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LIV, Laugh, Love: He’s a 10 but employed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund

I read this tweet three months ago when it was penned during the height of the “He/she’s a ten” memes and the LIV/PGA tour drama that escalated this summer. The context of this tweet directly refers to the persona of Brooks Koepka, golf’s resident bad boy and four-time major winner who spurned the PGA tour in favor of the endless riches that the LIV invitational series has come to offer. Brooks’ reputation is one of a good-looking athlete who really doesn’t care much about anything, and as someone who follows the sport, I thought it was funny (sue me). The weeks that followed this initial internet hysteria saw many household names on the PGA tour defect for this newly minted rival syndicate, LIV Golf, which is bankrolled by the Saudi sovereign fund (SSF). The SSF is one of the largest such funds in the world, bursting at the seams with $620 billion assets under management. The sole purpose of the fund is to invest funds on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government, and LIV CEO and major winner Greg Norman unveiled the league’s vision as something that would change the face of golf for the better.

Well thanks a lot, Greg, because it has only made things worse. Before and after Koepka’s defection, notable tour card holders such as Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Na and Patrick Reed all came join to LIV, thrusting the golf world into a civil war. Now, as the LIV and PGA seasons have ended and the former looks for a television rights partner, I would be remiss to not argue that for the foreseeable future, the landscape of professional golf has been ruined. Crushed like the Galactic Republic. Toppled like the Berlin Wall. The PGA tour may or may not be responsible for losing a dozen of its largest names to the LIV tour, but the conflict is here for good. As the riches of the Saudi backed syndicate seep through the sport, let me explain what I think lies ahead for professional golf.

A product of the global pandemic, golf’s popularity amongst amateurs has never been higher. Amongst spectators and the purchasing public however, the game has lacked the storylines outside of the LIV/PGA drama that generate interest, revenue and increased brand value. The decline of Tiger Woods since his riveting Masters victory in 2019 has played a role in this, but people are just not consuming the game like they used to. Now factor that the most idiosyncratic personalities in the sport (Koepka, Mickelson, DeChambeau, Johnson, etc.) have packed their bags and left, the PGA tour has a talent massive issue on their hands.

But so does LIV. And yes, I could talk about how the league is funded by a country who has no care for basic human rights and is no friend of the West. But when it comes to dollars and cents, they are as flush as one can be, and this has kept LIV leadership has silent regarding these societal issues. When asked about this track record of issues, Norman simply stated, “We’ve all made mistakes”. If Norman was referring to a 12-year-old who had stolen a candy bar from a gas station, that might’ve been the appropriate response. But for a country that didn’t allow women to drive until July of 2018, actively persecutes the LGBTQ+ community and puts journalists critical of the regime to death, do you really think they view their politics as mistakes Gregory?

But along with the horrific implications that go with being bankrolled by a morally inept evil oil empire, LIV golf is simply bad product. The name LIV derives from the Roman numerals for 54, as LIV golfers only play 54 holes in a weekend tournament, with no cuts to be missed or made. Compare this to the PGA tour, where a 72-hole tournament is played Thursday through Sunday, with a cut that shrinks the field by half being determined on Friday. Currently, if you don’t make the cut in a PGA event, you don’t get paid for the weekend. In addition to this, four day events separate the best from the rest, as the grueling rounds have made for memorable TV narratives. John Daly, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are all names that come to mind when you think of an excellent live sports narrative. For LIV, the answer for “will anyone actually watch this thing” is a no, because nothing is at stake. No matter what, these golfers have millions in their pocket.

An interesting conversation with a friend who attended an LIV event in New Jersey saw her comment to me, “It’s great, the players are treated much better on this tour than they are on the PGA”. And after it settled with me that this might be true, as I don’t know the realities of the differing working conditions for both groups, I realize in reflection the conclusion of my point. Golf is not only a rich’s man game, but a game that takes more mental stress on the body than it does physical. Golfers get to travel the world and enjoy a game where amateurs are routinely encouraged to drink like fish and gamble like heathens while playing. They are golfers. Not coal miners, teachers, first responders or rectors in Residence Halls here at Notre Dame. Its golf. For professionals, it is a tradition that nothing is given, but everything is earned. If you don’t like it, then take a day job and join where a country club that would be happy to have you participate in their events. Yes, as a business student I know and believe that everyone is entitled to earn as money as they would like to. But when you complain about conditions making millions a year putting a ball into a hole, and then spurn your employer to be paid to do the same thing by Saudi Arabia, I really don’t think you get a say in the matter.

Now many LIV golfers have danced around the question of their defection when the subject is broached. But Harold Varner III gave a blunt answer that moved against this trend. He described his contract as “life changing money” and a “financial breakthrough”. But as these record contracts continue to be signed, I would like to point out that no amount of money ever bought another second of time. LIV athletes are going to have plenty of time in their shortened weekends to think about their adjusted contribution to the sport of golf, society, and to their new reputations as professional athletes. So, as these LIV defectors enjoy their cash in a bathtub like Scrooge McDuck, I hope they reflect on what master they serve. And as no man can serve two, I hope this reflection will lead to the collapse of the LIV tour and not to the landscape of professional golf as we know it.

Stephen Viz is a One Year MBA candidate and graduate of Holy Cross College. Hailing from Orland Park, Illinois, his columns are all trains of thoughts, and he can be found at either Decio Cafe or at Mendoza. He can be reached at sviz@nd.edu or on Twitter at @StephenViz.

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LIV: Making golf the 54th sport to sellout

If I asked you what Phil Mickleson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia all have in common, what would you say? Well, some of you might say you have no idea who they are. Those familiar with the game of golf would likely say something along the lines of them being legends in the game of golf or all being champions of the most prestigious tournament in golf, The Masters. Those who pay close attention to the golf world, however, might identify them as three of the most prominent golfers to defect from the established PGA Tour to the new LIV Golf Tour. 

A great deal of you may be wondering why you should care. And that is totally fair. I did not expect to be writing a column about sports, let alone golf. The LIV Golf Tour is important, however, because of who runs it — The Saudi Arabia Sovereign Wealth Fund. The Saudis created the LIV Golf Tour in order to rival the American PGA Tour that has existed without a serious challenger for decades. 

Now, there are serious grievances to be had with the PGA Tour and the way it treats its players. This includes the fact that they do not disclose how much of their profits they keep and that they do not pay a significant number of players in each tournament (essentially those that play the worst). This is part of the argument those players who chose to go LIV have made. Some of the players have even gone as far as suing the PGA Tour for anti-competitive practices when they were suspended for playing on the LIV Tour.

Along with these grievances, many LIV golfers include platitudes about ‘growing’ and ‘transforming’ the game of golf as their last line of defense. Yet, when it comes down to it, we all know why the players went to LIV: money. Dustin Johnson has made $75 million over the course of his 15 year career on the PGA Tour, which is the third greatest amount of money ever made on the PGA tour. It is rumored that he will make $125 million to join LIV golf. Phil Mickleson has made the second greatest amount of money ever on the PGA Tour, $95 million, and his contract with LIV is said to be worth $200 million. The PGA’s highest ever earner, Tiger Woods, has made $125 million on the Tour. LIV is rumored to have offered Woods $800 million. Yes, $800 million. Unlike the other two, Woods declined. 

So, this is where the controversy begins. First, some critics, including fellow PGA Tour golfers like Rory McIlroy, do not like the prospect of an exorbitant amount of money being poured in to change the direction of the game. More importantly, I would argue, many people take issue with the idea that these golfers would agree to play on a tour sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government. The Saudi government is known for numerous human rights violations including the recent killing of a US based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

I do not have a strong opinion on the former, but I can tell you that every inch of me agrees with the latter of these criticisms. The Saudi government does many bad things, and these golfers are allowing themselves to be bought off so that the Saudi government can sportswash its image and direct the attention away from these problems. Yet, there are a couple of things that give me pause before using every bad word possible to describe these golfers. 

First, these golfers are being offered life-changing, and sometimes generational, wealth. I am not just talking about Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickleson, who with their PGA Tour earnings and sponsorship deals have made plenty of money in their careers, but also the lesser known players. For example, James Piot, the 2021 US Amateur Champion, who is only 23 years old, was offered $1 million. Another key point: the cumulative prize money for only eight tournaments is $225 million. A player can make up $4 million in prize money based on their performance at each individual tournament, and each player is guaranteed to make at least $120,000. Yes, the player that gets last will make six-figures for three days of work.

Second, Saudi money is already all over the sporting world, and even other golf tournaments. Saudi Aramco is one of the biggest sponsors of the Women’s European Golf Tour. It is also extremely prominent in the sport of Formula One. Now, I am not someone in a position to decide whether or not this is a good strategy on the part of those organizations, but it does cause me to wonder what makes LIV golf all that different. It is important to note some nuances including that there isn’t a strong alternative for Formula 1 drivers and these other leagues are not exclusively bankrolled by the Saudis. Yet, these nuances do not change the fact that a significant source of revenue for many existing sports leagues is the Saudi Government or one of its entities. This is not to mention that the 2022 Men’s World Cup is being held in Qatar and the Olympics were held in China earlier this year. FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, was openly bribed to put the tournament in Qatar, another country known for its human rights violations particularly against immigrant workers. And, I probably don’t need to mention it, but China does some bad stuff too, especially to its Muslim Uyghur population. Yet, no one seems to be calling on participants to boycott these competitions. So, why should these golfers be held to a higher standard?

My point is not that these golfers should be absolved of their culpability in aiding Saudi sportswashing. I find it pretty disingenuous that Phil Mickleson called the Saudis “scary motherf******,” but is more than happy to take their $200 million and continue on his way. My point is, rather, that the criticism of LIV golfers seems like a double standard. 

Beyond the leagues themselves, by and large we expect athletes to do what is in their best financial interest. Alexander Isak, one of the most talented young soccer players in the world, just signed a contract with Newcastle United, the English Premier League club owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. No one batted an eye. Kylian Mbappe, a soccer player widely considered as one of the best two or three in the world, just signed the most lucrative contract the soccer world has ever seen, to play for Paris Saint Germain, the French club owned by a subsidiary of the Qatari Sovereign Wealth Fund. And, while some people criticized the decision of Mbappe to stay at PSG, it was largely due to his flirting with Real Madrid before choosing to stay rather than him taking Qatari money. Why is that? Maybe because it’s a little less obvious, maybe because people don’t want to think about it: I’m not sure. All I know is that if we are to draw a line against human rights violations through sports, then we should expect that line to be drawn in all competitions, not just LIV golf. 

To make my point clear — criticize LIV golf all you want, just make sure you don’t turn a blind eye to all the other dirty money pouring into sports because it’s a little harder to see.

Patrick Condon is a Junior in Siegfried Hall. He is currently serving as the Vice President of BridgeND.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Tuesdays at 5pm in Duncan Student Center W246 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at bridgend@nd.edu or on Twitter @bridge_ND.