Playing golf for money
I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating. I do not like golf. I don’t like to watch it, and I really don’t like playing. There’s a long list of reasons for that, most routed in the fact that it’s slow and intensely boring. And if you’re not good at, which to be clear I am not, it’s like forcing yourself to take a calculus exam over and over again – and to spend a lot of money for that privilege.
Of course, money is relative in the world of golf, especially for those few who play the sport professionally. That has become quite apparent over the past week, as a group of pro golfers played their first match on the new LIV golf tour, the inaugural event held in London. For those who haven’t heard, LIV aims to compete with the US based PGA Tour, which is basically the big leagues for American golf. The PGA runs most pro tournaments in the US besides some of the majors, and it’s where golf’s elite earn their paychecks – outside of endorsement deals, of course. Which is why from the minute a competitive golfer picks up a club, they dream of someday earning a PGA Tour card, which lets them travel the country in pursuit of golfing riches and glory.
At least that’s the way it used to be, before LIV came along. Backed by the Saudi government, LIV is throwing silly amounts of money for top golfers to give their series a try. Like $200 million to Phil Mickelson to play on the tour, whether he wins or not. And guaranteed earnings for everyone at the event, even if they finish last. At a PGA event, if you miss the cut, you get absolutely nothing. The discrepancy is pretty extreme, which is why a handful of top guys are giving it a shot, even against the mandate of the PGA, who have strongly encouraged their players to stay away.
That’s to put it mildly. Because all 17 PGA Tour members who played in London are now banned from PGA events. The most notable are Mickelson and two-time tour event champion Dustin Johnson, but it’s quite likely there will be more when LIV hosts its first event in the US later this month. Which means a bunch of top golfers will have to decide whether they want to earn generational wealth. Generally speaking, that’s not a hard question, even as some athletes have spoken about the sanctity of the PGA Tour and its events, as if it’s described in the Bible.
Of course, if it were only so simple. The controversy isn’t about whether an athlete should be loyal to some organization that runs the Shell Open in Houston. It’s that LIV golf is funded by the Saudi government, one of the world’s most abusive with a human rights record more frightening than a green at Augusta. The money guaranteed to top golfers is, as they say, dirty. Critics accuse the Saudi government of sports washing, using elite global sport to obfuscate their crimes against humanity. See recent Russian and Chinese Olympics for reference. Which would also mean that LIV athletes, including several Americans, would be effective pawns of global geopolitics, complicit in the normalization of and unjust and undemocratic regime.
That’s just part of this game of golfing chicken that has suddenly made this genteel sport something of a political battle ground. Newly banned golfers have talked about career opportunities, while PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan asked hypothetically, “have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”
There’s no simple answer here, even though a lot of this is pretty simple. Are the athletes playing in LIV events largely selling their souls to earn a fortune from a bunch of criminals? Yes, of course. Similarly, do we, as fuel burning Americans who complain about rising prices of gas and pretty much everything also support murderous regimes in Saudi Arabia and around the globe? You bet we do. So you see, in a global society where hypocrisy is a measure, not a binomial, it’s tough to point fingers, even at people who are clearly doing something wrong. And that’s without even popping the self-righteous balloon of the PGA, guardians of one of our nation’s most exclusionary and inaccessible sports with a rulebook that reads like an IKEA manual.
You want to criticize people playing the LIV Tour. Go right ahead, they deserve it. But you can’t stop there, not if you’re being honest. Or, you could be like me, and just ignore the sport altogether.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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