The British Open, which began on Thursday, is the final golf major of the year. Which is to say, this will be the last time casual fans care about the sport until 2023. Which means that this will also be the last time most people think about LIV Golf for quite some time. Which is exactly how LIV Golf would prefer it.
For now, the Saudi-backed upstart tour is pretty much all anyone is talking about at St. Andrews this week. Tiger Woods, who reportedly turned down a “nine-figures” LIV offer, has been bashing the golfers who joined it — a list that includes stars like Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and Brooks Koepka — for having “turned their back on” the sport. (He has also mocked the new tour for its 54-hole events, which he says is suited for “seniors,” and its “blaring music.”) Greg Norman, a two-time British Open champion who is LIV’s chief executive, was disinvited from the former champions dinner. The head of the tournament said that while he doesn’t plan on following the PGA’s lead and banning LIV Tour players from competing in the future, he may make it “more difficult” for them to qualify. Mickelson and his fellow turncoats are expected to be heckled relentlessly all weekend by Scots, who know how to swear creatively.
But then the weekend will be over, and we’ll all move onto something else. Once the initial outrage fades, where does that leave pro golf?
It is worth remembering that the LIV Tour is far from the Saudis’ first go at this kind of thing. Through its Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudis have long invested in sports as a way to launder their reputation globally — a practice commonly known as “sportswashing.” This strategy is most evident in horse racing (the Saudi Cup awards the highest purse in the sport, far outpacing the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown), soccer (where the PIF has purchased Newcastle United), and, perhaps most successfully, the WWE, which it flooded with so much money that the WWE has hosted several of its top events (including the Royal Rumble) in Saudi Arabia and once aired this video during a pay-per-view.
If you didn’t know about any of this, well, that’s part of the plan. The whole idea is to integrate Saudi funding with the sports world so thoroughly that it becomes a nonstory. This is a smart move: Sports fans mostly just want to watch sports, after all, and they’ve historically been fine with ignoring all the ugly elements involved in the show — corrupt owners, public-stadium subsidies bankrupting local governments, athletes accused of domestic violence, and the rest of it. (This Arsenal fan, I must say, won’t be thinking about the Saudi government when they play Newcastle United on January 2; I’ll be thinking about how the Gunners are already well on their way to breaking my heart again.) If you like the WWE, well, occasionally you’re going to have to watch an ad going on about what a wonderful place Saudi Arabia is. You can choose not to watch a movie funded by PIF; if you love wrestling (or soccer, or horse racing, or, for that matter, women’s golf), you’re not going to stop watching sports. So you just get used to it. And then you don’t think about it at all.
This is the bet LIV Golf is making. Tiger Woods might not need an insane purse to be persuaded to join a tournament, but the reason the Tour’s threat to the PGA is so existential is that eventually most golfers will. (They are, after all, just playing for the money. Sorry.) The anti–LIV Tour folks like Woods are getting a lot of headlines right now. But the LIV Tour will keep plugging along, putting more pressure on the PGA Tour and hoping that, at some point, it may have no choice but to relent. In some ways, its approach mirrors that of the Saudi regime. Much of the western world initially shunned Mohammed Bin Salman after he was reported to have ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But this week, President Biden is traveling to Saudi Arabia to make amends. For the U.S. government, Saudi Arabia’s resources are just too valuable to keep maintaining the moral high ground.
And now the LIV Tour may get an assist from that same government. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Department of Justice is investigating whether the PGA Tour engaged in “noncompetitive behavior” when it suspended players who took part in LIV Tour events. Whatever your thoughts on the issue, it’s not difficult to see the validity of the DOJ’s argument. Golfers are independent contractors who have to pay their own way for every event; why, exactly, can the PGA Tour ban them from playing elsewhere? It’s not like there’s a union or collective bargaining involved here. What business is it of the PGA Tour what players do in their spare time, even if it’s to collect huge checks from the Saudi government?
The battle between PGA and LIV has often been framed as a fight-to-the-death duel. But it’s possible the golf world is big enough for both of them. Few people may be actually watching the Saudis’ new venture so far, but if it sticks around and poaches even bigger names from the PGA, more people will undoubtedly tune in. (To quote Hans Gruber in Die Hard: Sooner or later they might get to someone you do care about.) It’s not like the Saudis are trying to make a profit with the Tour; they wouldn’t be paying the golfers all the money they are if they were. They’re just trying to establish a foothold.
When the Masters comes around next spring, with some LIV golfers probably barred from participating, we’ll likely see another round of controversy and debate around all this. But that’s almost a year from now — a year during which the LIV Tour will keep going and keep doling out huge amounts of money to a series of increasingly boldfaced names. Will the golf Establishment still be up for this level of resistance next time around? Or will it slowly bow to fans who just want to watch their favorite golfers? My money’s on the second one.