The Summer of Golf’s Discontent

As chaos reigns and rumors fly, the question remains: What is the Saudis’ motive for backing LIV?

By Michael Bamberger
August 15, 2022

Evidently, Tiger Woods is telling others in his small-radius circle-of-trust that he was offered something like $700 million to sign up for a Saudi-funded golf league. That is, LIV Golf before LIV Golf had its own Wikipedia page. When this supposed offer was made is unclear. Greg Norman said recently it was before he became the LIV commissioner last fall.

But this raises a major question, in this summer of professional golf’s discontent: What was the goal of this offer? Was it part of a sound business plan? (Doesn’t sound like it.) Or was it an effort to plant the seeds of chaos in the orderly world of professional golf?

Maybe you prefer the Get Smart spelling from years ago: KAOS.

Would anybody running a real business—Norman insists that LIV Golf is a real business—make such a staggering offer? It’s hard to fathom. Woods has played about three dozen events since the start of 2016. Fourteen events in a year? That was never going to happen even before his devastating and life-changing car crash in February 2021. So that begs the question: What is really going on here?

Everything is odd in this summer of golf’s discontent. Money, or at least the promise of it, has poured into golf as never before. KAOS has reigned.

Where is Agent 99 (Maxwell Smart’s wise and beautiful fellow agent) when we need her?

Until she or someone like her can be found, here’s a message for various executives at the PGA Tour and FedEx Corp.: The FedEx Cup playoffs are now what they have been from the beginning, a series of good golf tournaments. Even without Woods and Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and now British Open winner Cameron Smith.

Smith was paid $261,000 last week at FedEx I in Memphis for a T-13 finish, despite the two-shot penalty he brought upon himself. He’s skipping FedEx II because of “hip discomfort.” Yep, that’s what the statement said. He made $3.6 million when he won the Players in March. By the way, and you probably would agree, watching Smith play golf is a complete joy. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any ordinary fan, at least one without a gambling stake, who cares who wins the FedEx Cup playoffs and the $18 million that comes with it, whether it’s Cam Smith or Sepp Straka of (once upon a time) Austria. That’s because it’s all about money. Fans don’t care.

The PIP payouts, the increase in purses and everything else the PGA Tour is doing to stop its so-called name-brand stars from defecting to LIV? The same. Fans don’t care. We do care about who puts on a jacket (Scottie!) and who hoists an old jug (Cam!). We feel like we know them, because we’ve been through something together.

Maybe you remember the reaction to Woods’s triumphant Sunday at the 2019 Masters. Other winners of that tournament include Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. A nice club, if you can get in it. That’s one of the things that has made the Masters the Masters. The club within the club. Norman had his chances.

As for the club itself, Augusta National Golf Club, membership there is the ultimate statement on corporate success in this country and some others too. Ask the various chairmen of Ford, IBM and Coca-Cola. It’s good for business, for one’s status, for everything really, if you’re into that sort of thing. Most of the world is. Now there’s something no member of the House of Saud can buy.

As for the LIV events—48 players, no cut, everybody starts and finishes at the same time—I have not talked to a single golf fan who cares about who wins in any given week. What is a professional golf tournament without sustained fan interest? A Champions Tour event with music and, coming soon to a YouTube channel near you, David Feherty. This is a statement attributed to Feherty when he announced last month he was leaving NBC Sports for LIV: “As a storyteller, this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to help write a new chapter in this sport’s history. LIV Golf is developing ideas and innovations that are going to grow the audience and engage the next generation of players and fans. I’m excited by the energy LIV Golf is creating and I’m eager to contribute to a world class broadcast production that has a vision towards the future.”

You know how you know that Feherty didn’t say or write that? Because it’s unspeakably boring.

#SAD!

Here’s how Donald Trump, who once courted the PGA Tour but has moved on, might have improved that release for Feherty, on whose show he once appeared:

“The PGA Tour is boring. NBC is boring. I’m going LIV for MONEY + FUN!!! LIV will have the best tournaments played on the best courses!”

The Saudis saw where golf took Trump in his life. We all did. For a while, he was the most powerful person in the world and one of the most disruptive forces in American history. Golf did far more for him than baseball did for George W. Bush (ownership of the Texas Rangers). Most presidents have sought to unite, and most everybody would say that of W. Trump—this is an opinion—did not. He made the disruption work for him. The Saudis, of course, saw this. How could they not?

Meanwhile, this peculiar summer continues to unfold. Every day, some nutty new thing is being cooked up on “social media.”

You probably know that Smith improperly played a shot from a red hazard line on Saturday and was penalized two shots for it a day later. That was orchestrated by LIV Golf to make the PGA Tour look bad. So says “social media.” Unless it was orchestrated by the PGA Tour to make a LIV Golf recruit look bad. So says “social media.”

Also, Norman is going to be fired as the LIV commissioner/CEO. Today. Or did it already happen? “Social media” cannot be expected to be on top of every little thing, can it? Actually, I don’t see that happening, not anytime soon. Norman is LIV Golf’s biggest asset. Yes, ahead of Patrick Reed. Yes, Norman whiffed in May when talking broadly about Saudi Arabia’s human-rights abuses. Also, when commenting on the state-sanctioned murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident columnist. (“Look, we’ve all made mistakes,” Norman said.) Even Tiger didn’t have his A game every time out. But Norman has managed to get this trial-run year of LIV Golf up and running, despite what he calls “obstacles.” Of course, billions of dollars in Saudi oil money made it all possible. But the pandemic and Mickelson’s winter-into-spring PR fiasco could have killed it.

Then there was the PGA Tour’s assault on LIV Golf and its discovery of $10 million here and $15 million there for the fellas. And trotting out every big gun it had, including Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson, to distance themselves from the “rebel golf league.” (Now and forever: pet phrase of The Telegraph, famous English broadsheet.) The boys sounded so genuine, for a nanosecond anyway.

Note to self: Never underestimate the power of greed or the lure of money.

But here’s an example of when Norman shined: with Tucker Carlson on Fox News a few weeks ago during the LIV event at Trump Bedminster. Norman killed it. Yes, Carlson put rubber-coated softballs on tall tees. But Norman went yard. First off, Norman guaranteed traction for the interview and attention for the Bedminster tournament by semi-confirming the $700 million number offered to Woods. Then there was this pearl. Carlson asked, “Why would sponsors drop golfers for participating in LIV?”

“Tucker, that blows my mind,” Norman answered. “And sponsors, by the way, who have spent billions of dollars in Saudi Arabia!”

It’s not, at all, a mind-blower. But to those who don’t follow this stuff closely? It’s a perfect sound bite. It’s right out of the tournament host’s playbook.

Now here are the dull, obvious and relevant details. American Express sponsored Mickelson and a PGA Tour event. American Express chose the Tour. RBC sponsored Johnson and a PGA Tour event. RBC chose the Tour. Rocket Mortgage sponsored DeChambeau and a PGA Tour event. Rocket Mortgage chose the Tour.

If a company has to choose between standing with a corporate partner or a human being, it will always choose the corporate partner. Human beings say and do whacky things. Companies exist to make money. That makes them more reliable.

But what Norman said sounded great.

This did too: “We’re independent contractors. We have the right to go play wherever we want in the world for whatever we want.”

The only problem with those two excellent sentences is that they have no foundation in reality. Nowhere in the world does a prominent professional golf tour, including LIV Golf, simply allow its members to play wherever they wish, whenever they wish. There are pages and pages of rules and regulations and stipulations.

That whole rule-of-law thing. It’s a chaos-killer.

LIV (to me) comes off as the Robert Redford character in the heinous 1993 movie Indecent Proposal. The Redford character, a billionaire, offers a married couple, played by Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, $1 million if Redford’s character can sleep with Moore’s character for one night. The answer is yes. It doesn’t go well. But had Woody and Demi said no, there wouldn’t be a movie, right? LIV is the Redford character. LIV, with a suite of rooms in the House of Saud, is barging right in.

This whole business brings to mind another Redford character, Jay Gatsby his own self. Yes, The Great Gatsby, one of the movie versions of it. Gatsby can’t let go of Tom Buchanan’s wife, Daisy. Tom’s not happy. Tom says to Gatsby, “What kind of row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?”

LIV is creating some row.

But even if you are, quote, anti-LIV, does that make you, quote, pro PGA Tour? Hardly. Kathy Whitworth, the greatest winner in LPGA history, told me the other day she could not for the life of her understand why the PGA Tour did not try to reach some accommodation with Norman and the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund.

Well, there’s an answer but it’s more of an answer than many people want to bother with: It’s hard to negotiate with a group that you think represents an existential threat to your way of life. So Jay Monahan didn’t take Norman’s call. Neither did Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley. But Miss Whitworth, a legend and a smart person and a straight shooter (out of a long tradition of Texas golfers who are legends and smart and straight shooters) believes the PGA Tour is loaded with prima donnas. Other women touring pros will tell you the same.

The next men’s major event is the Masters in early April. The Champions Dinner on the Tuesday of that week will be unlike any other that has come before it. That’s because we now have another club within the club. All of the former Masters winners will gather. But now there will be Mickelson, Johnson, Reed, Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel and Sergio Garcia as LIV golfers who are also former Masters winners. Gary Player is with them in spirit. Fred Couples is not. Jack Nicklaus is not. Jordan Spieth is not. Tiger Woods is not. Arnold Palmer, wherever he may be, is not.

It could get chilly, up there on the second floor. The subtle truth is already starting to come out. Mickelson, we learned last week, was not “disinvited” to last year’s tournament. He was invited to take a year off. That’s how Augusta operates. Augusta does not like chaos. It likes control.

In Get Smart, Agent 86 (Maxwell Smart) works for CONTROL, a secret U.S. government agency. CONTROL fights KAOS, an evil international cartel. KAOS is lawless. It thrives in chaotic. But Smart is so obsessed with CONTROL’s various codes he can never accomplish anything. The parallels in golf are too obvious.

LIV has already injected an element of chaos into professional golf. Witness last week’s emergency federal court hearing in San Jose, Calif. The decision to deny three LIV golfers the chance to play in these FedEx Cup playoffs can be parsed a thousand ways. One way is this: The judge said the PGA Tour can have rules about who will play in its events and who will not.

Sorry, Greg.

LIV, too, decides who will play and who will not. Norman told Carlson that when players have called him in recent weeks looking to join the LIV roster, he has replied, “I’m sorry—the shop is closed.” There’s no more room. Unless LIV really, really wants you. Like, it really wants Cam Smith. Cam Smith didn’t want to play golf this week. He had an easy out. Calling in sick on the LIV league most likely will not be so easy.

The motivation for the players who have gone to LIV is not hard to understand. They want the guaranteed money. Just like Feherty did.

“Money,” Feherty told the Toledo Blade a couple of weeks after that painful LIV press release. “People don’t talk about it. I hear, ‘Well, it’s to grow the game.’ Bull—-. They paid me a lot of money.”

Norman’s motivation is obvious. He had a good idea nearly 30 years ago—a world golf tour—and cannot let go of it.

But what are the Saudis trying to achieve here? My guess is that about two people really know, and one of them travels the world on three letters, his vast wealth and his link to the death of Jamal Khashoggi: MBS. The Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. He’s not being invited to join Augusta National anytime soon. Neither is Trump.

From my former colleague Rick Reilly, courtesy of his Twitter feed:

“Trump may have taken nuke secrets to Mar a Lago. The Saudis are openly thirsty for US nuke secrets. Saudis ‘invested’ $2b in [Jared] Kushner (below). Saudis and Trump are suddenly in bed together in LIV Golf. Probably just a coincidence, right?”

I believe it was Maxwell Smart who said, “Coincidence? I think not!”

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

26 thoughts on “The Summer of Golf’s Discontent”

    1. Another Redford film! And I am sure that Neither Sundance nor Butch (to be played in the remake by Jordan Speith and Justin Thomas, respectively) would Leave the Hole In The Wall Gang to join the LIV Gang either, no matter how much of Mr. Harriman’s money was in the mail car.

  1. It should be titled The Summer of Golf’s Disruption. The $600 billion + Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) maintains investment positions in an extensive array of US companies. No one is returning their capital infusions. The golf industry will likely be another profitable undertaking for the PIF. Among other paradigm shifts, it may be the beginning of the end of the PGA Tour’s 501 (c) (6) status – mirroring the NFL’s departure in 2015. The Tour may need to change its model-and quickly, as marquis players continue to exit and DOJ pressure intensifies. Disruption only occurs where opportunity exists and benefit lurks. Even Mr Shipnuck has benefited. Who had even heard of him before The Summer of Golf’s Disruption?

    1. Ach! Tony! 3:16 am! Get some sleep! When you rise, read the Steinbeck, the bard of Shipwreck’s hometown, and then The Bard’s original source material about King Richard. Seem to remember Will was about a 12 at the Stratford on Avon course, but that was a while ago. Discontent runs selfishly through all of this drama and it’s allusions like a
      15 gauge platinum wire.

  2. Maxwell Smart: I think it’s only fair to warn you, this facility is surrounded by a highly trained team of 130 Black Op Snipers.
    Siegfried: I don’t believe you.
    Maxwell Smart: Would you believe two dozen Delta Force Commandos?
    Siegfried: No.
    Maxwell Smart: How about Chuck Norris with a BB gun?

    PS: Tony…lots of us knew of and admired Alan Shipnuck prior to this summer.

  3. I hate LIV. I hate what LIV stands for. I hate the golfers who joined LIV to spend more time with their families and then sued to get into Tour events (spending time with your family is apparently okay but only for a few weeks and then it becomes downright tiresome). I hate the LIV golfers who left the Tour because it was oppressive. I hate the LIV golfers who cuddled up to Trump at Bedminister and raved about his weird golf swing. I hate Trump who apparently doesn’t understand the difference between the PGA Tour and the PGA (how did this man run our country?). I hate Greg Norman and the twice life-size bust he has of himself in a prominent place in his house. Did I mention that I hate 54 hole tournaments, loud music, shotgun starts, and Lefty’s 5 o’clock shadow? I hate Charles Barkley for his little publicity stunt with LIV. You name it and if it’s LIV I hate it. But guess what? LIV is growing the game of golf. Never has golf been talked about or written about like it is now…and all because of LIV, and while we are at it I hate the name LIV. Are they going to change the name when the world ranking folks force them to start playing 72 hole tournaments?

  4. Very well-written article. I find myself wondering what category I am in – “anti-LIV”? “”anti-anti-LIV”? Certainly not “pro-PGA.” If not for MBS and the Trump factor (seeing Tucker, MTG & Trump yukking it up at Bedminster and leading those stupid “political” chants was gross), I could maybe be on board. Or at least get some $6 tix on StubHub and take my boys to see a round when they are in Chicago (i.e. 1.5 hours outside of the City). And all that “but guaranteed money takes away the golfers’ incentive to win” nonsense is such a red herring. Every major professional sports league has guaranteed money – are you telling me that Josh Allen, Aaron Judge and Nathan McKinnon aren’t trying to win? Pay the players — it is now obvious the PGA was not paying market rate.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  5. Great article and loving the comments!

    The PGA v. LIV situation is analogous to the NBA v. The Harlem GlobeTrotters. Both set of players are each playing basketball, yet one is legitimate competition while the other is purely exhibition. PGA is competitive golf, LIV is purely an exhibition.

    I choose to support competitive golf!

  6. Reading through to the end, and there are the missing pieces of a nightmarish jigsaw. …In the juxtaposition of several seemingly unrelated recent events. Once you see it, it’s difficult to un-see it, however much you might wish you could.

  7. Revisionist history on W – he left office with the lowest approval rating in history at 29%. He started two wars and killed thousands of innocent people in Iraq lying about WMD. He was a unifier in that he unified the vast majority of the country against him after 8 years. You insult peoples intelligence with that take on W.

  8. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America cancelled their events at Trump courses. Isn’t that enough reason for him to support LIV? It strikes me as rather unlikely that nuclear weapons are part of the deal – I’m mean, is that a serious suggestion, or just part of the fun?

  9. I think a good simile that’s probably better than Bryson’s pizza shop looks like this: I work at a broker deal and some of our sales guys are independent contractors and not employees. They’re free to go work at another shop anytime they like, we reserve the right to not allow them to work at both at the same time, and if they violate our code of conduct while here we also reserve the right to never hire them back.

    In a few months (weeks maybe) the goalposts will have moved to “Selling nuclear secrets is smart business and of course it was perfectly legal and fine.”

    Great writing.

  10. What a great read. I watched Tony Finau choke up after he won in Detroit. I watched Will Zalitoris sob into his girlfriends arms after winning last weekend. I have watched countless clips of guys losing it when they find out they got their PGA card. You are not going to see that on LIV. Dustin Johnson joked about wanting to be at F-ing Wyndham and yet we watched a 20 year old kid make a quadruple bogey there on the 1st hole before torching the field over the next 71 holes.
    The PGA tour is full of compelling stories week after week. LIV is WWE. If that is your sort of thing, have at it. For me, I will take the real thing…the PGA tour

  11. “All of the former Masters winners will gather.” Objection, your Honor. Assumes a fact not in evidence. . .

  12. I have always liked David Feherty, respected him as a commentator, a writer, a storyteller and a golfer. But if I had the occasion to met him, I’d have to tell him, “I can’t shake your hand. I don’t want to get my shirt cuff bloody.” He took the money – “They paid me a lot of money.” He took the blood money.

  13. Love your work Michael but I think your premise is wrong. Just because you don’t understand the Saudi business model doesn’t mean they don’t have one. It’s clearly not all about money from their perspective even if it’s the tool to achieve their ends. Many businesses seek to destroy their opposition before claiming the ground, including by buying their key employees. Also true is that many tours outside of America (and I write from Australia) will gain from what’s currently happening. It ain’t all about the US.

    1. Greg, I’m intrigued with your point of view. My sense is that the Saudis want to show the world that they are not evil people by involving themselves in positive entrepreneurial ventures that will divert attention away from their human rights violations. It makes no sense for them to enter into business ventures that simply reinforce their existing cut throat political and economic reputations. Therefore I would find it really irrational for them to try to destroy the existing professional golf ecosystem and then replace it with their own highly controversial enterprise. I think their initial intentions may have been positive and constructive but then the unexpected happened: Phil Mickelson (LIV’s leading ambassador) trashed the Saudis as “scary mofos” in a most revealing interchange with his biographer, Alan Shipnuck. These words dealt a crippling blow to LIV (and to Mickelson for that matter). The subsequent mainstream reaction has been to label LIV money as blood money. To make matters worse Greg Norman decided to make a strong alliance between LIV and Fox News and Donald Trump; thereby making it even more unlikely that LIV will ever attract a big money broadcasting contract or big money tournament or team sponsors. In other words the first six months of LIV’s existence has been a complete and utter disaster. That’s why your comment intrigues me. Can you enlighten us further how LIV can get out of the utter mess it has created and put together a business plan with an actual viable chance for a return on investment? The only avenue I can see is through anti-trust litigation and unless Jay Monahan is stupider than I think he is, the PGA Tour will not fall into that trap.

  14. Good article! Thought provoking! I do feel sorry for Greg Norman, he appears to be so unhappy and discontented. Like the players who jumped to LIV, they all have “bit the hand that fed them”. Without the PGA Tour, Norman et al would have lived in obscurity.
    Truly, these players will never be satisfied with the money they have been given to go to LIV, especially when they realize how much Norman is being paid.

  15. Good article. Though didn’t quite answer the question in title.

    The original Saudi LIV motive: They have 2 existential battles. Iran. Climate Change attack on Oil. They need to buy more friends.

    A twist: LIV has attracted a *Republican-leaning* group of PGA players. Saudis didn’t expect that. They already had Trump. They need both sides of the aisle.

    Saudis got a break with inflation and gas prices soaring. MBS was able to force Biden’s “slouching to Saudi Arabia” visit in June 2022, to kiss the MBS ring.

    1. This is likely true of the American golfers, but I would guess that it is less true of the non-Americans who joined the LIV.

  16. The critics are hypocrites. So are the supporters. Of both tours. All of the “arguments” or “explanations” to support or disparage either side are all facades to hide the real reason for any of this Summer of Discontent and all of you know what it is. The PGA doesn’t want anyone disrupting their gravy train, so they’re pulling out all the stops to damage LIV. LIV is pulling out all the stops to force their way on to the stage that has only belonged to a certain type of player… Doesn’t this sound familiar? It’s really surprising that the 45th President of the United States is in cahoots with LIV? The upstart? The one that is trying to “disrupt the status quo”? This sounds like the summer of 2016 all over again.

    The only reason this is a story is because LIV has the cash to fund the start. What’s the reason the AAF, XFL (twice), and USFL (not the most recent iteration) failed? They couldn’t compete financially with the NFL. When someone is able to hang with them, the NFL will start paying attention. But for now they’ll treat those failed leagues just like the PGA treats lesser tours: as opportunities to evaluate rising talent for free.

    Regardless of how you feel about the state of American politics or the power that the NFL wields, the only reason any of them argue and throw this kind of mud (make up your own mind about who and what you believe) is because there is money and power on the line.

    If you really want to “grow the game”, put your money where your mouths are and have a Ryder Cup style tournament with one side representing the PGA and the other representing LIV. Oh and you’ll probably still both make a ton of money doing that.

  17. This is the biggest piece of Leftist garbage to appear on this site….figures that Reilly was a part of it. But no worries, you have 80+ million voters who agree with you !!!!
    Sure you do.

  18. I agree no golf fan cares who wins an LIV tourney (maybe if Phil was in contention). But similarly no golf fan cares who wins non-major tournaments (maybe agents and PGA family members).

    I love the way you bring Trump into every article. Let it go. Please leave golf writing to professionals and work for Biden.

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