The PGA Tour has a month to decide whether to remain focused on a game of cat and mouse it is positioned to win, or instead be suckered into a game of chicken it would almost certainly lose.
Until January 4, to be exact—30 days out from the first round of the Saudi International, by which point it must decide whether to grant releases to members who want to compete in the Kingdom.
The Saudis announced a lengthy list of committed players, including Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele, none of whom yet have permission from Ponte Vedra. Competing without a waiver could trigger disciplinary action, likely limited to a fine—a mere droplet in the bucket of blood money they could haul home while flogging themselves with backslaps for “growing the game.”
The players committed to February’s tournament shouldn’t be confused with the roster the Saudis want to recruit for their Super Golf League, which is attempting to lure stars with guaranteed money, reported at upwards of $30 million for some. The riches for guys like Jason Dufner and Harold Varner III will be limited to appearance fees at the International, not invitations to a future breakaway circuit for the elite. But the PGA Tour has a lot more Dufners and Varners than Mickelsons and DeChambeaus, which is why the Saudis are using the bait of appearance fees that are seldom lavished on the lower ranks. By greasing up enough guys eager to squeeze their snouts into the trough, the Saudis have forced commissioner Jay Monahan to make a problematic decision.
Denying some or all of the waiver requests will protect one of Monahan’s most important partners in AT&T, whose investment in golf as title sponsor of two Tour events, one of which is opposite the Saudi International, and at the Masters was pegged by one industry executive at $40 million or so. But denials would also immediately have the Saudi’s flaxen-haired lackey, Greg Norman, claiming that the Tour is not representing players’ best interests and is denying them lucrative opportunities.
The shark-turned-pilot fish has already been polishing that saw.
“I want to share my undivided support and endorsement for the stance taken in announcing your participation in the Saudi International,” he wrote to the players who publicly committed. “You are standing up for your rights, as professional athletes, and for what is right and best for the global development of the sport of golf.”
Consider the intellectual and moral bankruptcy required to commend golfers for standing up for their rights on behalf of a repressive government that abuses rights as a matter of policy.
It’s a stout task to keep pace with Norman’s dizzying agitprop these days as he beclowns himself for the Crown Prince. In an interview with the Financial Times, he equated racism in the U.S. with the abuses currently perpetrated by his employer, saying every country “has done horrendous things in the past.” Norman’s definition of “past” will come as news to civilians desperately trying to survive Saudi war crimes in Yemen. But who better to personify the ‘emperor has no clothes’ theory than Greg Norman?
The reality is that the PGA Tour is hostage to its own precedent.
It granted waivers when the Saudi International was sanctioned by the outfit formerly known as the European Tour. The Euros booted the event from its schedule after forging a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour to fend off the Super Golf League. Had the tournament remained unsanctioned—as it was when the PGA Tour indicated it would deny releases for the ’22 edition—Monahan would have no predicament. But the Saudis bought the imprimatur of the Asian Tour, to which the PGA Tour has also previously granted its members hall passes.
“I think the Tour should grant releases,” Rory McIlroy said. “I do see reasons why they wouldn’t grant releases, but I think if they’re trying to do what’s best for their members, and their members are going to a place other than the PGA Tour and being able to earn that money, I mean, we’re independent contractors, and I feel like we should be able to do that.”
McIlroy, who has repeatedly declined multi-million dollar offers to play the Saudi International, is chairman of the Tour’s Players Advisory Council and said most players share his view. Which is why Monahan ought to concede this battle over one tournament for the sake of the broader war against Saudi Arabia’s hostile takeover of professional golf.
It’s a war Tiger Woods enlisted for Tuesday when he dismissed the Super Golf League concept with barely disguised contempt. “I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships. So I have allegiance to the PGA Tour.”
Woods was reminding his colleagues—he has no peers—that he’s the standard against which they are measured. While he pitched up at many money-grab tournaments in his career, too, Woods doesn’t conflate serious competition with synthetic entertainment, a distinction intentionally blurred by Saudi suck-ups who promote the twaddle that their goal is to elevate the sport rather than to normalize the regime’s image.
The looming waivers fight, like the flirtation with the Super Golf League, is a leverage play by stars eager to extract more revenue and concessions from the PGA Tour. They are well on their way to getting the money—bigger purses, guaranteed cash events, greater bonuses—and a recalibration of power seems inevitable too. The Tour is a member-led organization, but many of its top performers think it is too oriented to protecting journeymen at their expense.
While issuing releases to the Saudi International would stick in Monahan’s craw, it won’t represent a change from previous policy. So why hand the Saudis a wedge to further divide his members? Granting permission for players to flaunt their lack of a moral compass once a year is a price Monahan has to pay to win the fight that really matters.
Published at Golfweek.com, December 3, 2021.