Too often lately golf has seemed less a sport than a business, with every precinct of the professional game consumed by news, gossip, threats and intrigue about rival leagues and red lines. Thursday at Southern Hills promised a welcome return to the good ol’ days, when the game’s reference dictionary entries for ‘B’ included birdies and bogeys, but not bonesaws: a major championship, a sublime venue, a blockbuster group, a wealth of storylines—in short, golf as it used to be. That promise was delivered upon, and even the brief intrusion of the aforementioned corporate chicanery was positive.
It’s a testament to the depth of storylines at the 104th PGA Championship that the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 golfers in the world played together Thursday—and will again tomorrow—and they weren’t (and won’t be) the most eagerly anticipated group. It was the triumvirate of Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth that had thousands of spectators braving the sweltering noonday sun at Southern Hills.
On Wednesday evening, McIlroy brought his daughter, Poppy, to see an oversized mural of his 2014 PGA Championship victory in the media center. “That’s when Daddy was good!” he told her. Daddy was plenty good Thursday too, his 65 ending a streak of underwhelming opening rounds in majors. Elsewhere in his company, the man seeking the only missing prize in a career Grand Slam scrapped his way to a 72; while the GOAT staggered to a 74, which might still have been the most impressive of the three scorecards given his adventures over the last 15 months.
Even at much less than full power, Woods remains the biggest draw in the game. For 25 years, his presence has enhanced tournaments as surely as his absence has diminished others. The absence of those who confer credibility was a theme elsewhere Thursday, as Sports Business Journal reported that Sean Bratches has moved on to pastures that are, if not greener, then at least less bloodstained.
A name not widely known among golf fans, Bratches was hired six months ago as the chief commercial officer for LIV Golf, the outfit being fronted by Greg Norman and backed by the Saudi Arabian regime. He earned an impressive reputation over three decades with ESPN and F1, and among the washed-up and laid-off who populate the LIV Golf org chart, Bratches alone added business respectability to what is not a respectable business.
At a LIV Golf media event last week in London, Bratches sat on a dais beside Norman as the Great White Pilot Fish casually downplayed the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered on the orders of his employer, the Saudi Crown Prince. “Look, we’ve all made mistakes,” Norman said. “You just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
Thus the bonesaw carving of a critic is recast as a teaching moment. With those words, Greg Norman proved himself to be the Lehman Brothers of moral bankruptcy.
That grotesque moment illustrated the ethical gymnastics required to equivocate on behalf of murderers and human rights abusers, and Bratches tendered his resignation almost immediately. His departure leaves the Saudi effort to hijack professional golf in the hands of apparatchiks and a narcissist who isn’t renowned for his ability to close. His was but one domino to fall. By Thursday afternoon, Sports Illustrated reported that UPS has terminated its lengthy relationship with Lee Westwood, who has become a poster child for the LIV Golf tournaments. Sources tell Golfweek that UPS has also dropped another ambassador, Louis Oosthuizen, who was thought to be leaning toward the Saudi series too.
It seems unlikely UPS will be acting alone. Other corporations will surely follow suit and drop players who accept the squalid embrace of LIV Golf. In the crass corporate calculus, it’s apparently one thing to enjoy Saudi revenue as a company, quite another to watch your paid spokespersons peddling false equivalencies as part of a naked sportswashing endeavor. Companies who affiliate with LIV Golf players know their guys will surely face the same questions as Norman, and understand there is no good answer to them.
That looming cost-benefit analysis will be of little concern to the popular fraternity followed by fans at the PGA Championship Thursday. McIlroy, Woods, Spieth, Scheffler, Rahm, Zalatoris, Koepka, Thomas, Hovland, Morikawa—every one of them has publicly rejected Greg Norman and his odious enterprise. All in all, Thursday was a good day for golf fans, a good day for golf, and a deservingly bad one for Norman.
Published at Golfweek.com, May 19, 2022.