Sportswashing is not supposed to make commercial sense. Therein lies the reason that no normally functioning business saw fit to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at a disruption plan for golf. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) can attempt to rebrand a kingdom for which the murder of a journalist and human rights atrocities are typical reference points with the benefit of an apparently bottomless pit of cash. If the PGA and DP World Tours find themselves embroiled in a commercial long game with the Saudi-backed LIV Series, they know they will be outmuscled.
Events of recent days did, however, serve as a reminder of what advantage players of a certain vintage have taken of Saudis bearing gifts. There is cause to ponder the point at which the PIF – which is by very definition answerable to somebody – reflects on the value of golfers who have slipped towards irrelevance. That day of reckoning will arrive. It is merely a question of when.
LIV understandably heralded the coaxing of Henrik Stenson from Ryder Cup captaincy duties. This was a body blow inflicted by Greg Norman against golf’s anti-LIV establishment. The behaviour of Stenson and his representatives is dispiriting stuff; having agreed to lead Europe against the United States next year in Rome, he had a contractual obligation to stay clear of LIV. If the Swede and his management knew a change of plan was possible all along, or even used the captaincy to leverage towards that, they should be ashamed. If this chain of events took Stenson by surprise, there is a serious amount of naivety at play. In an incredible public statement, the 2016 Open champion tried to paint himself as a victim who was somehow edged out of the captain’s role despite wanting to combine it with LIV appearances.
What Norman, LIV’s figurehead, will not want to focus on is that Stenson’s on-course performances have fallen off a cliff. It is a triumph these days if he breaks 72. Since a share of ninth at the 2019 US Open, the 46-year-old’s major record reads: T20, cut, cut, cut, T38, T64, cut, cut, cut, cut. He has not won since 2017. Stenson serves a purpose for LIV in statement terms but adds nothing in a sporting sense. And yet he will be guaranteed at least $120,000 (£100,000) for every tournament on top of a signing-on fee reportedly worth tens of millions.
Stenson falls into a category that includes other LIV converts such as Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Sergio García, Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel. Their best days are behind them.
Louis Oosthuizen was contemplating retirement before the LIV cheque was wafted beneath his nose. Brooks Koepka’s major glory of 2018 and 2019 feel like a lifetime ago. Bryson DeChambeau’s Open performance suggested tales of his demise may be exaggerated but injury has reduced his prominence. DeChambeau, like Patrick Reed, had cause to seek exit from the PGA Tour, which meant the LIV option was perfectly timed.
Norman used media duties at the opening LIV event to admit he had waited three decades to mount a challenge to the PGA Tour. For him, this is personal. Finally, the Australian found an entity rich enough to fund his dream. Even better for Norman is that he is being paid an exorbitant salary to live it.
The broader picture involves scenes of partying on a private jet. It includes Pat Perez appearing in a shirt with dollar-note design. There are agents, public-relations companies and caddies collecting small fortunes on the back of a model that serves no competitive purpose.
LIV can make as many noises as it likes about potential broadcast partners, gambling openings and the sale of team franchises but the unavoidable current look is of opportunists who have used Saudi’s golf ambitions to line their pockets. The rights and wrongs of taking that option can be debated but far more intriguing is for how long the PIF is content to provide such generosity. Should Mohammed bin Salman sense he is being taken advantage of the future will not look pretty for LIV golfers.
Validation of LIV’s approach will come if, as has been speculated, it can agree a deal with the recently crowned Open champion, Cameron Smith. A fierce exchange between Australian broadcasters last week emphasised the scale of reaction Smith, who has a hitherto unblemished reputation, may receive at home should he take the plunge.
LIV’s need to add a player of such standing will mean an offer well in excess of $100m heading in Smith’s direction. It is a deal that would earn ridicule in any other boardroom. The PIF has to ensure it is not the one being laughed at.
July 24, 2022 at 02:18PM Ewan Murray