‘Obnoxious Greed’ Will Play Major Role in Future of Professional Golf’s Highest Level

‘Obnoxious Greed’ Will Play Major Role in Future of Professional Golf’s Highest Level article feature image

Luke Walker/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images. Pictured: Phil Mickelson tees off at the Saudi International on Thursday.

If we need a sign to show us the world of professional golf could soon be facing a seismic shift, we don’t need to look far. Twice as many of the world’s elite players eschewed the golfing mecca of Pebble Beach this week in favor of competing at the Saudi International in the aptly named King Abdullah Economic City.

Full disclosure: the entire tournament name is the Public Investment Fund Saudi International, powered by SoftBank Investment Advisors. If that title alone isn’t enough to make us realize that this one is all about the Benjamins (spoiler alert: everything is always about the Benjamins), then try the fact that the field includes three players in the top-10 on the OWGR, five in the top-20 and 20 in the top-50, most of whom insist that playing in what has become the Asian Tour season-opener is about “growing the game,” which of course is code-speak for “they’re paying me, so I’ll play.”

But this isn’t a one-time, take-the-money-and-run type of deal.

No, the Saudi government-backed LIV Golf Investments, featuring Greg Norman as CEO, is prepared to play the long game, attempting to woo some of the game’s biggest names with guaranteed contracts from a reported $1.5 billion budget. Other reports have been equally astonishing, such as the one which maintained that Bryson DeChambeau has been offered $135 million to be the face of a potential world-traveling Saudi Golf League, which is $15 million more than Tiger Woods has banked on-course in his PGA TOUR career. (DeChambeau denied the report.)

Forty-somethings Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson have reportedly been wooed with a mere $30 million. Others have discussed the financials, then ensured that they wouldn’t have to discuss them publicly.

“I don't know whether I want to answer questions on that,” Lee Westwood said of the proposed league, which would feature both team and individual competitions. “I've signed an NDA.”

“I'm not allowed to disclose,” admitted Dustin Johnson, who was asked if he received an offer similar to that of Poulter and said with a laugh, “No, it’s not similar.”

All of which should lead to one very important question that needs to be asked about all of this: “Why?”

Let’s first start with the Saudi perspective. Despite consistent contentions that the plan was born on the virtuous premise of growing the game around the globe, there is undoubtedly a sense of sportswashing from a government which has enacted heinous acts on innocent humans. Essentially, the idea is that by attracting some of the world’s best golfers, the country can divert attention from past scandals and attempt to make reparations to its reputation.

While it remains to be seen whether the public buys what they’re trying to sell, there aren’t enough grow-the-game cries from those powers-that-be to drown out this sentiment.

After all, nothing diverts attention from abhorrent crimes like having DeChambeau try to drive the green on a par-5. Or so they hope.

For the players, the bigger question is why they’d subject themselves to public criticisms and ethical dilemmas while simultaneously robbing them of potential career highlights. Westwood, Poulter and Stenson have competed in a combined 22 Ryder Cups for the European team and each would be considered for a future captaincy, but not if they sign with the Saudi League.

Perhaps a contract which ends in a massive amount of zeroes can help soothe any fears or offset the promise of leading a squad to victory in the ultimate biennial competition.

There’s more to it, though, than just earning more money. To some, it’s about the money they haven’t earned.

Enter Phil Mickelson, who has spent a lifetime cultivating a public image of golf’s everyman — the guy who hands golf balls to young kids throughout the round and offers thumbs-up acknowledgments to his adoring fans and leaves weighty tips in his wake for staffers around the world.

The outspoken left-hander understands that aligning with the Saudi government will leave him open to criticism, but insists this is about having an opportunity that isn’t being afforded by the PGA TOUR.

“It’s not public knowledge, all that goes on,” Mickelson told Golf Digest in an interview this week. “But the players don’t have access to their own media. If the tour wanted to end any threat [from Saudi or anywhere else], they could just hand back the media rights to the players. But they would rather throw $25 million here and $40 million there than give back the roughly $20 billion in digital assets they control. Or give up access to the $50-plus million they make every year on their own media channel.”

While it’s tough to empathize with a player who has earned nearly $95 million in on-course winnings alone, it’s viable to understand his logic.

“There are many issues, but that is one of the biggest. For me personally, it’s not enough that they are sitting on hundreds of millions of digital moments. They also have access to my shots, access I do not have. They also charge companies to use shots I have hit. And when I did ‘The Match’ — there have been five of them — the TOUR forced me to pay them $1 million each time. For my own media rights. That type of greed is, to me, beyond obnoxious.”

Therein lies the main theme to all of this: Obnoxious greed.

It’s unseemly for the Saudi government to sportswash, unseemly for the world’s best players to contemplate eschewing ethics for financial riches, unseemly for the PGA TOUR to push those players to the brink of making such contemplations

By the time you’re reading this, there will likely be another report of another golfer being offered some ungodly sum to consider plying his craft for this new league, one which will make you shake your head and tsk-tsk over the lasciviousness of the whole thing.

This is what happens when obnoxious greed is the priority.

Remember that spoiler alert: Everything is always about the Benjamins. Especially this.

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