Can You Defend An Open Door Policy?

The golf world teed off REAAAAAALLY early this morning as the 151st staging of a tournament so hallowed in tradition that, at least on its home turf, is simply called The Open, began in Hoylake, England.  On pacific daylight time, that first swing took place a little after 1 AM.

But arguably the golf world dealt with even earlier tee offs this week, like the kind we saw on Tuesday in Washington, as CNBC’s Chelsea Cox and Lillian Rizzo recounted:

The PGA Tour on Tuesday defended its controversial deal with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league before senators, as scrutiny of the agreement intensifies.

PGA Tour operating chief Ron Price and policy board independent director Jimmy Dunne testified Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s investigations subcomittee, while representatives from LIV Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund weren’t present.  Dunne and Price said they believed the PGA Tour would benefit the most from the proposed deal. Dunne said that if a deal were to get done, the tour would “definitely stay intact and becomes more powerful,” and added he hoped PIF Governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan would have “a more productive role in the game of golf” in a more constructive way. 

Price also said the tour didn’t seek out the Saudis. “We are in a situation where we faced a real threat … you could go elsewhere for $1 billion, $3 billion, maybe $50 billion,” he said. “We could do it but if we went down that path, we would end up giving up total control.”

So, naturally, this kind of ‘tude did not sit well with the likes of some on Capital Hill that took the opportunity on Tuesday to remind not only the golf world, but the world of their voters, exactly how they feel about all of this:

“A regime that has killed journalists, jailed and tortured dissidents, fostered the war in Yemen, and supported other terrorist activities, including 9/11. It’s called sportswashing,” subcomittee chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement.   Critics have also pointed to the Saudi government’s ties to the 9/11 attacks, which the Saudis have denied, and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, accusing the Saudis of “sportswashing.” Since its inception, LIV has faced such criticism, and protesters have targeted its events, particularly family members of those who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers that day were from Saudi Arabia, and Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks, was born in the country. It has been concluded by U.S. officials that Saudi nationals helped to fund the terrorist group al-Qaeda, although the investigations didn’t find that the Saudi officials were complicit in the attacks.

Former President Donald Trump took heat from 9/11 families over hosting LIV events at his courses. The league this week said it would hold its final event of the 2023 season in late October at Trump’s Doral course in South Florida, moving the competition from Saudi Arabia. Trump is the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

So the optics of those who took a somewhat more nuanced approach to this, such as the noted election denier and unabashed Trump supporter Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, would appear to be at first blush to be both inflammatory and tone-deaf:

“The PGA was faced with an existential threat and this is what they’re trying to do to preserve the game of golf and the purity of the competition at the highest level,” Johnson told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” before the hearing Tuesday.

“Listen I have the deepest sympathy for the 9/11 families. I understand the issue of ‘sportswashing.’ I don’t think there’s enough billions of dollars for the Saudis to wash away the stain of the brutal [Jamal] Khashoggi murder,” Johnson added. “But the reality is we all buy oil. We drive cars. We are the ones filling up the coffers of the [Public] Investment Fund. I would rather have the Saudis invest their oil wealth in the U.S., rather than China or Russia, that’s just a reality of the world.”

And as the entire subcommittee–Blumenthal, Johnson and their peers–all learned, there was a lot of reality, not to mention dollars, being thrown around, as the CNBC duo also reported:

Documents obtained by the subcommittee show that PCP Capital Partners, an investment firm headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, proposed a long-term agreement to PGA Tour Policy Board Chairman Edward Herlihy and Dunne as early as April.

The proposal included an idea that would have superstars Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy own LIV Golf teams and participate in at least 10 league events. McIlroy is one of the most outspoken critics of the PGA Tour’s LIV deal.

The subcommittee also discovered that PGA Tour officials requested to dismiss Norman and golf marketing agency Performance54 from LIV Golf after the completion of the deal. It is unclear which professional players, including McIlroy and Woods, had knowledge of the negotiations before the agreement was unveiled last month, according to the documents.

McIlroy is a little preoccupied with chasing another Grand Slam title this weekend to have made a statement at this point.  But the person who is hosting him and his fellow tour members did not shy away from making remarks which GOLF DIGEST’s Joel Beall quoted yesterday that shines a tad more light on exactly what does speak volumes these days:

Speaking to the media Wednesday at Royal Liverpool ahead of the 151st Open Championship, R&A CEO Martin Slumbers acknowledged he would be open to working with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund—the financial backer of LIV Golf—should the opportunity present itself.

“If I’m very open, we are and do and continue to do, talk to various potential sponsors,” Slumbers said. “We have a number of large corporate partners that help us make this thing happen. I think the world has changed in the last year. It’s not just golf. You’re seeing it in football. You’re seeing it in F1. You’re seeing it in cricket. I’m sure tennis won’t be that far behind. The world of sport has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, and it is not feasible for the R&A or golf to just ignore what is a societal change on a global basis. We will be considering within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have.”

It is a swift departure from Slumbers’ comments this time last year at St. Andrews, when he took Saudi Golf and LIV Golf to task.

“Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prize money that’s offered to them. I have absolutely no problem with that at all,” Slumbers said in 2022. “But there is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe the model we have seen at Centurion and at Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interest of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money. We believe it undermines the merit-based nature and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special.” Slumbers later added at last year’s Open that he did not find claims from Saudi Golf and LIV Golf members that they were “growing the game” credible and instead were actually harming “the perspective of our sport that we are working so hard to improve.”

And I’m sure I’m not going to win a lot of fans by admitting I’m far more inclined to support Slumbers and Johnson’s takes than I am Blumenthal’s.

No Senate subcommittee was convened to assess whether or not a Las Vegas-based company called Bally Sports, which promotes online gambling to the level where it extracts hundreds of millions of dollars from at risk sports fans who can’t help but put down a few stray dollars to wager on who will have a lower score when they approach the back nine, should be allowed to have a role in sports sponsorships.

No Senate subcommittee was convened to assess whether a St. Louis-based company that promotes a brand called Bud Light, which has the likes of Blumenthal’s supporters aghast at the hatred and vitriol it has aroused after its former head of marketing misguidedly chose to target a smaller audience segment they aspired to have without first assessing the downside risk of inflaming the feelings of the far larger audience segment they owned, should be held accountable for the number of drunk driving deaths and accidents that could arguably be attributed to it.

So until our elected officials start to scrutinize and investigate the possible fallout of every single sponsorship alliance ever engineered, and until the likes of Rory McIlroy play the game they love for free, perhaps those of you who might think I’ve regressed into some sort of whataboutism rabbit hole should perhaps listen to the more eloquent words of someone with the sterling title of R&A CEO, as opposed to someone like Senator Johnson, to perhaps rethink why the concept of hanging on to an unfortunate past is simply counterproductive to growing a sport that desperately needs an infusion of capital and younger fans to remain relevant.

Lest you be overly focused on teeing off, perhaps you should focus on who casts the first stone., etc., etc.







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