exhibition game

Exhibition Game

Greg Norman has long had visions of a world tour, but his LIV Series is anything but that

By Michael Bamberger

Greg Norman grew up on Rod Laver, the last man to win the Grand Slam in tennis. Did you know Laver is, like Norman, Australian? Maybe not. The four tennis majors are played in Australia, France, England and the United States. Professional golf has never been global that way. It’s regional. Norman, for decades, had another vision for the game, and it was a good one. An international game, an international league. The best players in the world gathering in one place on a more regular basis to duke it out. He was ahead of his time. He couldn’t make it happen because, as Tip O’Neill, great Boston pol of the old school, used to say, “All politics is local.” Tim Finchem, the PGA Tour commissioner at the time, had the cards, the political savvy and the purse strings. People in power don’t like to share it. He killed the idea. ​

This new thing, this LIV Invitational Series, is not what Norman envisioned. Not now. But there’s no saying what it could turn into, in five years, or 50. Saudi wealth is vast, almost beyond comprehension. The world is addicted (for now) to Saudi oil. Maybe you’ve noticed. Joe Biden has. That’s why he is planning to meet next month with Saudi’s crown prince, MBS — in the house, armed guards surely nearby. The Saudis can buy whatever they wish, pretty much. The Saudi ruling class will buy the PGA Tour, if that’s what it wants to do. About the only thing Saudi money can’t buy is love. Or happiness. Or history. Nobody has figured out how to buy those things.

Forty years ago, having grown up on Palmer and Player and most especially Nicklaus, Norman came to the United States to play the PGA Tour. It had the best competition, the best courses, the best weather—and the biggest purses. With his bent nose and slender waist and blond hair and spectacular skill, he was a huge hit. Money poured in. There was the money he made on the course, and the money he made off the course dwarfed it. Elite professional golfers will always be drawn to the best competition and the biggest purses.

But this LIV Series is not that. Fifty-four-hole events with only 48 players, most of them there by invitation, playing also in a team event with no cut and guaranteed paydays? It could morph into something else, but all it is is an exhibition. The PGA Tour has an arrogant streak that is a mile long. Week after week, it can get numbingly routine. The players have been robbed of their individualism by modern hit-it-harder-and-straighter equipment and TrackMan and an obsession with any of the shots-gained statistics. But one thing it has done is held on to its dog-eat-dog mentality. Shoot the scores, make the money. Shoot the lowest scores, get the girl and a ticket to the Masters.

Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and Talor Gooch, among others, are now parting ways with their own boyhood dreams: to beat the best on a level playing field. To show off, as Geoff Ogilvy said to Alan Shipnuck and me in a recent Fire Pit podcast, what they could do with a golf club and a ball. To get the trophy and the girl. The underlying appeal of professional golf is that everybody plays by the same rules and nobody cheats or would want to. (You lose that, you lose everything.) And it’s survival of the fittest. People call the Masters an invitational. It’s not. You earn your way in by way of your golf scores.

Mickelson has been great for golf. He’s engaging, funny, smart. A great talker, a great signer, a great risk-taker, in every way. But he — and this is easy for me to say — is showing a stunning lack of gratitude with this move. The PGA Tour made him. The major championships made him. He is part of a continuum built by Walter Hagen and Julius Boros and being continued by Jimmy Walker (yes, really) and Justin Thomas. Mickelson contributed mightily to it but benefited greatly from it too. Somehow, everything he had just 13 months ago, when he became the oldest player to win a Grand Slam event, was not enough. It’s hard to understand.

It’s hard to imagine Johnson winning another major. Why? Because there’s a thing in golf, elite golf, that Curtis Strange and Arnold Palmer and numerous others have talked about: the edge. The thing that keeps you in gear on Sunday afternoon and helps you gut it out. You’ve got to be starving, in some sense, to really have it. It’s not just making the shots we can see. What makes golf golf are the things we can’t see. Nobody has stayed as hungry in this game as Tiger Woods, except maybe Jack Nicklaus.

Greg Norman called Nicklaus a “hypocrite” in a recent interview with The Washington Post. I applaud, of course, his right to say what he feels, but I also can’t imagine saying it. Nicklaus’s hypocrisy, per Norman, was telling Norman he supported anything that was good for the growth of the game but now distancing himself from anything connected to this LIV series. That’s not hypocrisy. That’s refining your position over time, in different settings. One thing I can tell you about Nicklaus, in my experience, is that he’s straight. His cards are on the table. He’s not trying to manipulate anything. And a question for Norman: Is Johnson a hypocrite because he first pledged his fidelity to the PGA Tour before having a complete about-face?

I wouldn’t bother wasting your time with the one word except that Norman’s use of it also suggests a stunning lack of gratitude. Nicklaus paved your way to this life, Greg! Norman knows that. I’ve had many enjoyable, interesting interviews and conversations with Norman over many years. I know he knows it. But right now, he’s blinded by all that Saudi money, and the chance to see some version of his dream come true.

For whatever it’s worth, I think it’s better to keep dreaming.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

16 thoughts on “Exhibition Game”

  1. The majors decide who gets in primarily on WGR and past major performance. Exhibition golf generates no WGR points so over time all LIV golfers should become major ineligible except for the long shot of qualifying in sectionals for the Opens.

    The next major battle will be trying to find a way to get WGR points for LIV performance. That should be interesting.

    1. What are the grounds for OWGR not granting world ranking points for these events eventually? It’s not a true world ranking system if they decide to exclude a number of the world’s best players.

      1. Fifty-four hole-hole events do not receive World Ranking points. (Otherwise, Bernard Langer would be world number one. 😉
        LIV Golf choosing the ease of three-round events are thus nothing more than exhibitions. Appealing to players? Perhaps, but not a true examination of the ability to play high-level golf over four full rounds. And will the 36-hole leader at a LIV event feel the same pressure he would with one round to go on the PGA Tour? Hardly. First off, thanks to signing bonuses, he’s already been paid a bundle . Second, besides cashing out a huge check, there’s no history to play for, no “legacy.” Win the L.A. Genesis Open or Jack’s tournament or Arnie’s event or even the San Diego Farmer’s competition and your name goes up next to the greatest ever to tee it up. The winner in a LIV staging? “Hey, I beat Dustin Johnson….. wasn’t he ranked number one a few years back?” Ho hum…..

  2. The thing i learned is that Greg Norman is a dishonorable business partner. You do not bring private discussion into public light to enhance your legacy.

    Nicklaus evaluated an offer and chose not to accept it. No shame in that — for what ever reason(s) drove the decision.

  3. Fairness for Players

    This article brought to you by the PGA tour!!! Get an unbiased opinion instead of this lopsided opinion. The game needs to grow and the PGA tour is a monopoly that is not open to competition. Join the real world!!!!

  4. tatacarnatica
    Tata operates in over one hundred countries around the world, as well as six different continents. They strive to offer better standards of living for those they serve while providing sustainable long-term value to stakeholders. They were established on four principles: leadership, trustworthiness, respect for human dignity and excellence in talent development.

  5. Terry Hutchens

    My question is would a Tour player play golf for a drug cartel for these large sums of money based on they are doing what is right for the future of their family.

    If not – how is that different from what they are doing now.

    The Saudi’s operate like a drug cartel. They sell a product (though legal) but use the proceeds to inflict harm on other human beings including their own.

    Is doing what is right for your family worth damaging thousands of others?

    Is this really where we are now in our so called capitalist system?

    I am 70 years old and won’t see the final answer to this question. I fear for those who will. And wonder why more aren’t asking this question now.

    Rory McIlroy seems to be the only player talking about the origin of the money he would receive – no one else.

    Sad.

    1. Oil is evil and inflicts harm on humanity? Sigh. Fossil fuels moved humans out of darkness. You watch too much MSNBC.

      1. Terry Hutchens

        It’s not the product sold – it’s the people selling the product. Come on man – they are murderers and oppressors

        I don’t watch MSNBC at all – I do watch humanity and the Saudi’s don’t offer anything in the way of good for humanity.

        It’s a shame you can’t see what they are.

        Oil isn’t evil – they are.

  6. I think that the PGA Tour will be within its rights to discipline. Independent contractor does not mean no rules can apply to me. Also, these guys are conveniently forgetting that the purses have been higher and higher because of TV and sponsor deals. The PGA Tour can protect those interests and not have its members competing on another channel. Also, does Phil share his revenue from sponsor deals from his hat, bag, shirts, TV ads with the PGA Tour and the TV platform they negotiated? No way.

    I do think that they will get a few OWGR points because there are about 11 different tours where points are earned but the guys without lifetime Masters exemptions or 5 year exemptions for winning some other major will get fewer and fewer points over time and drop lower and lower which will further reduce points. The governing bodies can seek to ensure top fields for the majors. So, the OWGR points will be a big factor on where this ends up.

  7. Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner is the U.S., primarily oil. Part of the relationship consists of the U.S. in return selling them tens of billions of arms annually, which the Saudis use as America’s proxy in a war against the Houthis in Yemen, killing thousands of innocents from indiscriminate bombing. The U.S. also maintains 8 air and 2 naval bases which enable America’s military interventions in other sovereign countries in the region.

    But sensibilities are offended from “sportswashing”? A perspective that does not take into account the lack of transparency into the finances of their own tour? A tour that was started by pros in rebellion against the PGA of America, led by Jack Nicklaus? LIV, whether it survives or not, has changed the landscape of professional golf and will continue to bring a better balance between the corporate money and the “help”. Kudos to the visionaries that are providing the talent with better opportunities.

  8. I think this is just a long ploy to make some money off Saudis who are so desperate for international approval despite their horrific socio-political records. The LIV tour players will take Saudi money, kneel before the royal family for photo ops and offer carefully selected words in their media bubble about how great their new benefactors are despite there ‘mistakes.’ That’s the real deal. After a couple of years, the players will move on to something else and take their western approval cachet with them, then redeem themselves by saying they finally recognized how wrong-headed they were. Its just money well spent for both parties. The idea that this is an effort to reform the PGA (despite the fact it does need reform) just seems like a convenient add-on excuse. Follow the money, not the ball.

  9. How is the PGA Tour a monopoly? There are plenty of professional golf tours currently on the world stage, now including the Saudi LIV Tour, which has the financial resources to pay ridiculous sums to those players interested in playing in its very limited field invitational events. Just because the PGA Tour currently attracts most of the top players, has the best fields and tournaments, and therefore attracts more corporate sponsors, fan interest and television coverage, all of which benefits its members (the players) and sustains the Tour’s growth, doesn’t make the Tour a monopoly or anticompetitive. It just means it’s very good at doing the things necessary to attract the best players to become Tour members and to sell its product–i.e., first-class, highly competitive tournaments, on excellent courses, that will attract corporate sponsors, paying fans, and television money, showcase it’s members talents. and, in most cases, generate significant funds for Tour and local charities.

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