MARTIN SAMUEL: LIV Golf is cheap and ugly

  • The impact of Saudi money on golf is far more dire than in boxing and football
  • LIV Golf has split the competition, offering less golf and minimal event risk
  • Rory McIlroy has been a vocal critic of the impact this has had on his sport

In 2015, Rory McIlroy had tickets to the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas. One problem: he also had 18 holes to play against Paul Casey in the WGC Cadillac Match Play tournament at TPC Harding Park.

No problem. McIlroy was a 24-year-old high roller at the time. He had a private plane on standby to ferry him from San Francisco to the Nevada desert, and back in time for Sunday’s final if necessary. Problem. The Casey duel overshot.

Not only was McIlroy unable to make it to Vegas in time – Lee Westwood got his tickets – he also risked missing the bell if he returned to his hotel. So McIlroy took a chair in the media tent, pulled out his wallet for some pizza and beer for the assembled company, and watched the fight from there. He is a huge boxing fan. Still, he has no opinion on selling the sport to Saudi Arabia.

He is also a football man. In 2014, he paraded with the Claret Jug for his Open victory at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, his favorite club. He admitted that just being there in a ceremonial role made him nervous.

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At Ryder Cup events, he is invariably seen laughing and joking with former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Yet, also, no negativity about the threat posed to the established elite by the Saudi investment in Newcastle United.

So it’s only Saudi golf that irritates McIlroy. Just the threat posed to his sport by the Saudi-funded LIV Golf breakaway. Next week he will return to Europe in a field that includes 18 from the new rebel group. “If you believe in something, I think you need to speak up about it, and I believe in it very strongly,” he said ahead of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

Rory McIlroy has been a fierce critic of the impact Saudi money has had on his sport
McIlroy said he ‘hates’ what he does in golf and has continually criticized the LIV golf setup

“I hate how it does to the game of golf. I hate that. I really do. It’s going to be hard for me to see 18 in Wentworth. It just doesn’t suit me.

And some see it as hypocrisy. Why are golfers held to higher standards? If Saudi money is tainted – and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t, given what is known about human rights and sanctions for dissent in the region – then why is- different for golf?

Here’s why. Step away from the ethical debate for a moment and reflect on Saudi Arabia’s relationship with sport.

When Anthony Joshua fought Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah, boxing was made better by such a decision maker. It helped set up an even bigger match between the winner, Usyk, and Tyson Fury. It can also take place in the Gulf, and while it is difficult for British boxing fans, the sport itself is unhurt. The stock exchanges are bigger, the investment is higher.

McIlroy, the boxer, will not think the sport is damaged by the presence of Saudi Arabia. He may not like the diet, but he golfs in many places that have a reprehensible attitude towards freedom. The argument is always that change takes time, but will happen faster as east meets west.

Football the same. The top flight have reason to fear Newcastle, as they did Manchester City, but it would hardly be ruinous for the Premier League if another club moved their chair to the top table. Admittedly, football-loving Newcastle has suffered for far too long.

In boxing, Saudi money has brought major fights like Oleksandr Usyk vs. Anthony Joshua
And in the Premier League, Newcastle becoming a major force can be positive for football
LIV Golf is different – it even served to support disgraced former President Donald Trump

The club last won the league in 1927, a domestic cup in 1955 and their European prize, the 1968-69 Intercity Fairs Cup, is no longer recognized by UEFA. In purely sporting terms, it is difficult to blame the club or its fans for the chances of success; and a strong Newcastle adds to the sporting spectacle for any football fan, even McIlroy.

Is this true for LIV Golf? Barely. It weakened competition by dividing land, it offered less golf, less risk, it even served to rally support for disgraced former President Donald Trump. It’s the epitome of cheap and ugly in everything but handbags, and when McIlroy says he hates what he’s done to the sport, many will recognize that dislike.

Not least because some of LIV Golf’s most prominent driving forces — Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia — seem driven by resentment toward an establishment and system that has made them incredibly wealthy. Would McIlroy throw his Vegas tickets his way to Westwood now? It really would seem the height of hypocrisy if he did.

Cameron Smith, the Open champion, turned his attention to LIV Golf this week, but as one of the greatest players in the world, it’s only natural that he would be courted. The machinations to take European Ryder Cup captain Henrik Stenson were more indicative of a series of vengeance.

Stenson was pushing towards 200 in the Official World Golf Ranking, he wasn’t a huge commercial draw and last won a PGA Tour tournament in 2017 – there was no reason to pay fortune for the attract, beyond a desire to disrupt Ryder Cup preparations, which he duly did when he was forced to step down from his role. David Dein, the former vice-chairman of Arsenal, once spoke of Roman Abramovich parking his Chelsea tanks on the Highbury lawn, drawing £50 notes.

That’s basically what LIV Golf did. They forced the PGA Tour to copy their model of closed shop, no risk, guaranteed payout, truncated competitions, pale imitations of what the game should be. McIlroy seems to recognize that, even though he’s part of the new PGA order.

Like Tiger Woods, he seems to share a love for the lore of the game: not just the majors, but history, famous champions, revered courses that aren’t exercises in self-aggrandizement.

Of course, no one would claim that golf’s past is populated only by good guys. David Deas, a 21-year-old Scotsman from Leith received one of the first documented shipments of golf equipment to the American colonies in August 1743. In 1769 he could be found advertising a shipment of Ninety-Four Prime, Healthy Negroes just arrived from Sierra Leone.

In the same year, with his brother John, Deas boasted Two hundred and sixty first Negroes, direct from Angola, a cargo of one hundred and fourteen healthy Negroes and forty remarkably fine Negro women: fresh from the Guiney Coast in the South . Carolina Gazette. Charleston and its surroundings are considered the birthplace of golf in the United States.

It is estimated that during the Atlantic slave trade, approximately 260,000 African slaves out of 882 ships passed through its port. When South Carolina became the first southern state to secede from the Union in December 1860, it was home to 400,000 slaves, roughly 10% of the total slave population in the United States. Even Kiawah Island, one of the region’s most famous modern courses, was built on plantation land.

McIlroy and Tiger Woods (left) share a love for the traditions of golf and its rich history
McIlroy will soon be at Wentworth in England, competing with players from LIV Golf

So no, not perfect. Yet golf is an ancient game with an ancient history. LIV Golf is made possible by investment from a country that murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Istanbul Embassy in 2018; that this month jailed a student for 34 years for simply endorsing dissenting statements on social media. Golf can’t change the profession that made the Deas brothers so rich; but he doesn’t have to sell that.

And if it was a simple question of investment, there could be a debate. After all, President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia, President Emmanuel Macron entertained the Crown Prince. Sport cannot be held to higher standards than the rulers of the free world.

The FIFA World Cup went to Qatar, its Club World Cup to the United Arab Emirates. The headquarters of the International Cricket Council is in Dubai. The region wants its share of influence.

And perhaps if Saudi money gets its way and FIFA holds its biennial World Cup, football will feel the ruinous tide that has swept over golf. Until then, however, McIlroy’s influence on the sport seems unusually toxic. As another LIV event kicks off in Boston this week, the Ulsterman’s eyes will narrow further as his beloved golf course dissolves into the sand.