Dustin Johnson’s act of greed stands out in Saudi Arabia’s vulgar rebranding game | Ewan Murray

There is very little competitive validity in the LIV Golf Series, with golfers willing pawns in the sportswashing exercise

There is a key problem with the distribution of a $4m (£3.2m) first prize in a tournament that features a shotgun start. There will be no way of knowing if the winning putt at the Centurion Club on Saturday is to be holed on the 1st, 7th, 13th or any other green. Perhaps the conventional stroke-play format as used on mainstream tours is boring to some but at least people know where to be for the denouement.

If this were the only potentially messy element of the LIV Golf Series, which makes its debut in Hertfordshire on Thursday, Greg Norman would have no cause to worry. Instead, confirmation that Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson would feature in the $25m event sparked the kind of backlash that was inevitable given bottomless financing from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The Royal Bank of Canada ended its sponsorship of both players. Golf, once such a safe domain for the corporate classes, now carries an element of risk as never before.

A number of players have been sheltered by focus on Phil Mickelson – whose dalliances with the Saudis are the stuff of dubious legend – and to a subsequent extent Johnson, but when they tee up in the coming days, their role in a sportswashing exercise will be abundantly clear.

This cannot legitimately be labelled in any other terms: there is no commercial sense whatsoever in dishing out wild sums to those who are either marking time until the senior tour, would not turn heads in any high street in the UK or, in Johnson’s case, whose PGA Tour earnings from the game total around $72m, have torched their reputation by such a grotesque display of greed.

Golfers are willing pawns in Saudi’s rebranding game, which is a great pity for the sport’s reputation.

There will be intrigue around what LIV can deliver. That it is staging a tournament at all confounds many sceptics. There are no world ranking points available, unhelpful ticket prices and no mainstream television outlet to offer coverage.

The competition lasts 54 holes and has a pro-am event. In short, this is not exactly marching towards the territory of sporting revolution. For every Johnson, McDowell, Lee Westwood or Sergio García there is a Blake Windred, Hudson Swafford or Jediah Morgan.

The Australian Matt Jones, who has more than $17m in career earnings, explained his involvement thus: “A lot to do with my family, being able to provide for them. Purely a business decision for me. I’m very happy with the decision I made.”

And here’s the rub: the world doesn’t know or care anywhere near enough about Jones to criticise the 42-year-old for this.

Last place in the 48-man field is worth $120,000. A team element carries a $5m prize fund. Players have been informed that a draft party on Tuesday evening will be a “casual red carpet event with a touch of LIV audacity”. In contrast, there is no prize money for finishing last in a PGA Tour event and the next tournament on its calendar, the Canadian Open offers $1.5m to the winner. The mind boggles.

Matt Jones plays a bunker shot
Matt Jones described taking part as a purely a business decision. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

Mickelson’s involvement has not been confirmed but there are suggestions that could change early next week. If he does arrive in the UK, his first public utterances since he removed himself from public view in February will be widely anticipated. Does Mickelson owe it to Norman and his Saudi chums to trigger that level of attention?

The reaction of the existing ecosystem will be more interesting than the Centurion play. Players will not be in breach of any PGA or DP World Tour regulations until they hit a shot in the LIV tournament. Those players will inevitably seek to argue – via lawyers – that they are independent contractors and free to perform wherever they like.

If the LIV series blossoms, or even just continues to exist, those presiding over major championships and Ryder Cup eligibility will inevitably have to take a stand. The scope for heavy punishments for players is a live one and can be defended on the basis of the Saudi connection, but those in high office must be careful not to lose any moral high ground by behaving in a dictatorial manner. At base level this is a threat to two tours who work in partnership.

If Norman has his way, players on the outside will become sufficiently jealous at the cheques being bestowed on those with a fraction of their talent to want to become involved. LIV’s issue for now is that Johnson is the clear exception as one at least close to the summit of his sport who can be seduced by dollars.

“I don’t think that at this point in time I’m in a place in my career where I can risk things like that,” said Bryson DeChambeau. “I’m loyal to my family that I’ve created around me with sponsors and everything.

“And the golf world is probably going to change in some capacity. I don’t know how that is, it is not my job to do so. I’m just going to keep playing professional golf and enjoy it wherever it takes me, play with the best players in the world.”

DeChambeau’s sentiment illustrates what LIV is up against. That, plus the widespread sense there is very little competitive validity in its offering. This is sport, just in too vulgar a form than we should be expected to know it.


Ewan Murray

The GuardianTramp

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