The only conventional business principle evident in LIV Golf is one of those antiquated notions like return on investment, product quality or accountability of leadership. It’s the ‘whale’ strategy, the art of securing one high-profile client, at whatever cost, to lend a patina of marketing credibility to an enterprise and distract from the reality that every other client is a sardine by comparison.
Dustin Johnson’s willingness to act as the whale for the Saudi sportswashing effort is unsurprising. As it became apparent that the field being assembled for the inaugural LIV Golf tournament would boast all the star power of an episode of Hollywood Squares, it was no less obvious that an enormous wire transfer would be made to save Saudi blushes. Johnson merely waited until his value was maximized. He is LIV’s great blue whale, but they might still fill the unassigned spot in next week’s event with at least a pygmy whale. A Brinks truck may already be backing up to Rickie Fowler’s front door in Florida.
It’s not shocking that aging golfers chose easy cash that their clubs can no longer earn, but nor is it wholly excusable. LIV Golf is a reminder that for many people in this sport, the only metric that matters is personal enrichment. ‘Twas always thus. There was an international sporting boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era but dozens of top golfers ignored it when a million-dollar bounty was dangled at Sun City. Commerce over conscience. Easy to see why the Crown Prince felt golf could be fertile ground for sportswashing his government’s atrocious record on human rights.
The field at the Centurion Club is comprised mostly of two constituencies: veterans whose better days are distant in the rear view, and lower orders struggling to gain any traction. As the world No. 13, Johnson has the greatest claim to relevancy among the 42 names announced, but not having contended (outside Saudi Arabia) since his Masters win, even he is skiing down the powdery slope of late career. Johnson has simply chosen to haveten the journey to comfortable obsolescence that awaits most every elite athlete.
Dustin Johnson mingles with fans by the 18th green during the 2022 Saudi International in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Oisin Keniry / Getty Images)
The function of the whale is to both draw and deflect attention though, and Johnson’s inclusion ensured headlines did not focus on some others who made Greg Norman’s elite field, like world no. 1,349 Andy Ogletree, whose 12 career starts over two years in the paid ranks have produced eight missed cuts and a best-ever finish of tied 33rd. Ogletree is still ranked a couple hundred spots above fellow competitor Chase Koepka.
World ranking points — like broadcasts and anti-doping protocols — are not offered as part of the LIV Golf series. If they were, the strength of the field would see the winner earn 24 points, less than half of what the average PGA Tour stop has awarded since 2018. Under the new ranking system that will debut later this year, the LIV champion would receive 20 percent fewer points than an average Korn Ferry Tour winner. The cash is designed to imply a gathering of the elite, but signing with the Saudis is really an acknowledgment by these golfers that they’re roadkill in the modern game, no matter how often Norman presents them as a quality buffet.
What the 42 martyrs for MBS share is an eagerness to grasp easy money, no matter how reprehensible the source or how nefarious its objective. Nor do they labor under any illusions about the caliber of people they’re doing business on behalf of. At the PGA Championship last month, the agent for a LIV-allied player — a man intimately familiar with the Saudis running the operation — approached and asked earnestly if I have a security detail after writing critically about his new partners. That he posed the question indicates his familiarity with the regime’s attitude to dissent, but that consciousness was not so troubling as to impede commerce.
The reaction in the 48 hours since the LIV field was announced helps explain how a blatant sportswashing scheme has made it this far, and why so many players are comfortable committing to it. Slavish sycophants claim someone who has earned over $ 100 million on the PGA Tour is motivated solely by concern for his family’s future (thus DJ is recast as a model family man!). Keyboard commandos insist everyone has their price but won’t admit to it, unable to conceive that others might value human rights over money. Contrarians hint that criticism of LIV Golf is tantamount to carrying water for the PGA Tour, as though opposing golf being hijacked by a regime that beheads its critics isn’t a position one could arrive at without a bribe from Jay Monahan’s slush fund. Dullards declare any hostility towards Saudi ambitions is illegitimate if the regime is an ally of the country in which one lives, or has invested in any company with which one has ever come into contact.
The waters are endlessly muddied with ‘whataboutism’ —the residue of phones that are smarter than their operators — and that provides sufficient cover for players to shrug and say it’s just a business decision. Which it is, for the combatants. They view this as a purely commercial dispute, not one in which a moral compass is required for guidance.
Other business decisions will be made in the coming days. By sponsors that face seeing their logos adorn the Crown Prince’s launderers. By the PGA and DP World tours, on what disciplinary action to impose on players who put a tee in the ground. By the USGA, on whether the sanctioned can compete in the US Open one week after the LIV event. By the players, on how to respond to whatever punishment is meted out. After years of speculation in private, the parties have finally been chosen in public. Everything else is now just theater, as the lawyers saddle up.