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Golf

The Saudi-Financed Golf League Appears To Have Collapsed

KAEC, SAUDI ARABIA - FEBRUARY 04: Bryson DeChambeau of the USA plays his tee shot on the 17th hole during Day One of the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club on February 04, 2021 in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

A seemingly imminent breakaway golf league funded by the Saudi royal family and run by Greg Norman’s LIV Golf company probably popped up on most people’s radars late last week, when Phil Mickelson voiced his support for the league. For good reason, Mickelson’s chosen way of expressing that sentiment—The PGA is bad enough that I’m down for this despite knowing exactly how repressive the Saudi state is, which I will now detail for you—raised more eyebrows than the point he was trying (poorly) to make did. Sportswashing or not, the nascent Saudi league did have a substantial war chest with which to battle the PGA. Mickelson’s rhetorical crudeness espoused a certain sense of inevitability, and indeed, the Super Golf League was supposed to announce itself this past weekend with a roster of 20 golfers. Instead, the biggest names rumored to be attached to the project all ran fleeing in the wake of Mickelson’s comments.

Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau were the two biggest stars vaguely attached the to the project. Neither man ever took the step of leaving the PGA Tour and publicly signing on to the Saudi league, though both were heavily rumored to be fully on board and both played in this month’s Saudi International tournament, which was organized by the people behind the SGL. The league reportedly offered DeChambeau either $135 million or $240 million to serve as their poster boy, and though DeChambeau publicly disputed both reports, more reports surfaced that DeChambeau had been telling fellow PGA Tour pros that he was done playing on the Tour. DeChambeau also publicly supported Charley Hoffman’s anti-PGA rant, which conspicuously tagged the Saudi league. But in a statement released on Sunday, DeChambeau recommitted to the PGA Tour, though not exactly in the strongest of words.

Former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson was also strongly attached to the project. Whereas DeChambeau mostly tended to say what he was not doing and what was not true about his involvement, Johnson straight up said the SGL presented “a really good concept” while also tacitly confirming that the league had made him a formal offer. Johnson is also nine years older than DeChambeau, and while he’s still an elite player, it would have made more sense for someone as experienced as Johnson to choose the hefty payday over the long-term stability of the PGA. But like DeChambeau, Johnson also ended speculation about his departure, writing in a statement, “I feel it is now time to put such speculation to rest. I am fully committed to the PGA Tour. I am grateful for the opportunity to play on the best tour in the world and for all it has provided me and my family.” Johnson also said the PGA had areas to “improve and evolve,” though what matters here is that he’s staying put.

Mickelson remains the most prominent person seriously attached to the Saudi endeavor, which it now seem he has played a significant, accidental role in torpedoing. No top players were ever rumored to be as interested as Johnson and DeChambeau, and most of the players in the Top 10 have gone out of their ways to distance themselves from the league and note its drawbacks and contradictions. Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa have consistently sided with the PGA and expressed skepticism about the Saudi effort, Justin Thomas called Mickelson’s words “pretty egotistical,” and Rory McIlroy, who’s been the most outspoken against the SGL, also let Mickelson have it.

“I don’t want to kick someone while he’s down obviously,” McIlroy said at this past weekend’s Genesis Invitational, “but I thought they were naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant. A lot of words to describe that interaction he had with Shipnuck. It was just very surprising and disappointing, sad. I’m sure he’s sitting at home sort of rethinking his position and where he goes from here.” As if the pat on the head and that string of adjectives didn’t make it clear enough, McIlroy also opined, “It’s dead in the water.”

For the moment, he’s certainly correct. As the plight of the XFL, the AFL, and probably many other -FLs that are now no longer even extant Ls have taught us, you cannot have a breakaway league that seriously challenges a hegemonic league if you don’t get the star players to come join you. Johnson and, especially, DeChambeau would have been seismic gets for the Saudis, whose aims and cash would have been legitimized. The PGA has serious player-relations issues to work through, and I think it’s fair to be skeptical that they will do so absent this threat. It’s also fair to toast Mickelson for a true all-time self-own here, which the timing of everyone pledging their support for the PGA and McIlroy’s comments indicate played a huge role in sinking the Saudi effort. Now, it would have been funny if Mickelson got everyone to sour on taking that big pile of money by listing a series of Saudi transgressions in an effort to show that the league was a bad idea. That he helped scuttle the league by listing those transgressions in order to try and say the league was a good idea is ever-more delightful and stupid.