It’s unlikely that PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan will ever respond to the letter he received this week from Greg Norman, for much the same reason that he probably wouldn’t engage someone wearing a tinfoil hat and shrieking in the street. But if he did reply, Monahan could do worse than to heed the example of James Bailey, a former general counsel for the Cleveland Browns.
In 1974, an Akron, Ohio, lawyer named Dale Cox angrily threatened to sue the Browns over the dangers posed by fans launching paper airplanes around him in the stadium. Bailey returned the complainant’s letter with a famously terse response that has been widely circulated over the years.
“Dear Mr. Cox,” he wrote, “I feel that you should be aware that some asshole is signing your name to stupid letters.”
The letter to which Norman signed his name isn’t entirely useless beyond its obvious comedic value. It promised a legal fight that could extend far past the sell-by dates of the few remaining players rumored to be interested in joining Norman’s Saudi-financed Super Golf League, and even the tenures of both Norman and Monahan themselves. It also reinforced a perception that the SGL project has been hampered by bungling amateurism, mismanaged by people who are big on bluster but lacking in specifics.
After congratulating himself on spending decades fighting for the rights of players to be adequately paid—as distinct from the less important rights of the less important people under the boot of his employer—Norman addressed Monahan with a debating dexterity (and command of capitalization) that would be the envy of an eighth-grader.
“The Tour is the Players Tour not your administration’s Tour,” he wrote. “Why do you call the crown jewel in all tournaments outside the Majors “The Players Championship” and not “The Administration’s Championship?”
“You are guilty of going too far, being unfair, and you are likely in violation of the law.”
If a man isn’t embarrassed to peck out those words on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government, one supposes we shouldn’t be embarrassed for him.
The great white pilot fish insisted that Monahan can’t ban golfers from playing golf. Monahan hasn’t actually done that, though his comments suggest he believes he can decide whether they play on the tour he runs, much as McDonald’s might think it has a say in whether independent franchisees can simultaneously sell Burger King over the same counter. Norman went on to claim that top players are still interested in joining the League and demanded they be allowed to make a choice, perhaps forgetting that they have already publicly exercised that choice.
“Competition in all aspects of life, sport and business is healthy,” wrote the man whose boss rules by decree and avenges by bonesaw. As intemperate public comments go, the letter had the scent of a jilted suitor’s drunken Facebook post in the wee small hours. It was cheap guff masquerading as a legal threat, but it does indicate that the Saudi story has a ways to go, if only out of spite.
Last week, Rory McIlroy declared the League “dead in the water,” but that’s accurate only if you think the intent is to deliver a quality product fielding the world’s best players in events that engage fans. If you believe instead that the entire enterprise is about sportswashing, then it scarcely matters if competitors are beyond their primes. A Phil Mickelson and a Lee Westwood can be leveraged to present the image of a normalized Saudi state just as easily as a Jon Rahm and a Jordan Spieth. The relevancy of players should be measured only in relation to the Saudi goal, not the end quality of the product.
So what do Norman and his puppeteers do next?
For all the bleating in the letter to Monahan, the Saudis’ grounds for a lawsuit are not clear-cut. It’s difficult to establish actionable injury in claiming the PGA Tour is preventing you from establishing a rival endeavor if you have never actually stated your intent to launch such a business. That changes if players sign up and are then banned by Monahan, but as of now, the Saudis have no declared players and no declared intent to launch.
That leaves potential tactics more suited to irritants than competitors. The Saudis could use economic influence to undermine the DP World Tour’s Middle East schedule. There is precedent. Last year’s announcement of DP World as the old European Tour’s new title sponsor was delayed several months by a Saudi intervention. They could also stage an event in the U.S. and offer enormous appearance fees to players. The PGA Tour has never granted waivers for members to play events held in America opposite its own schedule. A refusal to permit members to play a Saudi event in the U.S. could be used as a Trojan horse to litigate the PGA Tour’s influence over its members and test the limits of the independent contractor status.
None of those options represent a pathway to near-term success for the Saudis.
Until both product and players are unveiled, the Super Golf League exists only on paper, much like the war Norman imagines himself to be waging. What we can deduce from the sophomoric tone of his letter to Monahan is that the Crown Prince’s paper tiger is realizing that his dream of launching a viable rival to the PGA Tour is no closer than it was when last he tried three decades ago.
Published at Golfweek.com, February 25, 2022.