Syndicated columnist Byron York: Professional golf's political meltdown

For more than a year, professional golf has been engulfed in a civil war over money and politics. The cause has been the creation of a new tour, funded by the vastly wealthy government of Saudi Arabia, to challenge the dominance - some would say the monopoly - of the PGA Tour.

The PGA Tour has reacted like any other business facing a potentially mortal threat. It has tried to strangle the new tour, known as LIV Golf, by threatening lifetime banishment for any PGA Tour player who defects to the new league. It has carried through on those punishments. It has offered tens of millions more in prize money and other incentives to PGA Tour players who remain loyal. It has tried in ways large and small to make those associated with the new league outcasts in the world of professional golf.

It's just business. But then there is politics - and morality. The PGA Tour has not only used classic business self-defense methods; it has also tried to turn the fight over LIV Golf into a moral and political crusade. Specifically, the PGA Tour, supported by a broad network of allies in the golf press, has focused on the Saudi murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the poor state of human rights in Saudi Arabia generally, to make the case that LIV Golf, bankrolled by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, should be a moral outcast.

The charge is that LIV professionals are accepting "blood money" to play golf. To add punch to the criticism, the families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks - most of the hijackers were Saudis - got involved, adding their gravitas to the effort to shame golfers competing in LIV events.

Perhaps the nadir of the debate came in June of last year, when reporters pressed Phil Mickelson, the six-time major championship winner who joined LIV, about 9/11. Was Mickelson, as the families charged, "partners" with murderous Saudis who worked with Osama bin Laden to spread the evil, hate-filled Islamist ideology and kill thousands of his fellow Americans?

In a bizarre scene - it was a news conference before the U.S. Open championship - Mickelson said how terrible the 9/11 attacks were and that he had "deep, deep empathy" for families who lost loved ones on that day. It seems incredible to have to say, but just in case it is necessary: Phil Mickelson, professional golfer, had no role in the planning, execution or support of the 9/11 attacks.

The fact is, the Saudis are a big, rich, influential nation to which many countries, including the United States, have deep ties. To cite one example, while the LIV debate was tearing golf apart last year, President Joe Biden was photographed fist-bumping his good buddy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The president of the United States certainly did not treat the Saudi leader as an outcast.

In addition, big U.S. companies do millions of dollars in business with the Saudis every year without becoming embroiled in the kind of moral debates heard in professional golf in recent months. As a matter of fact, many of the companies that currently sponsor tournaments on the PGA Tour do a lot of business with the Saudis. Not surprisingly, Tour officials don't talk about "blood money" when they're discussing companies that give millions to the PGA Tour.

"Why is it OK for them?" LIV Golf chief Greg Norman asked last year. "The hypocrisy in all this - it's so loud, it's deafening."

Now, if it is possible, the PGA Tour has turned the volume of hypocrisy up a bit more. In this way: The Tour runs a tournament known as the Byron Nelson Championship, held every year in Dallas. It has long been sponsored by AT&T. (Yes, AT&T does business in Saudi Arabia, but put that aside for a moment.) Recently AT&T decided to end its sponsorship of the Byron Nelson event, meaning the PGA Tour would have to find a new sponsor.

The Tour found that new sponsor in Raytheon, the giant defense contractor. According to a report in Golfweek, a deal was all ready for signature when PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan abruptly pulled out of the agreement. Why? "Monahan nixed the deal at the last minute because the company sells missiles to Saudi Arabia," Golfweek reported.

It's true. Raytheon is selling missiles to Saudi Arabia. Specifically, it is selling 300 Patriot missiles at a price of $3.05 billion. It should be noted that the U.S. State Department approved the Raytheon sale to the Saudis. The sale went through after Biden's fist-bump meeting with Salman. In other words, it was OK'd at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

But it is not OK with the PGA Tour. Monahan knew that if the Tour entered into a sponsorship with a company that had just made a huge deal with Saudi Arabia, the Tour would look like hypocrites. Somebody might even talk about blood money.

So the PGA Tour pulled out. And in doing so, it has set a new standard: It will not do business with any company doing business in Saudi Arabia. Except when it does.

There's a fundamental problem with moral crusades. It's hard to put a limit on them. Where do they stop? Can the Tour accept any partner that does even one dollar's worth of business with the Saudis? To maintain its purity, will the PGA Tour have to distance itself from many of the companies it has done business with for years?

The Tour's stance has been made more ridiculous by the fact that its moral crusade was really just a cover for a business strategy. LIV threatened the PGA Tour's dominance in professional golf. Of course the Tour fought back. It had every right to do so. But it brought massive charges of hypocrisy on itself when it sought to turn a business fight into a moral cause.

How will it end? Well, there is always the market. Maybe, after all the PGA Tour's antics, LIV Golf will fail entirely on its own; perhaps audiences won't like its style of play. In a few years, it might be just another unsuccessful effort to create a new professional sports league. On the other hand, perhaps LIV will succeed and exist alongside the PGA Tour. Whatever the case, the Tour has damaged itself by trying to make the fight about much more than golf.

© 2023, Universal

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.