“Obvious lies serve a purpose for an administration,” wrote Garry Kasparov, the chess great and courageous critic of Vladimir Putin. “They watch who challenges them and who loyally repeats them. The people must watch, too.”
We are entering a week in which golf fans will be inundated with obvious lies from the Saudi International, peddled by players exhibiting all the sincerity of $20 hustlers trying to say it like they mean it.
“I’m trying to grow the game.”
“They are trying to change here.”
“I’m just here to play golf.”
“I want to compete against the best.”
“I’m not a politician.”
The ashamed might at least look uneasy in their prevarications. The shameless will be all thumbs-up and duplicitous grins. And everyone will depart the Kingdom richer, but only in cash terms. This effort to launder the Saudi regime’s grotesque reputation will soil that of many others.
It promises to be a discordant week in golf as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is held opposite the Bonesaw Invitational. On one side we have an iconic venue, a longtime sponsor whose investment in the sport runs to tens of millions of dollars annually and a worthy charitable beneficiary. Eight thousand miles to the east, there is only money—unless you think bailing certain golfers out of their financial misadventures constitutes charity.
Sure, it’s all commerce, but one tournament comes with a side of mercy. The other is simply mercenary.
Elite golfers are free to earn money however they wish, but they aren’t exempt from criticism for the manner in which they do so. Participating in the Saudi International—or flirting with the regime’s proposed Super Golf League circuit—is to be an accessory to blatant sportswashing, willingly enlisted in a mendacious effort to distract from its ongoing human rights abuses and war crimes.
Players will sing the same libretto—“We’re not politicians! We’re just doing our job!”—but it’s a bogus deflection. This is an instance where just doing their jobs is a political act. Politics underwrites the money being thrown at them to perform. That’s the essence of sportswashing.
Most PGA Tour members who sought permission to compete in Saudi Arabia will earn a number by making up the numbers. Jason Dufner, Harold Varner III and Jhonny Vegas will be sent home with a check and a cursory nod of thanks, whereas stars like Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau will be aggressively courted as potential assets in a breakaway Super League. Regardless of the level of interest each man holds for the Saudis, being present is an opportunity to be accounted for. Lewis Hamilton spoke out against regime abuses during the penultimate race of the Formula One season in Jeddah last December. Who will be Hamilton this week?
Bueller? …. Bueller? …
This week begs for moral clarity, not obfuscation and obsequiousness. Greg Norman will supply plenty of the latter as a propagandist for the Crown Prince’s regime. Slender are the chances of a principled protest from any golfer who has chosen to show up for the money. A gloomy few days lie ahead for golf.
Whatever obvious lies players spout to please the Crown Prince will surely find shelter behind the tu quoque tactics used by wankers of ‘whataboutism’, those clods who insist that criticism of the Saudi event is invalid unless it also specifies the evils of China, abuses in the Emirates, grievances about American and European foreign policy and arms sales, and condemnations of sweatshop-operating corporate sponsors, among other cul-de-sacs.
The implicit decree—that we cannot legitimately discuss one issue unless we simultaneously discuss every issue—is so intellectually trite as to barely be worth dismissing. Such shading benefits only the Saudis and those in their pay.
There will come a day when the Saudis either announce signings for a Super League or dissolve their ambitions as one might a dissident journalist in a faraway consulate. The moment of reckoning for the players—on their character, on their willingness to excuse atrocities so long as the check clears—is already at hand. They just won’t admit as much.
Published at Golfweek.com, January 30, 2022.