“May you live in interesting times.”
—Ancient Klingon Curse
It’s Championship Sunday, and not just any Championship Sunday, but the 150th Open Championship Sunday at the Old Course of St. Andrews, the home of golf. It’s supposed to be a time of joyous celebration and poignant reflection, a moment when all generations of golfer should be united as one, across the world.
How terrible for golf to be at a crossroads right now, and a rather dire one at that.
Ordinarily, we’d be blithely munching strawberries and cream, planning our late afternoon round after watching the Open finale, and firing up the grill for a sunset dinner as another carefree weekend came to a close. But things haven’t been ordinary in far too long. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have risen: war, famine, pestilence, and death. To be accurate, a proxy war in Europe with a nuclear superpower, a recession where people must choose between food and fuel, and a pandemic virus that sickened and killed millions of people in nearly every inhabited country across the entire globe.
Both St. Andrews and the 150 Open Championship deserved a far better backdrop.
Tell me you imagined any of this in 2019 when Shane Lowry hoisted the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush.
Sadly, the specter of uncertainty even looms over golf. Not just the PGA Tour and the DP Tour, but our entire game and its bedrock foundational ethos and values have been usurped into a geopolitical football by a ruthless, vastly rich and powerful potentate, Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman, MBS as the world calls him.
We’re talking waaaaaaaaay past rich moguls that play Monopoly with real buildings. We’re talking waaaaaaaaa past multi-national corporations with enough money to open their own mint. We’re talking James Bond supervillain stuff: one man who is, essentially, a country unto himself, with Machiavellian geopolitical aspirations and machinations, many of them sinister.
In the time between the U.S. Open last June and this week’s Open Championship the chess match between the established pro golf tours and LIV morphed into a full-blown UFC title fight, no holds barred. Things have been happening at the sub-light speed of the Internet. Players continue to defect, and correspondingly get banned by their home tour. Some get dropped by sponsors, some get relationships “paused.” Forget courts – there are already several lawsuits – but now we’re talking government intercession – some might say interference. A quick primer of recent events is in order, as is a closer look at MBS, the man Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, and a gaggle of others are beholden to in return for fealty.
The biggest takeaway regarding MBS came from Saad Aljabri, once the number two official in the Saudi intelligence agency, but now living in exile in Canada and fearing daily for his life.
“I am here to sound the alarm about a psychopath, a killer, in the Middle East with infinite resources, who poses a threat to his people, to the Americans and to the planet,” Aljabri stated in a CBS 60 Minutes interview that aired a week before the Open and immediately preceding a meeting between MBS and President Joe Biden. “A psychopath with no empathy, doesn’t feel emotion, never learned from his experience. And we have witnessed atrocities and crimes committed by this killer,” he continued.
MBS, son of reigning King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, came to power in a Shakespearean-in-magnitude palace purge that left several members of his family – including most rivals to the throne – dead or penniless. When the dust cleared MBS was crown prince and his investment funds are worth, currently, somewhere between $600-800 billion. Presently, the total wealth at MBS’s disposal adding in all family holdings is roughly 1.4 trillion.
That’s the GNP of an entire prosperous, modern country. MBS is nearly as rich as Italy, South Korea, or Canada, all of whom are between a 1.6 trillion and 1.9 trillion GNP.
Aljabri exposed MBS’ penchant for employing a vicious special unit of mercenaries called the Tiger Squad, merciless, bloodthirsty jackals he allegedly uses for kidnappings and killings. Aljabri specifically pinned the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 on the Tiger Squad.
Khashoggi was there to pick up his marriage license.
They beat him to a pulp, dismembered him, and carried the pieces of him out of the building inside several suitcases.
Worse still, according to Aljabri, bin Salman told Aljabri’s contacts in Saudi intelligence of Bin Salman’s intent to kill the sitting king – Abdullah – so as to clear the way for his father to take the throne.
“And he told him, ‘I want to assassinate King Abdullah. I get a poison ring from Russia. It’s enough for me just to shake hands with him and he will be done,’” Aljabri told American investigative news show “60 Minutes.”
Barely a step ahead of MBS’s killers, Aljabri escaped to Canada, where he has been since just before MBS consolidated power. Two of Aljabri’s children were not so lucky; they languish in Saudi prisons along with his son-in-law was kidnapped from a third country and returned to MBS’s clutches. Aljabri alleges they are being tortured. His allegations come to light just as U.S. President Biden travels to the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, there to meet with MBS and request the Saudis’ assistance with oil production and exportation.
The night before Biden was to leave, his Department of Justice announced an anti-trust investigation against the PGA Tour for punishing and banning its players who defected to LIV.
Coincidence? I think not.
Happily, this week has provided a critical pushback to LIV. Indeed, a lot has happened between the two Opens, with slings and arrows firing on both sides.
Biden’s DOJ investigation should sputter. Similar complaints in 1994 were brought when the PGA Tour launched the World Golf Championships. They came to nothing. Moreover, it triggered a sharp reply. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, called on the Justice Department to examine Saudi Arabia’s backing of LIV Golf and investigate whether the PGA Tour rival has violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires certain agents of foreign principals who are engaged in political activities to publicly disclose of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as “activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.”
Roy wrote in his complaint:
“At this point, there is no mistaking the origins and purpose of LIV Golf. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is funneling money through its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to stand up LIV Golf as an exercise in public relations. In other words, a foreign government’s dollars are being used to enhance that government’s brand and positioning here in the United States. And yet, suspiciously, LIV Golf and entities tied to it have not registered their FARA affiliation with the Department of Justice. To date, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, through LIV Golf, has spent hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars to underwrite American public relations and marketing firms/individuals to promote a positive image of Saudi Arabia.”
Because the participating golfers, courses and event management companies are directly tied to LIV Golf, Roy says LIV and its associates must comply with FARA
But most importantly, Royal and Ancient Chief Executive Martin Slumbers put much speculation was put to rest Wednesday afternoon when he laid the lumber on LIV and its ringmaster Greg Norman.
“Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prize money that’s offered to them. I have absolutely no issue with that at all. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe the model we’ve seen at Centurion and Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interests of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money. We believe it undermines the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special,” Slumber stated firmly. “I would also like to say that in my opinion the continued commentary that this is about growing the game is just not credible and if anything, is harming the perception of our sport which we are working so hard to improve.”
But the comeuppance didn’t end there. Greg Norman, two-time Open Champion in 1986 and 1993 was dis-invited to all events, from the golf tournament to the Celebration of Champions to the Champions Dinner. That’s what happens when you’re as gauche and attention seeking as Harry and Meghan Markle. Phil Mickelson was also advised his presence might not be welcome at certain side events.
“We decided that we didn’t want the distraction,” Slumbers confirmed laconically. “We wanted to ensure that the conversation was all about this week and playing golf and balls in the air tomorrow and the Champion Golfer on Sunday. Greg hasn’t been here since 2010. He didn’t come in 2015. In fact, it’s many years since he’s even been to The Open. So there would have been another reason for that. So it was very clear to protect the integrity of this week.”
A media feeding frenzy ensued. Seminal journalist and author Sally Jenkins called Norman a cheap knock-off handbag and slammed LIV’s head-spinning usage of shotgun starts…and therefore, shotgun finishes…with the winner finishing on any random hole. Eamon Lynch called LIV fiscally irresponsible and “tinpot,” a sort of “welfare for washed up golfers.” And countless scribes have hammered the no cut format as an exhibition, not a competition.
Man bites dog? Journalists bite Shark.
For their part, has LIV doubled its attacks, started a round of lawfare, and found a soft underbelly to exploit. They hired Ari Flescher – once press secretary to presidents – to handle PR aggressively. The professional caddies are being targeted with free everything: from hotel rooms, to courtesy cars to plane tickets to all the food and drink they could wish for; hence they pressure their players to defect. And court cases have blossomed like mushrooms at about the same rapid clip as sponsors have dropped golfers. Poulter and others were allowed to play in last week’s Scottish Open, but that does not mean they will prevail in the long run.
Now that we’ve seen LIV’s product, the entire world is noticing how LIV’s carnival games dumb down golf to its lowest common denominator and are designed to appeal only to casual eyeballs. Ardent, long-time pro golf fans seem skeeved by its low budget, frat boyish antics like Greg Norman pouring beer into a fan’s mouth from a balcony. It looks like spring break meets rubber chicken scrambles. Are we back in college? What’s next? Shirtless fans pouring beer on each others’ chests to facilitate the tanning process? We’re almost there now.
Norman touts LIV as “free agency for golf” but that means everything gets more expensive for the fans: tickets, merch, concessions, travel. The PGA Tour and DP tour have had to counter LIV by vastly increasing purses and re-kajiggering the schedule of events to offer a more limited field playoff series. The business strategy chess game continues on the one hand while the donnybrook in the press releases roils on the other.
It’s actually a curse: “May you live in interesting times,” and we do, but if the events of the 150th Open Championship told us anything, it’s that enough people still care about the spirit and values and integrity of golf to stand opposed to a despotic crown prince and a smattering of once iconic but now fallen sports celebrities. Pistols at down? Hand Martin Slumbers, Sally Jenkins, Christine Brennan or Rory McIlroy a sock and a cue ball and they could take on any Tiger Squad. That’s what you do to bullies though. You out the bullying. And that’s what LIV is afraid of most of all.