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Golf is splintering, and almost everyone’s to blame

Dustin Johnson, one of the breakaway LIV Golf players, prepares for the U.S. Open. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

BROOKLINE, Mass. — As the insults and threats fly back and forth across the ocean and the world of golf prepares for civil war, I’m reminded again of something Fay Vincent said 30 years ago when he was commissioner of Major League Baseball.

As his owners prepared to try to break the players union by imposing a collective bargaining agreement that included no bargaining, Vincent shook his head one afternoon during spring training in 1992 and said that fans would view a work stoppage as greedy millionaires fighting with greedy billionaires — “And they’ll be right.”

That’s pretty much the way I feel about the PGA Tour’s power struggle with the new Saudi Arabian-backed LIV Golf. The PGA Tour is funded by billionaire corporations — including the American TV networks — and played on by multimillionaire players, whose slogan might as well be “Show me the money.”

The new tour, with Greg Norman as the out-front leader, is funded by the government of Saudi Arabia, perhaps best described by Phil Mickelson, the new tour’s most prominent player, as “scary motherf-----s.”

Go ahead; pick a side: greedy to the hilt vs. scary motherf-----s.

The greed and smarminess of the tour can’t come close to the evils that have been perpetrated by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — including the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — but one doesn’t exactly sleep with the angels by siding with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and his band of not-so-merry men.

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That’s not to say guys such as Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi blood money, aren’t to be applauded — not so much for their loyalty to the tour as their understanding that their legacies would be changed forever if they threw in with the Saudis.

Mickelson’s certainly has. He will no longer be viewed as just a Hall of Fame golfer who has won six majors and 45 PGA Tour titles. He won’t be the 2025 Ryder Cup captain at Bethpage Black — as had been ordained for years. His decision to side with the Saudis will be in the first two paragraphs of his life story.

The same is true of major champions such as Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Graeme McDowell and Charl Schwartzel, who won the first LIV tournament last weekend outside London and took home more than $4 million.

All have clearly decided that money is more important than legacy.

What’s laughable is the yammering from the LIV-ites about why they’re doing this. Norman keeps talking about “growing the game,” sounding like an old-fashioned record that has gotten stuck. Mickelson and the others say much the same thing when they discuss their opportunity to transform the sport.

Please. This is an opportunity to do one thing: get very rich. For Norman, it is also a chance to finally avenge the defeat he suffered at the hands of the tour and then-commissioner Tim Finchem in 1994, when he tried to launch something called the World Golf Tour. Norman’s idea was to have huge purses, no cuts and guaranteed money and invite only the game’s elite or near-elite. Finchem was able to shoot down the idea by lining up corporate sponsors to create the World Golf Championships: events with small fields, no cuts, big purses and guaranteed money.

Did he steal Norman’s idea to keep his star players in line? You bet. Did Norman ever forget? Absolutely not. So Norman has two motives: money and revenge.

Everyone else is in it for the money.

McIlroy and Garcia are good friends; they were in each other’s weddings. But when Garcia told McIlroy the reason to join the LIV Tour was “so we can finally get paid what we deserve,” McIlroy laughed out loud. “Sergio,” he said, “We’re golfers. We don’t deserve to be paid anything.”

So, let’s not say no one in golf understands real life. McIlroy understands.

Phil Mickelson defends his choices as golf’s furor arrives at the U.S. Open

Let’s also not act as if the Saudis are the only ones spending massive dollars to try to sports-wash blood off their hands. Or that these golfers are the first to take blood-soaked money.

The NBA makes hundreds of millions of dollars by doing business with China. The International Olympic Committee has willingly taken the Olympics to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and to China, twice this century. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, had one problem with taking the World Cup to Qatar: the weather in July. Human rights violations were clearly not a concern.

For golf, the question now is whether LIV proves to be a blip that makes a handful of players very rich and then goes away or it continues to disrupt the sport. And it may turn out that the all-powerful green jackets at Augusta National hold the key to the sport’s future.

The U.S. Open is allowing LIV players to compete here at The Country Club this week because the U.S. Golf Association says it believes that, as an Open, it is not in a position to ban players who have qualified. The Royal and Ancient, which runs the British Open, may take the same position before next month’s championship at St. Andrews.

That leaves the PGA Championship — run by the PGA of America — and the Masters. Seth Waugh, the chief executive of the PGA, is a close friend of Monahan’s dating from the days when Waugh ran Deutsche Bank and Monahan was director of the Boston tournament sponsored by the bank. He would undoubtedly love to support Monahan and the tour.

But if the Opens continue to be open and the green jackets decide not to ban the breakaway players, Waugh would be alone among the majors — an untenable position.

Mickelson, Garcia, Reed and Schwartzel are past Masters champions who would have to be denied their trip up Magnolia Lane by Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley and his fellow members if they side with the tour. Augusta National is notorious for letting the world know that no one tells it what to do. That’s why, even though the tour has a rule dating from 1990 that no club can host a PGA Tour event if it discriminates against anyone, Augusta National didn’t admit women until 2012.

No one in golf messes with the Lords of Augusta. That is why the club’s decision on LIV will be so critical. If the LIV players can play in the four majors, they don’t need the PGA Tour.

Even now, the tour is in trouble. Many title sponsors at rank-and-file events are already less than thrilled with their fields. If LIV survives and continues to pull stars away, Monahan is going to find himself with serious title sponsor issues. And nothing is more important to the tour than keeping title sponsors happy.

For now, the two sides will continue to fire shots at each other, millionaires battling billionaires.

Read more golf news

U.S. Open: A stunning shot on the final hole and a birdie miss from Will Zalatoris gave Matt Fitzpatrick his first major title.

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.

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