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LIV Golf and a sportswashing controversy

The Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series gets underway in London today amidst fierce criticism from the golfing establishment

Former golf world no. 1 Dustin Johnson has been receiving plenty of flak for joining LIV Golf.
Former golf world no. 1 Dustin Johnson has been receiving plenty of flak for joining LIV Golf. (Reuters)

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Dustin Johnson, the former world No. 1, US Open and Masters champion, is taking the heat. Browsing through international dailies, and online media, you’d think that Johnson—the most high-profile player to defect from the PGA Tour to the lucrative Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour (it begins on 9 June at the Centurion Golf Club in London)—is the biggest villain in the game right now. “Sheer Greed!” the headlines shout, and the write-ups provide unconfirmed, salacious details about the reported $175 million bounty Johnson has received. 

Soak that in for a moment: Johnson would need to win 134 editions of the RBC Canadian Classic—the PGA Tour event that he’s withdrawn from to play LIV Golf’s inaugural tournament—to make that kind of dough. And that’s just for endorsing the rival tourney; there’s another $25 million in prize money to be made by the 42 players in the field. Is it really any surprise, then, that Johnson is willing to accept the consequences—effectively ending his career on the PGA Tour? 

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For the benefit of those who may not be following the latest developments in the professional game, the LIV Golf Tour is a new golf tourney headed up by Greg Norman and bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF)—the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Ever since the new tournament’s inception, the tourney has been accused of trying to poach players from the game’s primary golf tours, with jaw-dropping joining incentives and prize funds. The PGA and DP World Tours (Europe) have refused to exempt their members to play in LIV Golf’s events and have threatened unspecified actions against rebels—a lifelong ban is very much on the cards for Johnson & Co. The media has accused Saudi Arabia of using golf to sportswash its abysmal human rights record. 

This writer is not going to get into that moral argument. This is not supposed to be an exoneration of Johnson’s actions either; just a commentary on the fact that he’s hardly the only sportsman in history to have been enticed by lucre. And as enticements go, Johnson’s bounty is unprecedented. Professional athletes play for money. In golf—under the cloak of the game’s long-standing traditions of honour and integrity—we sometimes tend to forget that. And Johnson, it can be argued, while supremely talented, has never cast himself as a model player. The same can’t be said about some of the other players in the. Amongst the 16 players from the World’s Top 100 who will be teeing it up, will be Spaniard Sergio Garcia, and Open Champion Louis Oosthuizen. Both Garcia and Oosthuizen aren’t just great players and Major winners, but huge role models for young golf fans the world over. 

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Why does it matter so much if a few top players play an event, or become members of a tourney, with a lucrative prize fund? To be absolutely fair to these gents, it is somewhat hypocritical to expect them to turn down what is likely to be a life-changing financial infusion, on moral grounds. The entire world, including the West, continues to do business with Saudi Arabia: In a press statement, the Kingdom announced $21.6 billion of incoming investments in its industrial sector in 2021. According to a recent report by Capital Economics, an independent London-based economic research consultancy, the country’s economy is projected to grow at an astounding 10% in 2022. Clearly everyone is doing business with Saudi Arabia. Why then, would we expect better from mere individuals who play a game for a living? 

On a side note, Johnson’s slide down from the moral high ground is neither surprising nor disappointing for this writer. But he’s devastated about Oosthuizen—a personal role model if there ever was one. Oosthuizen’s gorgeous languid golf swing that mirrors his easygoing personality is a thing of beauty. He's also been an outlier amongst his celebrity peers; a dedicated family man who continues to work at his farm. Why should such a man’s decision to shore up his and his family’s financial future come as such a disappointment? What follows from that is whether it’s patently unfair to hold your heroes up to lofty, unrealistic standards. Oosthuizen, it turns out, is only a golfer, not a hero. It’s heartbreaking. 

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All this moral outrage stems from the nature of the game, and what it expects of its practitioners. And the best players of the game are expected to be exemplars in every aspect of the game—which includes displaying unimpeachable moral fibre. After all, why do you think equipment companies spend so much money on getting top players to play and endorse golf clubs? Because amateurs and golf fans always follow suit. The LIV Golf Tour’s newly minted members might think that their endorsement is unlikely to change global perceptions about the Saudi human rights record—they’re probably right about that—but their participation will certainly add a gloss of acceptability. 

Norman has suggested Saudi Arabia is "making a cultural change". When asked about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the man at the helm of LIV Golf had this to say, "Look, we've all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.” No comment required. On a parting note, it’s worth mentioning that one man was offered well in excess of $100 million to endorse the tourney, but turned it down. Tiger Woods. This man’s stock rises every day. 

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer and television producer.

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