Deserving Each Other: The PGA Tour-LIV Golf Merger

LIV Golf Tournament in Adelaide

Described as acrimonious, divisive and disruptive to golf, the LIV Golf Tournament, launched with the aid of former world number one Greg Norman and an enormous well of capital fronted by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), will now unite with the enemy.  The announcement that the PGA Tour and LIV Golf would be merging would only have shocked the naïve and a number of fox hole bleeding hearts.  And there were a few, clearly ignorant of that powerful nexus between money, the privateer spirit and sporting administrators.

Dylan Wu, PGA Tour member, could be counted as one of them.  He wondered why the PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, despite brimming hostility against LIV Golf had “basically got a promotion to CEO of all golf in the world by going back on everything he said in the past 2 years?”  Having more or less answered his own question, Wu went on to express admiration for the LIV Golf renegade, Phil Mickelson, for whom he expressed gushing admiration.  “He went up in flames in the media cuz of his brutal honesty and now everyone’s finally realizing he was right and the PGA Tour does whatever they feel like.”

Brandel Chamblee, a golf analyst, for they do exist, expressed his shock.  “I can’t imagine that very many people outside the 2-3-4-5 people in the room and brought this merger to fruition would have known anything about it.”  Perhaps he should have asked the functionaries in Riyadh for clues or had a closer look at the black heart of the PGA Tour.

In the first season of LIV Golf events, the PGA Tour knew it was facing a formidable competitor that potentially threatened its existence.  Each regular-season event’s total came to $25 million; $20 million was set aside for the individual event; $5 million went towards the team competition component.  The ultimate winner’s earnings came to $4 million; the wooden spooner got a not negligible $120,000 for just turning up.

Off the field, the sides did legal battle.  Most prominent was an antitrust lawsuit originally filed against the Tour by such LIV Golf exiles as Phil Mickelson.  It was subsequently commandeered by LIV Golf.  The Tour then filed a countersuit against LIV, convincing the courts that it could also add Saudi Arabia’s PIF and its governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, as co-defendants.

Given the House of Saud’s indecent record on human rights, and its programmatic determination to use sports as a vehicle to rinse and launder its misdeeds, this was not something the lawyers for LIV Golf were hoping for.  They could only whine: to comply and supply any depositions in the case would amount to a violation of Saudi Arabian law.

In the US Northern District of California court, Judge Beth Labson Freeman ruled in April that the PIF and Al-Rumayyan could both be the subject of discovery and depositions.  The decision meant that first deposition subpoenas could be served on PIF and Al-Rumayyan at a location in New York City, as opposed to Riyadh itself.  The US legal system was getting closer than ever to peering into the labyrinth of Saudi funding and what would have, effectively, been an anatomising effort.  This, sadly, would not come to pass: the merger kills off any litigation.

In this disgraceful compromise, the PGA Tour has effectively ended a chance to expose the sordid arrangement at the heart of golf.  Leaving aside how smug Norman will be feeling about this turn of events, the one true victor in all of this is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The PIF will now become the funding heart of world golf.  It is all in keeping with attempts made by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030”, a program that envisages the Kingdom’s commercial capture of a number of sports, all designed to advance the country’s supposedly benign ambitions.  This has taken the form of the most monumental lashings of sportswashing, an exercise of mass distraction that serves to seduce the cerebrally soft and willingly gullible.

In 2022, the London-based human rights organisation Grant Liberty published a report revealing that $2.1 billion had been spent on a number of international sporting events and acquiring a number of prized assets, including the Newcastle United football team.

With sportswashing on such a scale, the Crown Prince continues to burnish his reputation as a reformer.  This serves to conceal his more murderous tendencies as a petulant princeling who seized the House of Saud by the throat, cleansing the stables of any rivals along the way. The October 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate was more in keeping with his sentiments.

The link between the audacious and clumsy killing of Khashoggi by a disproportionately large hit squad, and orders made by the Crown Prince, was confirmed by US intelligence officials in an unclassified report released in February 2021.  Bin Salman was in “control of decision making in the Kingdom” and supported “violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi”.

Some parallels will be drawn with previous sporting disputes that eventually led to compromise.  Cricket was shaken in the late 1970s by the breakaway World Series Cricket tournament, a measure that proved so successful traditional, lacklustre bureaucrats had to relent.  But the players who participated in the tournament sponsored by the Australian press tycoon Kerry Packer had been previously paid a pittance to represent their country by the various cricketing boards.  While Packer’s ego was colossal, along with his willingness to be chiselled into posterity, the players never forgot that post-World Series cricket enabled cricketers to earn a living from their craft.

The golfers, in sharp contrast, have shown themselves to be brazen mercenaries, ideologically conditioned by the pay packets they receive.  Pay them a sum, and they are bound to say anything.  Those behind the PIF, and the likes of Monahan, understand the rationale.  The angered players have also shown themselves to be callow in spirit, regretting the money they might have gotten had they forfeited their loyalty.  This merger shows that all the participants richly deserve each other.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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