The Future Feels Like LIV Golf
11:29 AM EDT on October 12, 2022
It is true that someone trying to write a satire of this particular national moment might justifiably be proud to make up something like LIV Golf, but it is also true that a second person editing that satire might advise the author to maybe dial it back a bit. The Saudi-backed attempt to create an XFL for professional golf, which swapped out Vince McMahon's carny sociopathy for the blithe uncanniness that can only be produced by collaborations between authoritarian foreign regimes and American political communications professionals, has not really attracted an audience or racked up much in the way of signature wins over its first months of existence. That said, it has also been unclear from the beginning what success might look like for LIV, or whether popularity was even a part of that. It's that slipperiness, even more than the tour's obvious and lurid repulsiveness, that makes LIV so fascinating. Right now, it is a thing that exists, very expensively, to no obvious end beyond continuing to exist, expensively.
The goal that the golfers involved with LIV tend to cite when asked, which is "growing the game," has never really scanned: LIV has inarguably added a few new golf events to the global sum of golf events, and made some established golfers much richer, but it is tough to credit any of that as growth of the sport. If the goal was to get American sports fans to associate a brutal reactionary autocracy more with the steady play of let's say Charl Schwartzel than that state's murder and dismemberment of let's say Jamal Khashoggi, it is hard to say that it is working at this moment. If the goal was to make the tour a viable business by attracting a growing audience on the various platforms where golf gets consumed, it is objectively not going well: Last month, after striking out with various networks, LIV was reduced to buying some time on Fox Sports 1 to air its own self-produced programming, which means LIV Golf is currently exactly as successful a television product as Ron Popeil's Showtime Rotisserie Oven.
But there are other interests and angles to consider. If the goal of creating LIV was to destroy the PGA Tour—a goal that Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman, the former Tour champions who have become LIV's ambassadors in large part due to their unwillingness to shut up, have shared for decades—then it is probably too soon to say, although the PGA Tour might yet wind up carrying LIV over the line on that one through its own institutional intransigence and incompetence. But if the goal was simply to send some billions of dollars of Saudi money sluicing through various familiar patronage channels in a plausibly deniable fashion, and in doing so bind the Saudi royal family even more closely to their greasy analogues in the Trump and Murdoch families, then it is all unquestionably going very well. If that is the only sense in which LIV is succeeding, it might also be the only one that matters to the people funding it.
For as long as the world runs on the fossil fuels it controls, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will never need to make money on its golf sideline. And for as long as American politics is haunted by the sloppy and venal golf vampire currently atop the Republican party, funding this particular debacle makes a crude sort of sense. Maybe it's a down payment for some future transactional scuzz, or maybe it is just force of habit—the same ultra-rich cynics doing what they do, because that's how this kind of business gets done.
As Trump himself did during his own rise to the top of American politics, LIV Golf has functioned as truth serum for everyone that touches it. Money has that effect on people, and the perverse mixture of resentment, aspiration, and reflexive servility that wealth and power inspires in Americans remains the most powerful animating factor in our politics. This, as much as the presence of all those Republican messaging hacks on LIV's payroll, explains why the tour has worked so hard to make itself not just a part of America's endless bleary culture war, but why it has taken such pains to align its own loud, rich, otherwise useless impunity with the signal goal of American conservative politics, which is protecting the loud, rich, otherwise useless man who has made himself that movement's avatar. Trump himself, whose golf courses host two of the five stateside LIV events, has made clear that he approves of LIV; in August, at the LIV event played at Trump's Bedminster, N.J., golf course, Norman sat down with Tucker Carlson to dismiss his haters; "Our guys," Texas Rep. Chip Roy said, referring to his fellow Republicans, "all go, 'Oh, Trump loves it, so I’ve got to love it too.'"
It is both extremely bold and fucking hilarious to position a brand as the antidote to The Oppressively Woke PGA Tour. Again, though, it is probably more useful to read the subtext than the text, if only because the former is still so much more legible than the latter. It may well be that the bottomless wealth behind LIV and the ossified uselessness of the PGA Tour wind up making LIV Golf its successor or replacement. But even there, it is not clear that LIV's goal is replacing an old and unlovable institution that can't really remember how to justify its own existence with a new and equally unlovable one whose existence is even more difficult to justify.
There is something clarifying about how overtly self-interested and meaningless the LIV gambit is. If it's a political power play disguised as golf, the disguise is shabby. In that sense, it aligns perfectly with Trumpism itself. About the most you can say for that movement is that everything about it is pretty much what it looks like, give or take some haphazardly applied gold leaf. The artlessness is not the point, but it makes a point all the same; LIV's brazen meaninglessness can be understood, in that sense, as branding.
This is not how cynical sports-driven soft-power plays have worked, traditionally. Qatar's gambit in hosting this winter's World Cup—accomplished by bribing the people that one must bribe to get FIFA to do things, and then spending billions of dollars in the most anti-human way imaginable—is also an expensive and ambitious sportswashing ploy pursued with similar shamelessness, and so political in both form and function. But Qatar came on friendly—it wanted to be thought of as The Place Where The World Cup Was, and so where the world came together. It was, fundamentally, a bid to soften and humanize its image. With LIV, Saudi Arabia set out to do something different, and more of the moment. Even if it was just a way to shove some money towards their American friends, at a deeper level it was a play to show both how shameless and ambitious their leaders were, and to show off how impervious they believed themselves to be. It seems more correct, at this point, to read LIV not as some usurious attempt by the kingdom's rulers to buy themselves out of some obscurity or shame, but as something more triumphal: as proof that none of that matters, because of how powerful their money makes them. LIV's very existence is a taunt.
"The food was terrible," Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett told the assembled press as he stormed out of a September luncheon designed to build the relationship between LIV Golf and the arch-conservative Republican Study Group caucus in the House of Representatives. "[Write] that down."
Burchett, like Chip Roy, is conservative even by the standards of today's Republican party; he holds a seat that has been held by a Republican since the 19th century, and when he left his previous mayoral job to run for it, he was replaced by Glenn Jacobs, who used to perform as Kane in WWE. Burchett was disgusted not just by the Jimmy John's catering—Illinois Rep. Mary Miller, the Hitler-quoting kook who hosted Greg Norman and the tour's lobbyists at the meeting, was responsible for that part—but by the broader spectacle of "billionaire oil guys" pushing their sports gambit to members of Congress. "Don’t come in here and act like you’re doing some great thing," was how Roy put it, "while you’re pimping a billion dollars of Saudi Arabian money, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, into the United States."
While Roy has been critical of LIV as a branding exercise for the KSA—he called for the Department of Justice to investigate the tour as a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act back in July—he seemed nearly as distraught about someone getting some politics in his damn golf, "the one thing that was not political." That is ridiculous, of course, but if there is room for hope in any of this, it can be found in this bit of idle golf-man whining.
For all the things that LIV represents, it is fundamentally a bet on the power of money to overwhelm any qualm and every other consideration. That is, as Chris Thompson has noted in his coverage of the tour, so familiar a Disruption play that it is easy to miss how audacious it is. None of the multiply degraded countervailing forces that LIV is up against in the United States—any number of laws or norms, certainly, but also the PGA Tour and the personal principles of Rep. Chip Roy—would seem capable of standing up to the pressure of endless, shameless wealth that keeps shoving LIV forward. Every American lives every day in the shadow this fact casts.
This is not the only domestic front on which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, sensing leverage that it either does or does not have, is currently making a move, and the Kingdom plainly believes that America's blundering nascent fascist movement is, at the very least, one it can do business with. In the sense that its leaders are extremely open to being bribed, this is probably true. But it is helpful, in a perverse way, that this movement's leaders are some of the most unappeasable, unpleasant, proudly unreasonable people ever to exist; their inability not just to work together, but to do anything but scheme and rage against everyone and everything they touch, has kept the movement in a strange and seething stasis. All any of these people can really agree on, beyond their fealty to the unappeasable, unpleasant, proudly unreasonable man squatting atop their movement, is that 1) they are upset, and 2) they want more of everything.
Greed and spite are great motivators, and fairly easily served. But when pressed into service as an ethos, or as an organizing principle for governing, they work less well. This is more or less the way in which American politics doesn't work right now. Money sets the parameters, unaccountability and shamelessness rule what happens within them, but then things devolve because the people in charge don't know how to do anything else. It slides into a chaos of internecine spats and feuds and gales of pissy special pleading from people who understand the making of those noises to be their jobs. Even the most lavishly cynical political program requires shared commitment of a sort. Without it, things just collapse recursively inward in a cascade of petty rich-guy fights—Golf, as LIV's slogan puts it, but louder.