Through Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Golf is in the midst of a highly contentious split. The upcoming LIV International Series, funded by the Saudi Arabian State Investment Fund, has shaken golf to its ancient bones.
Heading into Thursday’s US Open at Brookline, no one can quite agree on what it all means and how it will play out, and there are nuanced variations on the ethical rights and wrongs of professional athletes who take big bucks from a regime accused of scaring things.
Read a bunch of different takes and you’ll get multiple viewpoints with just one consensus – that’s bad for golf.
But does this theory even hold water? What follows is an uncomfortable thought and a somewhat painful sentence to write.
However, it shouldn’t be entirely ruled out that this shake-up and the animosity between the rival parties, the players’ verbal potshots and yes, the Saudi money, could prove positive for a game that could actually turn out to be positive as it has enjoyed keeping things exactly the same for a long, long time.
The moral side of the LIV dilemma has been addressed often, and with some excellent perspectives, by a number of eminent writers and commentators. It’s a grim subject, as the gruesome murder (according to US intelligence reports) of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is just the tip of the Saudi government’s alleged leaks.
If you think the source of financial backing for LIV, which had its inaugural event last week in London and will be an eight-station series of events paying out $225 million in its first year, is evidence that golf sold his soul, I won’t fight you at this point.
And yet – purely personal opinion here – it is deeply complicated. Because if we look closely and assess where the LIV support is coming from, then it shouldn’t stop with Saudi Arabia and its public investment fund. When it comes to state involvement in sport, things get difficult.
The 2018 World Cup was a sensational tournament, with dramatic matches and outstanding performances from some of the world’s greatest players. It was also widespread referred to as “sportswear”. of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who by then had already annexed the Crimean peninsula and implemented discriminatory policies against his country’s LGBTQ+ community. The USMNT didn’t boycott this tournament and never gave it any serious thought – they just didn’t qualify.
How should we think about the event now? Is it okay to have loved it and still love the memory of it, but despair of Putin’s previous and subsequent actions? In truth, I’m not entirely sure. What about China’s 2008 and 2021 Olympics? Are Usain Bolt’s or Nathan Chen’s performances spoiled?
Whether or not it’s possible to look past the LIV controversy and even look at the raw product objectively is up to you. If LIV had happened without the Saudi money but from a different source, the optics would have been completely different.
The format – three days, no cut, tight TV windows – is solid. The shotgun launch allows fans to follow in real-time who is doing best from players like Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia instead of waiting hours for everyone to finish. The payout structure addressed the unique golf quirk that PGA Tour players who finish just below the midline after two days go home without a paycheck from their pocket.
The sport has historically benefited from the challenge of competition. In the 1970s, the American Basketball Association introduced slam dunk contests and the 3-point line that is common today.
In the sport of cricket, an outbreak in the 1970s, fueled by Australian television money, set the framework for the game’s transition into the modern age. Shorter formats, colorful clothing and other innovations prevented the sport from cannibalizing itself with a faithful adherence to tradition.
In women’s tennis, the Virginia Slims Circuit convinced the sport’s bosses to begin tackling the outrageous pay gap between men and women in sport.
Football leagues like the USFL have allowed freedom to try new things, although it should be noted that of all the professional leagues, the NFL has perhaps done the best job of fine-tuning its rules to keep up with modern times.
Golf, with all its history, has always been resistant to change. Last year, the PGA Tour Rules Committee even rejected a tame change that would have allowed for more compelling groups in the finals of tournaments by tinkering with how players with a three-day tie can be paired.
As a result, is golf getting better as a spectacle? That’s the best-case scenario.
Meanwhile, the rivalry aspect between the PGA diehards and the LIV breakaways brings some showbiz to the US Open. Both sides pounce on it. The tour was full of penalties. Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and others have mocked the LIV product at every turn. The defectors are unrepentant in cashing their checks, while fending off criticism of their morality from all quarters.
And maybe that’s a sign of our times, but all the fuss is bringing a lot more exposure to the sport. In recent times, the biggest controversies have been the fairness of belly putters or whether Bryson DeChambeau’s scientific experiments were in keeping with the age-old spirit of golf.
Not to mention that we’re talking a lot about golf in June. That doesn’t usually happen. Advertising is not everything, but it is a valuable asset for a golf sport.
LIV will not go away. Like it or not, there is so much money behind it that a certain sustainability is inherent.
Will it legitimately raise lingering questions about the unease of nations trying to improve their international image and cover up wrongdoing by funding sport? Hopefully.
Could it also lead to better broadcasts, richer viewing experiences, bigger prize pools and, whisper, a brighter future for golf? At least – maybe.
It’s hard to make a definitive statement as there is still so much to develop and the situation is really changing other than that.
It’s not a shame that LIV is here, but in what made it possible.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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