Winner (and Losers) Take All

In 1967, Arnold Palmer took home $20,000 as the winner of the American Golf Classic, making him the first golfer to go over $1 million in earnings…. for a career. Of course Palmer would go on to make many more millions as television money and the expansion of the PGA Tour led by then Commissioner Deane Beman lined the pockets of many more professionals and eventually allowed Tiger Woods to accumulate $1.7 billion in his spectacular, but occasionally controversial, career.

Despite Woods’ groundbreaking racial appeal, the game of golf has remained largely lily white and the province of elite country clubs…and men. While the LPGA has thrived and even the august bastions of the game’s history, including the storied home of the Masters, Augusta National, have been coerced to accept people of color and women as members, golf has been unable to shed its reputation as mostly appealing to the elite.

Among the general population, golf’s participation level has ebbed and flowed, although the insularity of the game and its relative safety led to a notable surge in participation in the aftermath of the first Covid surge, in 2020. But the game is maddeningly hard, with average scores for amateurs hovering around 95 for men and 107 for women and only 26% of men regularly scoring under 90, an arbitrary score for relative proficiency in the game.

But how many people really care about golf other than its obsessive participants? That may change because of events this week that dragged the mostly sleepy pastime into the geopolitical sphere by the kickoff of the LIV Tour at a site north of London that seeks to challenge the PGA Tour’s monolithic control of the men’s game. (LIV stands for the Roman numeral 54, the number of holes to be played in each event).

But the LIV Tour (officially labelled the LIV Golf International Series) is not just a business rival seeking to challenge the PGA Tour’s dominance. It is headed by former Australian star Greg Norman, whose many victories will be forever overshadowed by his notorious collapse in the 1996 Masters. More critically, however, it is financed by Saudi Arabia as a critical component of its attempt to whitewash its dismal human rights record which most notably includes the murder of dissident journalist Jamel Khashoggi ostensibly at the direction of the de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman through its ownership and sponsorship of several prominent sports ventures.

The PGA has reacted with vehemence against the players who have defected to the LIV Tour by revoking the membership of those who have not themselves resigned. The most famous golfer who has joined the tour is Phil Mickelson, whose purported $200 million payout should more than cover his rumored gambling debt of $40 million. But, in a way, you can’t blame Phil and other players, such as Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, for cashing in. But the bigger news is that several current top ten players such as two time major champion Dustin Johnson and Bryson De Chambreau have also joined the defectors.

While the PGA Tour’s revocation of membership should not prevent the players involved with the LIV Tour from playing in the majors that are not under its auspices, it remains to be seen the bigger impact their move will have on their careers. Mickelson has already paid the price of losing several of his long-time sponsors. But politics often gets lost when money is involved and even the Biden White House is inching closer to repairing its fractured relationship with the Saudis, not coincidentally related to the need to counter the Russian atrocities in Ukraine and the political expediency of lowering gas prices before the November mid-terms.

At the end of the day, as in much of life, money talks. In addition to the purported upfront payments, the purses of the LIV Tour put the average payouts on the PGA Tour to shame. The winner of the inaugural LIV event will pocket a cool $4 million while even the last place finisher will collect $120,000. Compare that to your ordinary $2 Nassau in the weekly game at your local course. And when you next hear a pro claim that he would “play for free” for the “love of the game,” turn off the TV and go out and mow the lawn.


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