The Crown Prince is nothing if not opportunistic, whether waiting until a dissident journalist enters the Istanbul consulate to have him dismembered or choosing an event with 20 club pros in the field to make his final pitch promising top players that they don’t have to share riches with also-rans.
On the eve of the 103rd PGA Championship, the chatter at Kiawah Island is less about potential winners of the year’s second major than a possible splintering of the (men’s) game if a sufficient number of elite players sign-on with the Saudi-financed Super League Golf for fees reported at $30 million or more. It’s a controversial concept that rumbled along for years in near-secrecy without gaining traction, but which seems now to be hurtling toward the decisive moment like an executioner’s sulthan.
On Tuesday night, a group of managers and agents met near the golf course with the League’s backers to again hear their pitch and assurances about legal positions. Some PGA Tour players, including several of the biggest stars in the sport, have been talking amongst themselves about jumping to the Super League and consulted lawyers about whether the Tour can ban them, which commissioner Jay Monahan has made clear he will do. They must understand that it would be an incredibly brave or foolhardy man who risks being benched while opposing counsel rack up billable years trying to strangle each other with litigation.
There are compelling layers of intrigue not immediately obvious in the Tour’s effort to quash the Saudi circuit. For example, which golf organizations will rally to Monahan’s side and what courtesy they might expect in return. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh lent his public support to the Tour on Tuesday, saying that renegade players would likely not play in future PGA Championships and forfeit the chance to compete or captain in the Ryder Cup. Waugh’s outfit owns half of that lucrative Cup. Another sizable chunk belongs to the European Tour, in which the PGA Tour is close to having a de facto controlling interest. Waugh might reasonably expect no future attempt to squeeze his share of the proceeds.
The U.S. Golf Association has not yet articulated a firm position on the breakaway idea or said whether players who join would remain eligible to compete in future U.S. Opens. Its stance will be of intense interest to the PGA Tour, just as the USGA is surely curious if the Tour will remain adversarial on the fraught distance debate. Two entirely unconnected topics, you understand, but it’s a connected world.
Entry to major championships is largely dependent on the Official World Golf Rankings, and the board of that ranking organization is stocked with members representing those major championships. These are not people prone to voting against their own self-interest. We may be about to see just how many bylaws in golf are etched in pencil.
Interest among players for the Super Golf League is a combination of many things: simmering resentment among top players that the Tour structure is too weighted toward rewarding mediocre performers, a simple desire to secure their financial futures, naked greed, or even a pressing need for cash to ameliorate past misadventures. Live like a Saudi prince and you’ll need a Saudi prince to bail you out.
But none of them can legitimately claim to be motivated by a desire for competition.
Imagine Gretzky having quit because Dancing on Ice offered more money. Or Jordan’s Bulls deciding that joining the Harlem Globetrotters was better than winning championships. Those who join the putative Saudi circuit are acknowledging that their competitive careers are over in any meaningful sense, that they’re no longer engaged in the pursuit of history or a legacy of excellence, or in measuring themselves against the greatest ever. It’s instead an admission that they’re not athletes but entertainers, mere vessels for marketing product, even if that product happens to be the currish reputation of a brutal regime.
But those philosophical matters aren’t even the most troublesome questions players who split will face.
There would be a public relations war that rebel players seem fated to lose. They would in effect be owned by the Saudi Super League, told where and when they work. And like most employees, that comes with rationalizing or justifying discomfiting activities by your employer. For most of us, that’s usually on the order of the bosses supporting causes or candidates with whom we disagree, but in this instance, it promises press conferences that raise awkwardness to an art form. Picture it:
“Bryson. Great win today. How did you manage to not get distracted by reports of last night’s airstrike that destroyed a hospital in Yemen?”
“Phil, congratulations on a terrific round. Will you unwind later by attending the public flogging in the town square?”
“Rosie, superb par save on the last. But tell me, do your wife and daughter need to surrender their passports over here, or is it just local women who are denied travel documents?”
Signing on as an accessory to the Crown Prince’s effort to sportswash his abysmal human rights record means that golfers long accustomed to toothless questioning will find themselves fielding questions from more aggressive news media on every Saudi atrocity and abuse. It’s fanciful to think otherwise, and willful ignorance on the part of managers who think the reputations of their stars could emerge unscathed. And what of their current sponsors who suddenly find their logos emblazoned on those who launder the Prince’s bloodied robes?
One assumes the managers who attended Tuesday night’s meeting at Kiawah Island sought assurances on issues that their hosts will struggle to supply. There are simply too many unknowns—the durability of the concept, the lawfulness of the Tour’s promised lifetime ban, the sacrificing of career independence, the reputational risk. Players on the PGA Tour are given to waxing lyrical on their love of golf’s risk/reward essence. But this would be an enormous gamble, even for $30 million.
The 103rd PGA Championship might ultimately be remembered as the week when the Saudi effort to hijack professional golf finally collapsed under the weight of its own filth.