Despite Lee Westwood’s claims, golfers have not been singled out for special attention during dalliances with Saudi Arabia. In fact the ease with which the Saudis have breezed into the golf scene – both male and female – serves as a reminder of the charmed life players lead. What a rude awakening they – and their representatives – would encounter if they had the levels of focus bestowed on Premier League clubs.
Westwood is candid about participating in the upcoming LIV Golf Series on the basis of chasing money. As a cost of living crisis impacts upon the ability of millions to heat their homes or put fuel in their cars, the relish of Westwood – hardly a pauper – for a $25m golf tournament in Hertfordshire is pretty distasteful but not a patch on an extended defence of his actions.
“They [Saudi Arabia] are trying to make changes quickly, and that’s probably worrying a lot of people and scaring a lot of people,” Westwood said. On 12 March this year, the Kingdom carried out the execution of 81 people. That feels considerably more scary than the rapid pace of modernisation Westwood perceives. A spokesperson for UPS, a longtime sponsor of Westwood, hardly delivered a ringing endorsement when asked what the firm thinks of high-profile athletes gleefully accepting Saudi swag. “We are constantly evaluating our sponsorship and partnership decisions and will continue to monitor this situation,” they said.
As Greg Norman, the public face of Saudi’s golf exploits, carries out media duties with hand-picked outlets this week, there is further cause to ponder the absurdity of the entire scheme. Norman announced a $2bn boost to something that made no commercial sense in the first place. The Australian stated he did not answer to Mohammed bin Salman, as if the crown prince would take a direct interest in the tee times of Robert Garrigus. Norman is very keen to portray golfers as independent contractors. Maybe they are.
It remains depressing that golfers are so willing to assist the Saudis in a sportswashing exercise. Human rights atrocities cast a shadow over everything the Public Investment Fund writes cheques for. Yet in a competitive sense Norman’s plans for an opening tournament, taking place at the Centurion Club in early June, are already undermined by the cast list (which, oddly, LIV remains reluctant to reveal). Martin Kaymer, now the world No 195, has been touted in some quarters as a star turn.
Centurion had initially been named as the host venue of an Asian Tour event, but was jettisoned when LIV decided it wanted to carry on with tournaments of its own that have no world ranking status. The Asian Tour shuffled off to Slaley Hall. Meanwhile the world’s top players stated their commitment to existing tours.
The DP World Tour refuses to comment on the status of its members in respect of Centurion. However, research by the Guardian has shown that five of the six top-ranked Englishmen in the world – Matt Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton and Justin Rose – will not feature in their homeland. Which says something about the low level of appeal. The one exception is the 49-year-old Richard Bland. Fitzpatrick, Fleetwood, Casey, Hatton and Rose are taking preparations for the following week’s US Open seriously. Neither Westwood nor Ian Poulter – who will also play at Centurion – are in the field for that Brookline major.
Norman can speak of a “start-up” tour all he wants but what he is currently presiding over is second rate. The playing of 54 holes with a shotgun start looks gimmicky. There is no main broadcasting deal and no current hope of capturing the minds of the public. Norman will pin hopes on Phil Mickelson but the reality is he has been discredited by remarks made about Saudi Arabia that forced him into professional exile.
Then there is the case of Sergio García. The Spaniard created ripples last week with an outburst at a rules official that suggested he is not long for the PGA Tour. Should García choose to abandon the PGA Tour – which has afforded him on-course winnings of $54.4m – or the DP World Tour, this is of course up to him. Yet two LIV events later this year, in Bangkok and Jeddah, clash with DP World Tour stops in Madrid and Andalucía. Does García, adored in his homeland, realise how preposterous he would look as a show pony for Saudi Arabia as Spain simultaneously holds these tournaments?
The PGA Tour has taken its first meaningful step towards a courtroom battle by denying the request of members to play at Centurion. The DP World Tour will adopt an identical stance. It remains to be seen what penalties for players follow. “We will not be stopped,” Norman responded. What level of field appears for LIV’s second outing, in the United States on the first weekend in July, was already intriguing. On American soil, a direct challenge to the PGA Tour exists. It is just hard to avoid the sense that, for now, it remains a weak and contrived one.