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Jack Nicklaus says Saudis offered him over $100 million to head series

“I said: ‘Guys, I have to stay with the PGA Tour. I helped start the PGA Tour,’ ” Jack Nicklaus recalled of his response to Saudi backers of a rival golf venture. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Given the furor over Greg Norman’s recent comments about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian backers of the LIV Golf Invitational Series may be wishing they had found a different golf legend to front their nascent venture.

It might not have been for lack of trying, however, to judge from recent comments by the greatest living golf legend of them all.

Jack Nicklaus said he was approached about taking a position along the lines of the one Norman accepted in October as CEO of LIV Golf Investments.

“I was offered something in excess of $100 million by the Saudis, to do the job probably similar to the one that Greg is doing,” Nicklaus, 82, said in remarks published Monday by the Fire Pit Collective. “I turned it down. Once verbally, once in writing. I said: ‘Guys, I have to stay with the PGA Tour. I helped start the PGA Tour.’ ”

The winner of a record 18 Grand Slam events, Nicklaus is also third all-time with 73 PGA Tour wins. He had already won seven majors by 1968, when he emerged as an outspoken, player-elected official of a new organization, American Professional Golfers Inc., that negotiated with the club pros-oriented PGA of America over greater control of the professional circuit. By the end of that year, an agreement dissolved the APG and gave birth to the PGA Tournament Players Division, which eventually rebranded as the PGA Tour.

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If Nicklaus had accepted the offer he said he received from the Saudis, he would have placed himself at odds with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who warned players last year about a possible lifetime ban if they signed on with the new venture. In February, Norman responded to those threats from Monahan by sending the commissioner a letter warning that such bans would be “likely in violation of the law.”

Last week, the PGA Tour denied applications from players seeking a waiver to play in LIV Golf’s inaugural event, set for June 9 to 11 at the Centurion Club in London. Norman reportedly sent a letter to players Sunday that told them “LIV Golf has your back and will defend and assist you if either tour [including the top European circuit] tries to act against your interests and the progress of the sport.”

In the days leading up to that letter, Norman and his organization were placed on the defensive by the fallout from comments he made last week regarding the 2018 disappearance of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and vocal critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the regime in Riyadh, at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA concluded later that year that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s assassination. A report last year by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessed that the crown prince “approved an operation in Istanbul ... to capture or kill” Khashoggi. The Saudi government said then it “completely rejects” that “unacceptable assessment.”

Speaking last week in London ahead of LIV Golf’s debut tournament, the 67-year-old Norman attempted to frame that episode by telling an audience, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”

Amid a storm of criticism over those remarks, LIV Golf released a statement describing the killing of Khashoggi as “reprehensible” and declaring: “Everyone agrees on that, including Greg, as he has said as such previously on many occasions. Greg also knows that golf is a force for good around the world and can help make inroads toward positive change.”

Norman, a two-time major champion, is not the only prominent golf figure to have incurred a backlash over comments about the Saudi-backed venture. Six-time major winner Phil Mickelson has been in self-imposed exile since February, when the Fire Pit Collective published comments made last fall in which he described the Saudis as “scary motherf-----s to get involved with.”

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“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson added then while explaining that he was interested in getting the rival golf circuit off the ground because it provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson, who last played a PGA Tour event in January, then shared a lengthy statement of regret and said he “desperately need[ed] some time away.”

Not only did he skip the Masters in April, marking the first time he has missed that event since 1994, but Mickelson bowed out of this week’s PGA Championship, which he won last year.

In his comments published Monday, Nicklaus told the Fire Pit Collective that his advice to Mickelson would be to “be patient.”

“The world is a very forgiving place,” Nicklaus said. “But he’s the one [who] has to decide where he wants to play and what he wants to do.”

Nicklaus also weighed in on the PGA of America’s decision to award this year’s PGA Championship to Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club after it responded to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by removing the tournament from a New Jersey club owned by President Donald Trump.

“This move is cancel culture,” Nicklaus, who has shown support for Trump on numerous occasions, said of that decision. “Donald Trump may be a lot of things, but he loves golf and he loves this country. He’s a student of the game and a formidable figure in the game. What he does in the future in golf will depend on what the cancel culture will allow him to do.”

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LIV Golf: The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, controversial and lavish, figures to present some level of harm to the stately old PGA Tour. Players are noticing.

Barry Svrluga: “LIV Golf? At the moment, at least, it feels like it has more legs. This is more than an existential threat to the way professional golf is staged and the way professional golfers make their schedules and their livings. This is an actual threat.”

The Shark is on the attack again: With decades of resentment and an appetite for combat, golf legend Greg Norman is throwing his sport into chaos. This time, he’s doing it with Saudi money.