Perspective | When golfers ignore who signs the checks, they miss what’s being bought

Perspective | When golfers ignore who signs the checks, they miss what’s being bought

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Dustin Johnson met with the media Tuesday in London, announced that he had resigned from the PGA Tour, acknowledged that would make him ineligible to play in the Ryder Cup, and joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series. He characterized his decision-making thusly: “I chose what’s best for me and my family.”

In a long post on Twitter, Phil Mickelson said his decision to join Greg Norman’s rival tour “will provide balance, not just for myself, but ideally for the game and my peers.”

Kevin Na said on Instagram that he “would like the freedom to play wherever I want.” Graeme McDowell told a trade publication last week that joining LIV Golf “just boils down to the fact that I am a business and I’ve operated all over the world for 20 years.”

Left unsaid: In choosing what’s best for themselves and their families, in providing balance, in pursuing the freedom to play wherever they want, in sustaining their business, the breakaway group of golfers assembling in London this week are articulating clearly they care not an iota where their money comes from.

Dustin Johnson quits PGA, joins Phil Mickelson on Saudi-backed tour

This is worth stating and restating: The money these golfers are guaranteed before they even tee it up Thursday in LIV’s inaugural event, the money they will pursue in purses over the course of the series — it’s blood money. The investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government provides it all, and the Saudi Arabian government is a murderous regime that killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that continues to wreak havoc with innocent civilians in Yemen, and that very much wants to use international sports to provide cover for all of it.

Where’s the critical thinking here? It’s possible to believe the structure to compensate professional golfers needs changing, and that a rival group is the best way to force change, but in turn acknowledge there are wrong ways to go about it. Since the days of Woodward and Bernstein, we have been told to follow the money. The players don’t seem to want to.

Put aside for a minute Mickelson and Johnson, LIV’s two biggest stars. Take, Na, a 38-year-old five-time winner on the PGA Tour who is best known for on-course quirks — extraordinarily slow play that draws ire, a tendency to walk in his putts that seems fun. In signing on with LIV for some undisclosed, guaranteed sum, and then playing eight 54-hole tournaments with $225 million in prize money, does Na ever think, “Am I really worth this much? Why does this tour think I am?”

Dig a little deeper down that rabbit hole. It might get scary. The LIV series has no international television contract to pump money into the purses. It can’t make $225 million from ticket sales for eight events. Sponsors are dropping players who sign up — RBC severed its relationships with Johnson and McDowell, for instance. All the cash comes from the Public Investment Fund, which bills itself as a sovereign wealth fund based in Saudi Arabia. Sovereign, huh? Its chairman is none other than Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who the CIA concluded ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

From a financial standpoint, this isn’t a moneymaker for the Saudis. So Na — or McDowell, a 42-year-old Northern Irishman who once won the U.S. Open, or Talor Gooch, a 30-year-old Oklahoman who has a single PGA Tour victory — would do well to ask themselves, “Why are they willing to lose so much money on this? What are they buying?”

The answer: They’re buying your reputation.

Take the check. Read up on the Saudi record on human rights. Now put your head on your pillow.

Mickelson’s original quotes on the topic — given to longtime golf journalist Alan Shipnuck for his Mickelson biography, published last month — have been hashed and rehashed. But they still read as raw.

“They’re scary mother f—–s to get involved with,” Mickelson said in remarks for which he has since apologized. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.

“Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Put another way: The money I am receiving comes from people who are cruel and evil, but because it is allowing me to challenge an existing business model, I can look the other way. Boggles the mind.

Greg Norman is taking on the PGA Tour, again

Now, there is some merit behind Mickelson’s thinking about the limits the PGA Tour puts on its players. At this point in his career, Mickelson’s name has actual value. He is a six-time major champion, charismatic and creative. A tournament with the 51-year-old Mickelson in the field is simply more attractive than a tournament he skips. That’s true for fans who might buy a ticket and fans who are home on the couch.

Golfers — particularly those as established and popular as Mickelson — could reasonably look at established and popular athletes in other sports and wonder why they don’t have the same guarantees. The PGA Tour has long prohibited appearance fees — cash to players just for showing up. It’s not crazy for a player to think, “But I’m worth something here.”

The tour even acknowledged as much in creating something called the Player Incentive Program, which distributes $40 million to the 10 players who annually “generate the most positive impact on the PGA Tour.” Mickelson’s prize money in 23 tournaments during the 2021 season: $2.7 million. His cash for placing second to Tiger Woods in the PIP: $6 million.

But that conversation distracts from what’s really going on here. This isn’t about whether the PGA Tour is the optimal model for professional golf. This is about hundreds of millions of dollars in blood money, and the players who are accepting it with only an acknowledgment of what’s best for their families and their work-life balance, not what’s best for the world.

Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Kevin Na, all the breakaway players are helping themselves, even while people suffer — people die — because of the monsters who sign their checks. But at least their wine cellars will be stocked and their four-car garages full. How and why that happens apparently doesn’t matter to them.

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