The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Saudi-backed golf rival for the PGA is a case of ‘LIV and let die’

Dustin Johnson, left, and Phil Mickelson during the first round of the inaugural tournament of LIV Golf at the Centurion Club in St. Albans, Britain, on June 9. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

Rick Reilly, a former Sports Illustrated and ESPN contributor, is the author of “So Help Me Golf: Why We Love the Game.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but pro golf is a triple bogey right now. It’s teetering on the edge of a disaster.

LIV Golf, Saudi Arabia’s effort to sportswash its murderous human rights record by buying off pro golfers with stupid money (Phil Mickelson: reportedly $200 million), is working.

The inaugural event of this LIV and Let Die Tour, with a massive $25 million total purse, finished Saturday at the Centurion Club north of London. LIV has already signed up nine majors winners, with more big-name defectors to come.

These LIV golfers know the Saudis butchered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. They know the Saudis jail dissenters, criminalize homosexuality and oppress women. And in response, the players have sent a message loud and clear: We don’t care. We want bigger jets.

It’s hilarious to hear Mickelson and the others try to justify working for blood money. Well, sure, he knows the Saudis are “scary mother------s,” as he told his biographer, Alan Shipnuck. But he also says: “I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done through history.”

Right. Nothing relieves the downtrodden people of a despotic nation like a well-struck 6-iron. Remember when Kim Jong Il shot 34 one day and the North Korean people suddenly weren’t starving? Yeah, neither do I.

Mickelson says it isn’t about the money. (It is.) No, he says working for the Saudis is part of his plan to “reshape” the PGA Tour that made him. What he’s actually trying to reshape is his retirement account.

Two-time major winner Dustin Johnson says it’s not about the money. (It is.) No, his decision to take a reported $125 million from the country that about 75 percent of the 9/11 terrorists called home is about doing “what’s best for my family.” He married a Gretzky, was already Kardashian rich and has only two kids. What’s he want, each of them to have their own yachts?

Tiger Woods, meanwhile, turned down (I’m hearing) upward of $500 million to flip. He would’ve taken in that haul on Day One of Sheikh Week. In every LIV tournament, in every round, he could’ve put up radio stations (103s and 107s) and still made enough to choke a Walton family member. Wanted no part of it.

But the trickle of golfing ratfinks is turning into a fire hose. Superstar Bryson DeChambeau and his 400-yard biceps just signed up, as did 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed and Players champion Rickie Fowler. There’s talk of Bubba Watson, too. Hey, would the last guy leaving the PGA Tour bring in the flagsticks, please?

This sucks for golf. It means the number of events when the best play the best will be further apart than desert oases.

No wonder the PGA Tour started suspending Saudi-signed players within minutes of the first LIV tee shot on Thursday. They were so distraught, they had to console themselves by counting all the zeros on their checks.

Already, the players and media are discovering what life is like under an autocracy. An Associated Press reporter was tossed out of an LIV presser at the Centurion last week for not being “polite.” (He was asking a hard question; they eventually let him back in.) Shipnuck got pushed around Thursday when Mickelson was about to talk to reporters.

So now what? Nobody knows. The PGA Tour isn’t saying how long the ban will last. U.S. Open officials say they’ll let jumpers play in the tournament this week, but what about next year? What about DeChambeau and Johnson, who have 10-year exemptions to play in the tournament? Augusta National hasn’t said a word, but would it ban five former Masters champions?

The PGA of America is stuck, too. If it bans all LIVers from the Ryder Cup, that’ll be duller than C-SPAN 3.

The Saudis aren’t going away. There’s no bottom to their wallets. The PGA Tour is going to have to change, and I mean yesterday. It needs to start allowing appearance fees. It needs to start paying for caddies’ hotels and health insurance. It needs to start offering smaller, no-need-to-make-the-cut, star-thick cash grabs of its own. It needs to stop worrying so much about the 101st-ranked player and start worrying about the 1st.

And the PGA Tour needs to open a small window to let these defectors back in. Because otherwise, soon you’re going to be getting up at 2 a.m. to watch the all-important Mecca Masters.

P.S., Phil, be careful with your new bosses. If they start talking about “sudden death” … run.