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Dustin Johnson is taking the Saudi money — and all that comes with it

Dustin Johnson is the U.S. golfer with the greatest name recognition to commit to the inaugural LIV Golf event. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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From a combination of prodigious golf talent and so many hours spent digging dirt on the practice range, Dustin Johnson created a life and career uncommonly free of restriction. On the PGA Tour, Johnson essentially could play a schedule of his own choosing or even not play at all. He has made $74 million from tournament winnings — more than any golfer except Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson — and untold millions more in sponsorship deals. Seemingly his biggest inconveniences were the occasional gentle barbs he received from media members about his perceived aloofness or off-course habits or record at majors.

Such a carefree existence probably ended Tuesday. In agreeing to headline the field playing the inaugural LIV Golf event in defiance of the PGA Tour and in violation of his public vow of loyalty to the Tour, Johnson made clear he definitely cares about the money he will get from the Saudi-backed series — rumored to be in the nine figures. It is less clear that he understands all he is getting himself into.

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Johnson surely knows he has made himself a golf pariah — at least temporarily because no one knows for sure how this mess will untangle. His largest public controversies to date have been the murky reasons behind an extended absence from the tour in 2014 and the time he grounded his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole to cost himself the 2010 PGA Championship. Now people who have never seen him hit a golf shot will view him as an athlete who chose to represent and profit from a repressive regime alleged to have killed journalists and dissidents.

In a statement Wednesday, the PGA Tour reiterated that members are not permitted to play in LIV Golf events and that those who do “are subject to disciplinary action.” Commissioner Jay Monahan has implied the threat of banishment.

PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, whose organization runs the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, has indicated players who join up with LIV Golf might not be welcome. The U.S. Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open, said in a statement that “we reserve the right, as we always have, to review any competitor’s situation on a case-by-case basis.” Johnson’s longtime major sponsor, RBC, dropped him Wednesday. It probably didn’t help that Johnson will skip the tournament RBC sponsors, the Canadian Open, to play in the first LIV event in London, but before Tuesday’s announcement, RBC had asked Johnson not to wear its logo when he played in Saudi Arabia.

The part Johnson may not grasp is that his professional life no longer operates completely at his whim.

He is no longer an independent contractor, as professional golfers like to refer to themselves. He has bosses now. One of them is a government trying to use golf — and golfers such as him — to cleanse its global reputation. For all those dollars, Johnson has to show up when they want him to, and simply showing up will provide its own complications.

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“The Saudi government will want big names who play golf and keep their respective mouths shut,” said University of Sussex politics professor Dan Hough, who specializes in integrity and corruption in sports. “The Saudis will expect a degree of blowback and public consternation to begin with, but they’ll then expect that to die down. They’ll then hope that the quality of the golf will help them generate more ‘soft power.’ That’s how sportswashing works.”

In a moral vacuum, you can see why Johnson would be tempted to tee it up next week at the Centurion Club outside London for the first of eight events in the LIV Golf Invitational Series, an expected precursor to a full-blown league. At 37, Johnson remains one of the best players in the world, ranked 13th. His legacy is secure, he has plenty of trophies, and he never seemed to care much about either anyway. So with his career closer to the end than the beginning, he was offered an unprecedented chance to cash in, and he took it.

But in doing so, he just complicated his life in ways he has never faced before. One of 42 players who committed to the first LIV Golf event, he is probably the lone American player in the group whose name resonates beyond hardcore golf circles. With Phil Mickelson in limbo since the revelation that he called the Saudi government “scary motherf------” to the author of his biography, Johnson is the most visible lightning rod.

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In LIV Golf, Johnson will show up to promotional appearances when told and wear whatever uniform league officials demand. The schedule will be far lighter than the PGA Tour’s, which incentivizes participation through year-end bonuses, but Johnson will not be able to pick and choose when and where he plays in a schedule that figures to be heavy on events in the Middle East and Asia. He may not be in thrall to the Saudis, but he will have to play by established rules.

“On the one hand, there will be clear contractual obligations and all sides will expect those to be fulfilled,” Hough said.

Internally, the PGA Tour recognizes it is a matter of time before a player, with the backing of LIV Golf’s lawyers, sues it for anti-competitive business practices. Monahan has expressed confidence that his side will prevail in any legal battle. LIV Golf Commissioner Greg Norman has insisted his side will win, too.

Lawsuits will determine the outcome, but for now it’s possible Johnson has played in some of golf’s biggest events for the last time. After last fall’s Ryder Cup, Johnson basked with his teammates at a news conference. A reporter asked Johnson whether he could keep up with his younger teammates during their victory party.

“Ab-so … lutely,” Johnson replied, pausing before he uttered the left-out expletive and then grinning, cocktail in hand. The teammates around him laughed like kids who finally got old enough to hang out with their big brother.

Johnson soon will have a lot more money, even more than he already has. He may not have many more memories like those.

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