The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moral failings are in golf’s DNA. LIV is only the latest example.

Dustin Johnson and his peers have shunned the PGA Tour in favor of LIV Golf. (Troy Wayrynen/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The first Million Dollar Challenge teed off just over 40 years ago. It was on a course carved out by Gary Player for a new resort and casino named Sun City in a stretch of semiarid farmland in the north of his native South Africa, a place with a million-dollar name to boot, Bophuthatswana. Half a million dollars were guaranteed to the winner, which was around 10 times what could be bagged then for finishing first at any PGA Tour event, including the majors.

So to Sun City the biggest names in golf eventually flocked. Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Lee Trevino, you name them. Even Lee Elder, who a few years earlier became the first Black golfer to play the Masters.

I note Lee Elder because South Africa’s brutal apartheid system, despite being condemned by the United Nations in the late 1960s, was in full throat by 1981. The minority Dutch settler colonial class was beating, jailing and killing the majority Indigenous Black South Africans it segregated with impunity. The country was a blight on humanity and, as such, a pariah in the world.

That’s not unlike what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should be considered after being incriminated in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; continuing to wage a years-old war against Yemen — which the Obama administration joined and the Biden administration pledged to depart — that has killed or contributed to the deaths of more than a quarter-million people and created arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; and birthing nationals who executed the 9/11 attack.

Yet to Saudi riches some of the biggest names in golf flocked again last week, like, you could say nicely, Diptera to dung.

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Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and dozens of others. They alighted at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club near Portland, Ore., where this country for the first time hosted the fledgling LIV Golf Invitational Series. The winner was promised $4 million, far larger than the biggest bag at a PGA tournament.

LIV is financed by the Saudi monarchy that is bombing Yemen, from a fund controlled by its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was fingered with orchestrating the murder of Khashoggi.

Dereliction is endemic to golf. It’s in its DNA.

Golf “lends itself to excessive wealth, solitude, and even selfishness — all of which can be seedbeds for a lack of ethics,” emailed Lane Demas, the Central Michigan University scholar who wrote the best book on golf I have ever read, “Game of Privilege: An African American History of Golf.”

It is the only sport in my time covering the industry that openly chose racial discrimination over inclusion. I had just finished covering Nelson Mandela’s summer freedom tour of the United States in 1990 when, a month after I migrated to the sports page, Butler National Golf Club in suburban Chicago passed on hosting the Western Open, as it had done for 17 years, because a new PGA rule required it to be open to all regardless of skin color. Butler was all White.

The new PGA rule stemmed from an admission by Hall Thompson, the head at the time of Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., where the PGA Championship was being held that year. He answered a question from a Birmingham Post-Herald reporter about Shoal Creek’s membership by saying, “We don’t discriminate in every other area except blacks.”

Legendary sports management professor March Krotee, now at North Carolina State, wasn’t surprised by the LIV development. He was posted up in Kenya for a spell during the 1980s and witnessed how South Africa’s financiers successfully tugged the greed of golfers in particular.

“Now we have the LIV tour; who’s the head of the LIV tour?” Krotee asked rhetorically.

“Greg Norman,” I answered, pointing to the Hall of Fame golfer from Australia who is LIV Golf’s CEO and commissioner.

“Who played in the Sun City golf tournament?” Krotee continued to quiz me.

“Greg Norman,” I said again.

“To me, the fly in the ointment is Greg Norman,” Krotee said. “Because anybody that has the gumption from around the world to go play in the Sun City tournament was either ahead of his times or behind the times. Make your choice of what you think of that.”

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Norman wasn’t alone then. His name was on a U.N. blacklist of more than 470 athletes and entertainers who snubbed probity for profit in Sun City and refused to sign a pledge against apartheid.

Some in the music world banded together behind a song titled “Sun City” written by Steven Van Zandt, best known as the guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. It started:

We’re rockers and rappers united and strong;

We’re here to talk about South Africa we don’t like what’s going on.

It’s time for some justice it’s time for the truth;

We’ve realized there’s only one thing we can do:

I ain’t gonna play Sun City.

Tennis players were on that blacklist, too. Shirley Povich noted in these pages in 1983 how Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl shared $700,000 in the finals of a four-player Sun City tournament. But John McEnroe earned my respect back then by refusing an even richer purse to play Sun City.

“Golfers all have their heads in the sand, all of ’em,” late, great activist and tennis player Arthur Ashe said then. “They are the most apolitical bunch of athletes I know. They’re all 5-11, blond, went to Oklahoma; they’re all right-wing Republicans. As a group, they don’t give a damn.”

Still don’t, apparently, with a few notable exceptions. Rory McElroy did not hide his disgust for his competitors who defected from the PGA Tour for LIV. Black golfer Harold Varner III said he turned down LIV money after consulting with, of all people, Michael Jordan, who infamously didn’t publicly support the candidacy of Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first Black mayor, against one of the South’s more infamous segregationist lawmakers, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.

Golf is by its nature and conservation a selfish sport. It isn’t about team, save the jingoistic cups it assembles biennially. It isn’t worldly; it just happens to be played around the globe. And it isn’t concerned about where or with whom it does business.

LIV Golf hasn’t exposed anything about Saudi Arabia we didn’t already know. But it has highlighted a truth about golf that so many who play it and promote it have willfully ignored.

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