If only Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky played golf. A pleasant round on some sequestered bank of the Dnieper. A few concessions and a nice lunch. And before you can shout “Fore!”, lawyers are stood down and an unconditional ceasefire is declared. The prisoner swap can wait until later.
Rest assured, this is not to make light of a conflict in which tens of thousands have died but merely to search for a comparable pair of unlikely peacemakers as PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and LIV golf boss Yasir Al-Rumayyan, and note where they did it.
The two arch-enemies called a truce in the most protracted, divisive and insoluble — or so we thought — confrontation in sport somewhere between tee and green on the leafy fringes of London.
Incredulity was off the Richter scale and the reputation of the golf course as a place to cut a deal was sealed: On an unspoilt walk in idyllic countryside, it seems nothing is out of bounds. And it was another ancient truism that made the breakthrough.
Money did not just talk, it sounded a chilling siren that Monahan could no longer ignore: He was running out of cash even if appearances suggested otherwise. The PGA Tour was perceived by many to be winning this war: it still had most of the best players, defections having been staunched. There were even rumours of LIV rats wanting to return to the PGA ship.
The tour and its ally the DP (European) Tour also boasted court victories, blue-chip broadcast deals and held the high moral ground. And they had Tiger Woods, who had told LIV where to put its US$1 billion offer to switch sides.
LIV, which is backed by the US$800 billion Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), of which Al-Rumayyan is governor, wallows in cash but struggles for viewers and credibility. Yet, it was the PGA Tour that blinked first.
To fend off the brash upstart and keep its players onside, Monahan had dug deep into its reserves — boosting prize money and creating a US$40 million Player Impact Programme — yet still came nowhere near LIV’s largesse. In terms of rewards, LIV was winning every hole.
Yet for all its wealth, LIV was seen as a Mickey Mouse operation led by a man, none other than Greg Norman, known to have a personal vendetta against the tour. Its team format was a sham and it had nothing like the innovations of the Kerry Packer revolution that had changed cricket.
A tagline of “Golf, only louder” was a turnoff for many accustomed to playing shots in a sepulchral hush. Its blaring music and TikTok tackiness was sacrilege in a game steeped in ancient mores. With just 54 holes and no cut, it felt like money for old rope — but it was money that the PGA Tour desperately needed.
There were looming court cases that were going to cost tens of millions — small change to LIV — and a whole lot more if they were lost. Having had to tap its reserves to survive the pandemic, the tour had to go back into them in the face-off with LIV. “And we would have to do so again in 2024,” admitted Monahan. Suddenly, the tour found itself living beyond its means and, against bottomless oil reserves, it was unsustainable.
The first feelers were put out at the Masters in April with the Henry Kissinger role played by tour director Jimmy Dunne, a well-connected investment banker with friends on both sides.
There was a notable appearance by English Premier League (EPL) club Newcastle United director Amanda Staveley, a head-turning negotiator for many a Gulf state. Still, no one suspected anything more than a tick on her bucket list — even though Al-Rumayyan is chairman of Newcastle.
Contact was made and Monahan and Al-Rumayyan finally met, first in Venice and then London. The number of people that had even an inkling was in single figures. It really was sport’s best-kept secret and one reason it was such a bombshell.
Even luminaries such as Woods and Norman, the latter being LIV’s Great White Attack Shark, were sidelined. As was Rory McIlroy, who had also turned down big bucks — US$300 million — to join but remained a leading cheerleader for the tour.
“I knew I could trust him in 10 minutes” was Monahan’s first impression of Al-Rumayyan. It is the same Al-Rumayyan who, when buying Newcastle, gave the EPL legally binding assurances that the Saudi “PIF is distinct from the state”. Yet in a US court hearing on LIV, he claimed an exemption because: “I am a sitting member of the Saudi cabinet.”
It has been enough for the EPL to revisit that deal but Monahan’s more immediate worries are placating loyal players who turned down life-changing offers. Many were at the Canadian Open when news broke. A locker-room debate was described as both “heated” and “intense” with the two most common words being “hypocrite” and “betrayal”.
McIlroy was told to f*** off by the world No 227 yet he is considered to have been “the most shafted”. Participants did agree on one thing: that sentiments ran at around 90-10 against the deal.
Monahan was the main target of their ire. What especially irked the “loyalists” was that the “rebels” were to be allowed back with no penalty, their bank balances having ballooned to another stratosphere.
Many players had qualms about Saudi Arabia, among them Phil Mickelson, who called the rulers “scary mothers” but still joined. Most felt they would prefer not to be banned and labelled mercenaries when they had a good thing going on in the PGA Tour.
LIV did recruit a few A-listers such as last month’s USPGA champion Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Cameron Smith, but many were veterans like Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter who saw it as the ultimate pension fund. Or journeymen like Pat Perez, who made half his 25-year PGA career earnings of US$28 million in his first season with LIV.
If such figures made their eyes pop, what turned their stomachs was Monahan’s alleged “hypocrisy”. In the US, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, 9/11 still resonates more than human rights or even the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, and Monahan had played the 9/11 card for all it was worth.
A year ago, he said: “I think you’d have to be living under a rock not to know there are significant implications. Two families close to me lost loved ones in 9/11. I would ask any player who has left, or any player who would consider leaving, ‘Have you ever had to apologise for being a member of the PGA Tour?’”
How hollow those words sound now! The 9/11 Families United group told Monahan what they thought of them, accusing him and the tour of becoming “paid Saudi shills” who should be ashamed “of their hypocrisy and greed”.
The whole drama, said Netflix producer Chad Mumm, was “proof that real life is always going to be stranger and more interesting than fiction”. Mumm could not believe his luck that cameras were rolling on the docuseries Full Swing at the time.
It was also the 79th anniversary of D-Day when the news broke and not even Netflix would surely be making comparisons. Yet for golf in particular, and sport in general, it is sure to be a landmark occasion: It was the day a country bought an entire sport.
It is as if football, already concerned about clubs being owned by nation states, suddenly woke up to find that Fifa itself had been bought! Golf has no equivalent governing body, with rules jointly set by the Royal and Ancient in St Andrews and the US Golf Association, with the PGA Tour by far the most powerful voice in tournament golf. Until LIV teed off.
Now it has a supposed united front with a still-to-be-named entity running the show. Monahan will be CEO and Al-Rumayyan, chairman. The Saudi told CNBC: “The way we’re doing our partnership, it’s gonna be really big. In many senses. We will have both LIV and the PGA Tour — in addition to all of our assets — and we will be doing many new things … and hopefully even give better access for more people to the game of golf.”
Although most observers claimed there was no way this could be anything but a victory for sportswashing, there were even claims that Monahan had sacrificed his own reputation to salvage the tour.
Sports Illustrated wrote: “In one stunning move, Jay Monahan brings in millions and kills LIV Golf.” But more than a week after the news broke, there are still more “don’t knows” than “knows”.
Dunne has even suggested the loyalists should be rewarded with equity in the new company while LIV rebels could yet play in this year’s Ryder Cup. But Monahan should do something else he said he had never countenance — and apologise.
Accepting the “shafting” with Zen-like restraint, McIlroy said: “Would you rather have one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds as a partner or an enemy? At the end of the day, money talks, and you would rather have them as a partner.”
And that is how self-righteous morality was soundly beaten by cold, hard financial reality. Saudi Arabia has the sporting world at its grasping fingertips. Next up, the Olympics?
This article first appeared on June 19, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.