'Incredibly polarizing': Start of the LIV Golf era brings golf and a flood of questions

'Incredibly polarizing': Start of the LIV Golf era brings golf and a flood of questions

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, ENGLAND — The first-ever LIV Golf Invitational Series event began this week with what felt, at the time, like it might be the death of irony.

Phil Mickelson — whom, the previous day, had explained he was here hoping to use golf as a force of good in a morally ambiguous world — walked to the first tee at Centurion Golf Club, weaving his way through a modest crowd, as The O’Jays 1973 hit “For the Love of Money” blared over the loudspeakers.

Money, money, money, money … money!
Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Listen to me why’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it

The song was, of course, written not as an ode to wealth but as a warning about the perils of doing anything for the almighty dollar. By week’s end, though, the original intent of the song felt essentially meaningless. Only the opening riff mattered. LIV Golf was using it as a boast, one that will likely serve as a siren call to the best golfers in the world.

“Trust us,” said Greg Norman, LIV Golf’s CEO, during the tournament’s trophy presentation, “this is just the beginning.”

The organization has a seemingly unlimited supply of money thanks to its owner, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, and because of it, the world of professional golf is unlikely to ever be the same again.

“The evolution of the game has arrived,” Norman said. “Golf was always going to be a force of good out of all this.”

Whether you believe that’s true or not likely depends on your perspective. Charl Schwartzel, who won the inaugural 54-hole event, received $4.75 million for winning the individual and team titles — $4 million for the individual title, $750,000 for being part of the winning team — the largest haul in the history of tournament golf. It was an immediate boon to a career that, prior to Saturday, was mired in a stretch where he’d gone winless for six years.

“This is a historic moment,” Schwartzel said. “The first LIV league tournament, and man, it’s awesome.”

Why LIV Golf, which has privately said it is prepared to spend $2 billion on the league over the next four years, can offer unprecedented prize money was of no consequence to Schwartzel.

“Where the money comes from is not something I’ve ever looked at in 20 years,” Schwartzel said. “I think you could find faults in anything.”

It was less awesome for Terry Strada, who was following news of the tournament throughout the week back in the United States. Strada is the national chair of 9/11 Families United, an advocacy group of people who lost family members during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Strada’s husband, Tom, died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and she said listening to golfers try to justify their decision to be in England this week was stomach-churning. 9/11 Families United is still mired in an active lawsuit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, seeking a judgment in federal court against the country for its alleged role in training and financing the 9/11 hijackers, 15 of whom were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

On the final day of the tournament, Strada sent the tour’s American players a letter asking them to reconsider their association with LIV Golf. “When you partner with the Saudis,” the letter stated, “you become complicit with their whitewash and help give them the reputational cover they so desperately crave — and are willing to pay handsomely to manufacture.”

“It feels like a betrayal,” Strada said. “My husband was a scratch golfer. He was a Phil Mickelson fan. He even tried to be a pro before he worked on Wall Street. My youngest is the captain of his golf team. Our family understands the integrity that the sport requires. But these guys are not interested in any of that. They’re sportswashing.”

(Sportswashing is roughly defined as a country or entity using sports to improve or obscure a questionable reputation.)

“They’re just trying to buy respectability for the Kingdom,” she said. “They’re boasting about taking millions for their family while my family is still reeling from the impact of being a victim of a terrorist attack. It’s really hurtful.”

Schwartzel’s victory might have brought a close to one of the most surreal weeks in the history of the sport, but moral debate over whether LIV golfers should be seen as complicit sportswashing stooges or savvy independent contractors is certain to continue. Even as the final round was unfolding, a slow trickle of announcements dropped, welcoming new PGA Tour defectors. Patrick Reed and Pat Perez each joined LIV’s streaming broadcast to announce they too had signed on.

Reed’s arrival wasn’t a surprise — it had been rumored for weeks — but Perez’s was a prime example of how quickly money can change hearts and minds. At the Genesis Open in February, arguably the PGA Tour’s crown jewel outside the Players Championship, Perez delivered a lengthy, passionate monologue to the media about how no one on tour would follow Mickelson or Bryson DeChambeau to LIV Golf, that he would remain loyal to the PGA Tour (where he’d won $40 million during his career) and Tiger Woods.

“Tiger is our guy,” Perez said. “What he says is pretty much gold.”

When a fan on Instagram asked in late February if he would consider taking Saudi money, Perez fired back in the comments: “F— no.” Then four months later, there he was, crediting his wife, Ashley, as well as Dustin Johnson, for convincing him a relaxed schedule — and perhaps literal gold — meant more than Woods’ words.

“I’ve got more motivation now it seems like than ever for whatever reason,” Perez said. “I’m so excited to have this next chapter in my life. I’ve been grinding out on the PGA TOUR for 21 years. It’s been a fun run. PGA TOUR has been phenomenal to me. Great people there and everything. I’m just excited to kind of slow it down a little bit.”

There were reasons, early in the week, to be skeptical of LIV Golf’s long-term prospects. Several players’ names were misspelled in news releases. Tickets sold so poorly, LIV Golf made the quiet decision to essentially give them away to anyone who would take them. Any fan who entered one of the numerous discount codes tweeted out by players got in for free. The website didn’t have a working leaderboard. The pre-tournament news conferences were memorable not because of golf but for the clumsy answers offered by players when asked whether they had considered they might be morally complicit in Saudi Arabia trying to “sportswash” its reputation.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, hired by LIV Golf to serve as a news conference moderator, made frequent attempts to steer the conversation back toward golf but had little success.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” said Talor Gooch, when asked if he’d understood criticism that Saudi Arabia might be using him to distract the world from its numerous human rights violations. “Also, I’m a golfer. I’m not that smart. I try to hit a golf ball into a small hole. Golf is hard enough. I try to worry about golf.”

The golfers seemed particularly lost when they attempted — some unprompted — to address how they felt about what happened to Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who in 2018 was tortured and murdered in the Turkish embassy, his body cut into pieces with an electric bone saw while he was still alive, allegedly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Look, this has been incredibly polarizing,” Graeme McDowell said. “I think we all agree up here, take the Khashoggi situation; we all agree that’s reprehensible. Nobody is going to argue that fact. We are not politicians. I know you guys hate that expression, but we are really not, unfortunately. We are professional golfers. If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we are proud to help them on that journey.”

McDowell’s use of the word “proud” was particularly upsetting to human rights activists, including Lina Alhathloul, an author and Saudi citizen who now lives in Brussels.

“It was disgusting, to be honest,” Alhathloul said. “It’s gross. It’s inhumane. It removes all the humanity of Saudi people. It’s really used as a façade for the regime to pretend like they’re opening up. I don’t want to say it’s about sports. It’s about the use of sports. You’re basically using famous people to cover up what is happening in the country, to pretend that they’re having reform. It’s about players repeating the narrative of criminals. They’re consenting to be used to whitewash what is happening in the country, and siding with the government instead of the people. People like my sister.”

Alhathloul’s sister, Loujain, was one of the Kingdom’s most outspoken advocates trying to change laws that would allow Saudi women to drive. She spoke out in favor of ending the male guardianship system that only grants women the right to travel, get married or work with the permission of their father or husband. In 2018, the same year Khashoggi was murdered, Loujain was kidnapped in the United Arab Emirates by Saudi officials, taken back to the kingdom and charged with terrorism. She spent nearly three years in prison, frequently being tortured, until she was finally released in 2021 after an international human rights campaign led by her family. Loujain Alhathloul has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she remains in Saudi Arabia on a permanent travel ban and cannot speak to the press.

“If everyone rehabilitates MBS [Mohammed bin Salman], there will be other Khashoggis and Lujans,” Alhathloul said. “But it won’t have as much media attention and public attention. It might become a norm in other regimes. I’m sure many other Khashoggis and Lujans will also be in prison and be tortured. We cannot change MBS, but we can change the pressure around him. The whole country is living in a very dark age. No one speaks. The atmosphere is full of fear. And events like sports and concerts are a curtain that hides all of it, but the reality is behind that curtain.”

At the Centurion Golf Club on Saturday, it felt less like a golf tournament away from the rope line and more like a festival. A lively crowd, including hundreds of young kids, partied in the Fan Experience Zone. They played the makeshift miniature golf course, hit shots into giant nets from real sand traps and danced to music and dined on everything from paella to pimento cheese sandwiches. Alcohol could be purchased for as little as five pounds, far cheaper than at most golf tournaments. The golf, in fact, felt secondary to the party unfolding. (No shot hit all week, outside of Mickelson’s opening tee shot on Day 1, received anything close to a roar.)

During Schwartzel’s trophy presentation, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the head of the Public Investment Fund, couldn’t resist bringing up the subject of money yet again, announcing to the crowd that since LIV was 54 in Roman numerals and 54 is “a perfect score in golf,” he would award any player who shoots a 54 on the LIV Tour with $54 million. As absurd of an offer as it was — only one golfer, Jim Furyk, has ever shot 58 — it still sent an obvious message to the world: LIV Golf can offer riches no one else can.

Back in the press tent, Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace couldn’t stop giggling when a reporter asked their teammate Hennie du Plessis how it felt to make more in one day ($2.875 million) than he’d made in his entire career.

“Obviously, I’ve worked hard to be in this position and to earn this amount of money,” du Plessis said. “I’ve got LIV Golf to thank for that, for giving me the opportunity.”

Given that all four golfers on the winning team were born and raised in South Africa, and that apartheid ended during their lives, it seemed fitting to ask what role they believed sports might play in a country’s global reputation and future. Schwartzel and Oosthuizen fidgeted as though they had never considered it, but Grace admitted that he had been thinking about the subject after recently watching a documentary on Netflix about South African cricketer Hansie Cronje, the first sporting hero of post-apartheid South Africa.

“Any sport has got the chance to change things in the world,” Grace said. “You know, you get sports people that come together. You see a lot of it in America, how the basketball players, the NFL players, all these type of guys come together. You know, they change lives. And sport does so much for charities around the world, and everybody can just benefit from this.”

Some will benefit more than others, of course.

When the news conference ended, the four South Africans stood together and posed for a team picture worth — if not a thousand words — then at least the $10,916,666 the four of them had just combined to win.

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