours ago or so, Monahan’s moral complaint has been dropped. Any impulse he might have felt to apologize for associating with LIV drowned in an ocean of dirty money. Relatives of 9/11 victims were unsparing upon hearing news of the merger: “The PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation so that Americans and the world will forget how the kingdom spent their billions of dollars before 9/11 to fund terrorism, spread their vitriolic hatred of Americans, and finance al Qaeda and the murder of our loved ones.” Reaction online was … vivid.
The deal is being described as a “partnership” but it’s effectively an acquisition of the PGA by LIV. The governor of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund will chair the board of directors that oversees the merged tour; he’s vowing to invest “billions” more into the sport, which will inevitably mean more seats on the board and greater Saudi control.
This is bothersome even to someone who isn’t a fan of the game.
When you write about politics for a living, it’s embarrassing to admit to having a strong moral reaction to the day’s events. It makes you sound like a rube.
World-weary cynicism is the only dignified response, especially to news as cynical as the PGA-LIV merger. Surely no one is surprised …
My best effort at the requisite cynicism is this: Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial is correct that the deal makes sense for both sides.
For the PGA, the cost of battling its new rival was steep and rising. The two organizations have been suing each other for months, which is tolerable when you have unlimited funds like the Saudis do but less so when you don’t. The tour had lost young stars like Koepka and DeChambeau and risked losing more. It had also felt obliged to increase the purses at tournaments to mitigate LIV’s financial appeal, adding further strain.
LIV’s problems were different. Its antitrust suit against the PGA was hobbled when all 11 co-plaintiffs, including DeChambeau, withdrew from the suit. And despite the ballyhoo surrounding the tour, it hadn’t landed any major television deals, calling its commercial viability into question. One PGA player told ESPN yesterday that news of the merger surprised him precisely because the competition seemed to be struggling: “The LIV tour was dead in the water. It wasn’t working. Now, you’re throwing them a life jacket?”
Maybe most important, the new “partnership” ensures that litigation won’t produce any scandals for either side. “I believe that neither one of these organizations wanted to have their books exposed in the courts,” an editor at Golf Magazine speculated, “and as a way to save themselves and prevent leaks and other issues they had to become strange bedfellows to save each other.” The Saudi sovereign wealth fund had argued in court that they shouldn’t have to comply with discovery requests on sovereign immunity grounds. They lost that argument.
There will be no discovery now, no depositions. Where the bodies are buried—proverbial in the PGA’s case, possibly literal in LIV’s—will remain a secret. Any world-weary pundit should feel the urge to, well, golf clap.
I do not. The moral betrayal in this case isn’t just unusually steep, it’s playing out across multiple dimensions.
One of those dimensions is how the PGA railroaded its own players.
Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a deal from LIV that might have earned him more than $700 million despite the fact that he’s many years past his prime. Rory McIlroy, one of the world’s top pros, also stuck with the PGA and spoke out against defectors to LIV despite his own considerable financial potential in the new league. Today he, Woods, and the rest of the PGA loyalists are left holding the bag, having passed on phenomenal amounts of money only to find themselves playing for the Saudis anyway. The moral argument against joining LIV must have weighed on each of them to some degree; this is what they get for having taken it seriously.
LIV sellouts Mickelson and Koepka laughed at them yesterday on social media after news of the merger broke, evincing the special joy that an amoral person feels when his detractor sells his own soul—or, in this case, has his soul sold out from under him. On Wednesday McIlroy lamented that he felt like a “sacrificial lamb.”
As the final indignity, despite touting itself as a “member-run organization,” the PGA appears to have kept its players entirely in the dark as negotiations over the merger proceeded. Some apparently found out about the deal the same way you and I did.
The players may yet have the last laugh. At a meeting with Monahan on Tuesday, several reportedly got standing ovations from their colleagues when they called for new leadership at the PGA. One quoted something Monahan said last year back to him: “As long as I’m commissioner of the PGA Tour, no player that took LIV money will ever play the PGA Tour again.” According to the New York Times, the merger will need the approval of the PGA’s board of directors—nearly half of whom are players. If they oppose the deal adamantly, it could fall through.
Even if it doesn’t, who could fault them for refusing to participate in future PGA events until they’re paid the money they might have earned by jumping ship to LIV sooner? I’m not normally one to call for strikes but this betrayal is bringing out my inner lib.
In the end, though, the players will be fine. The deeper moral betrayal is selling control of an American cultural institution to a malevolent, viciously illiberal foreign entity.
The NBA has done something similar but not to the same degree. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t own the league but it has successfully co-opted it by threatening to block its access to the Chinese market if it doesn’t hew to Beijing’s orthodoxy on sensitive political questions. That’s how we ended up with normally outspoken “socially conscious” NBA figures like LeBron James, Steve Kerr, and Gregg Popovich either biting their tongues or whitewashing the crackdown in Hong Kong in 2019 after one team’s general manager expressed solidarity with protesters there. China used its financial leverage to muzzle influential Americans who might otherwise have called attention to its abuses.
That’s what the Saudi “sportswashing” scheme aims to do too. And it too is succeeding.
Last year Mickelson told a biographer that the Saudis are “scary motherf— to get involved with” and that they killed Jamal “Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.” All true, but LIV isn’t paying him to tell the truth. Rather the opposite: They’re paying him to serve as a de facto ambassador to Americans on behalf of the Saudi government in between occasional golf tournaments. Those comments amounted to dereliction of one of his core duties.
Mickelson eventually figured that out and apologized for his entirely accurate, righteous criticism.
DeChambeau understands his role better. Watch the end of this interview he granted to CNN on Wednesday morning, when he was asked how it feels to work for a government that kills dissidents and funds terrorism. I’m just a golfer, he says. They’re trying to be better allies. Nobody’s perfect.
They’re getting their money’s worth with this guy.
“Sportswashing” is just a colorful term for buying silence. The Saudis can’t persuade Americans to endorse their vision of society and they can’t bomb Americans for refusing to do so. But they can gradually normalize the belief in America via celebrity spokesmen that moral qualms about gross human rights violations should never impede the pursuit of one’s raw self-interest. If it’s morally acceptable for Bryson DeChambeau to let bygones be bygones about 9/11 for something as trivially lame as golf, it’s obviously morally acceptable for America to do the same in more consequential pursuits—business, diplomacy, war, you name it.
“Morality is for suckers,” the barely veiled subtext of Mickelson’s and Koepka’s laughter at their PGA rivals, is a too-common sentiment in certain quarters of American politics in 2023. Which brings us to one last moral dimension of this travesty.
In the abstract, a foreign government acquiring a venerable American institution seems tailor-made to induce rage in an America-First-er.
But Trump has a personal stake in the PGA-LIV deal. The Saudis recognized early that the Trump family can be bought and so they’ve gone about buying them, which in the case of the former president means holding LIV tournaments at the golf courses he owns. Trump lost the PGA’s favor due to politics during his term in office, with January 6 becoming the final straw; now that the PGA is a wholly owned subsidiary of his corrupt Salafist patrons, he’s back in business.
And like DeChambeau and the rest, he understands what’s expected of him. Last July, when an LIV event was held at one of his properties, he was asked about Saudi culpability in 9/11. Quote:
“Nobody’s gotten to the bottom of 9/11” is a nice bookend to the first thing he said to the media on the day of the attack, after the World Trade Center fell. With the towers gone, a building he owned was now the tallest in lower Manhattan, he boasted (incorrectly). No one more so than Donald Trump embodies the belief that only a weakling lets morality impede his pursuit of his personal aggrandizement. In war, in sex, in golf: He’s forever looking out for number one, unapologetically. That he’d turn down a gigantic payday for something as intangible as loyalty, as Woods and McIlroy did, is unfathomable.
“Everyone has their price” is cynicism. “Everyone has their price, as they should” is Trumpism. It’s the ruthlessly transactional, amoral ethic in which he’s tutored the broader right since he became its leader and the essence of why those of us who detest him do so.
It’s also the essence of the PGA’s decision to sell out to LIV. If you regard his cultural influence as malign, it’s impossible not to see the merger as malign as well.
I think Trump’s attitude helps explain why Republicans have grown more sympathetic to Saudi interests in recent years, in fact. Not all of it: Conservative fear and loathing of Iran makes the Saudis comparatively attractive on “enemy of my enemy” grounds, especially with Democrats forever angling to reach an accommodation with Tehran. And the kingdom’s overt antipathy and eagerness to humiliate Joe Biden has ingratiated them to the American right, as has their financial largesse toward Trump and his relatives.
Trumpist politics is obsessed with loyalty and allegiance; the Saudis have bent over backward to show that they’re loyal allies of his, as has he to them. And so much of the right feels obliged by its own twisted partisan devotion to Trump to treat them as allies as well.
They have their price, and they come awfully cheap.
Compare the muted reaction to the Saudi takeover of the PGA among Republicans today with the outcry in 2019 after the NBA figures I mentioned earlier went to bat for China over Hong Kong. In both cases, an authoritarian government was using financial incentives to pressure American athletes into whitewashing its crimes. But neither the communists in China nor the social-justice sermonizers in the NBA are “on the team,” so their accommodation was objectionable to the right in a way that the Saudis’ wholesale purchasing of a popular American sport is not.
You can get away with a lot if you’re “on the team.”
That’s also detestable, needless to say, and it leaves us with two political mysteries. How will Republicans react if the antitrust division of Joe Biden’s Justice Department decides that this merger can’t go forward, a distinct possibility? And how will they respond if Ron DeSantis sides with righteous anti-Saudi critics of the deal, a possibility equally distinct? It would be strange to see populists angry at a governor they’ve idolized because his indignation over 9/11 risks cutting into Trump’s golf business, but we live in strange times. You should never bet on the modern right to do the right thing.