Most of the 121 men in the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational are judged by a straightforward metric: a scorecard that documents the ebb and flow of their work day. Global brands — whether a corporation or an individual athlete — are measured against more complex and fluid standards, like the company they keep, the actions they take, the conscience they evidence.
These are not benchmarks against which golf has traditionally fared well. Until Thursday.
In the first round at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy opened with a round of 66 that amply demonstrated his celebrated skill as a player. What followed established him as a leader.
Visiting the Golf Channel set for an interview, the world No. 1 was asked again about the Premier Golf League, a proposed splinter circuit that would pit a few dozen elite players against each other in lucrative tournaments around the world. McIlroy reiterated his recent comments declaring himself out on the concept.
“If we go to this new league, you’re going to be contracted to play 18 events,” he said. “They’re going to tell you where and when to be there, and as a golfer and independent contractor I didn’t like the sound of that.”
That part was unremarkable, just a golfer discussing the professional and personal logistics that mitigate against his joining the League. Then he added this: “I didn’t like where the money was coming from either. I wanted to be the first one to speak out against it and I’m glad that I have. I’m glad that I’ve done that.”
That part was remarkable, at least in the hidebound precincts of the PGA Tour — a global icon exhibiting a moral compass, one that is pointing him in the opposite direction from some of his colleagues.
The provenance of the Premier Golf League’s financing is still shrouded in secrecy, but its CEO Andrew Gardiner did acknowledge last month that one source is the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, which is bankrolled by the government of bone saw enthusiast Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The Fund, Gardiner explained, “is incredibly passionate about golf and its future and I’m delighted to have them involved.”
Sportswashing is a cottage industry for the Saudis, who lavish cash on bringing events and stars to the country in an effort to project normalcy and distract from rampant human rights abuses. Nothing launders bloodstains more effectively than a large check, and in professional golf the Saudis have found no shortage of shameless money-grubbers willing to brazenly peddle claptrap about growing the game. McIlroy has consistently wanted no part of that, last year turning down a hefty appearance fee to play the Saudi International.
Yet McIlroy wasn’t the only brand in golf to offer a rare glimpse of social conscience Thursday.
Titleist, Footjoy and J. Lindeberg all cut ties with Scott Piercy after two Instagram posts, one a homophobic meme about Pete Buttigieg, the other referencing the far-right conspiracy theorists of QAnon, which is believed by the FBI to be a potential source of domestic terrorism. Three of the most respected brands in golf quickly decided that an imbecilic bigot is not the company they wish to keep, and in doing so set a standard that other companies will be judged against the next time a player broadcasts his ignorance in public.
There are probably other players on Tour who share Piercy’s rancid views. There are assuredly other players on Tour — some very prominent — who are slobbering at the prospect of pocketing a Saudi check. That’s nothing new. What is new in this sport is that prominent companies and the world’s best golfer are willing to publicly and firmly distance themselves from toxic associations.
It says a great deal about the character of Rory McIlroy that he’s willing to take the stand he did. It says no less about the character of some of his peers that they are unwilling to do the same.
Golfweek.com, March 6, 2020.