Controversial tour divides golf, distracts from Canadian Open Saudi-backed league drags down usually-civilized sport
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TORONTO — Golf, we’ve long been told, is the ultimate gentleman’s game. One which is largely self-policed, where honour and respect and trust and tradition are paramount.
All of which makes the current situation playing out particularly jarring. Like an unruly fan shouting during a backswing or someone’s cellphone going off just before a pivotal putt, it’s anything but civilized these days.
As we saw Wednesday on the eve of the Canadian Open at gorgeous St. George’s, the splintered state of the sport is threatening to steal the spotlight from what should otherwise be a week of celebration.
Rather than focus on a strong field that includes five of the top nine-ranked players in the world, or the return of our national championship for the first time in three years, or whether any of the 21 Canadian hopefuls can be the first homegrown winner since 1954, much of the talk is, instead, centred around who isn’t here and what’s happening half a world away.
Specifically, the controversial Saudi-based LIV Tour, which was formed by Greg Norman and has been poaching several big-name players from the PGA Tour in recent weeks as it hosts the first of eight tournaments starting Thursday in England. That’s in direct conflict with the Canadian Open, which certainly wasn’t lost on those who used Wednesday’s final tune-up to tee off.
“There’s no doubt that it stinks. I would be lying to say if it was good timing,” Hamilton’s Mackenzie Hughes said as he met the media following his pro-am round.
“As a Canadian it’s obviously disappointing that this championship may not get the attention and time that it deserves,” added British Columbia’s Adam Hadwin.
Rory Mcllroy, the 2019 champion from Northern Ireland who is back to defend his title following two straight years of pandemic-related cancellations, was even more blunt, believing this was a “strategic” decision by the LIV Tour to debut against a PGA Tour event being held outside the United States.
“It’s just a shame that it’s going to fracture the game,” said the world’s eighth-ranked player. “The professional game is the window shop into golf. If the general public is confused about who is playing where, and what tournament is on this week, and OK, he doesn’t get into these events — it just becomes so confusing. I think everything needs to try to become more cohesive, and I think it was on a pretty good trajectory until this happened.”
Mcllroy, who will play in the featured group the first two days with Justin Thomas and top Canadian Corey Conners, said those who think this is an easy money grab may be in for a surprise.
“Any decision that you make in your life that’s purely for money usually doesn’t end up going the right way,” he said. “Obviously, money is a deciding factor in a lot of things in this world, but if it’s purely for money, it never seems to go the way you want it to.”
Among the notable defectors are Dustin Johnson, who was supposed to be the face of this tournament until he did an about-face last week. That prompted organizers to quickly tear down billboards and other promotional materials bearing his mug. Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler were the latest to sign up on Wednesday, joining the likes of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Kevin Na, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen, who are all household names to even casual golf fans.
“If the general public is confused about who is playing where, and what tournament is on this week, and OK, he doesn’t get into these events– it just becomes so confusing. I think everything needs to try to become more cohesive, and I think it was on a pretty good trajectory until this happened.”
– Rory Mcllroy
Signing bonuses in the hundreds of millions of dollars and massive payouts that trump even golf’s ‘Majors’ are among the enticements being used.
I’d never begrudge an athlete for trying to maximize their earning potential. Careers are often short, and I’d much rather see profits end up in the pockets of the performers instead of greedy owners. As well, competition is usually never a bad thing, bringing out everyone’s best.
I’ll hold my polite golf applause in this case, thanks.
The major financial lifeline here is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by Mohammed bin Salman. That’s the same crown prince who, according to a U.S. intelligence report, approved the operation that led to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, in 2018. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, was killed and dismembered with a saw after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain paperwork for his wedding.
“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay,” Mickelson said in February, taking one heck of a bizarre path in trying to justify his decision.
“Knowing all of this, why would I even consider (participating)? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates,” Mickelson continued. “(The PGA has) been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse.”
That would be the same PGA Tour which made Mickelson one of the biggest names in sport and one of the wealthiest to ever swing a club. Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night, Phil.
The PGA has threatened to banish players who defect, and several of the high-profile participants have already turned in their memberships. However, it’s expected they would still be able to compete in the majors, so I’m not sure that’s enough of a deterrent to really make a difference.
The result, as Mcllroy noted, is going to be watered-down fields around the globe and mass confusion and conflict for fans. Fortunately, world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, No. 4 Cam Smith, No. 6 Thomas, and No. 9 Sam Burns will give fans enough big names to focus on this week at the Canadian Open in what should be a spectacular four-day tournament.
“You know, it’s a bummer. I think a lot of us are, I don’t know if annoyed or tired is the right way (to describe it). It’s just one of those things,” Thomas said of the latest developments in his sport. “Selfishly, I wish it wouldn’t be taking away from the great storylines and things that are going on, on a tour (stop in Canada) that’s been around for a very long time and is in one of the best places it’s ever been.”
That, of course, should be the real story, along with an impressive list of Canadian contenders including Manitoba’s Aaron Cockerill making his PGA Tour debut. Unfortunately, money talks. And it’s not a very gentlemanly message being spread around the golf world these days.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Wednesday, June 8, 2022 5:33 PM CDT: Adds photo, pullquote