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The Saudi Golf League’s Big Bet Is On Gravity

Phil Mickelson tees off on the third (and final) day of the inaugural LIV Golf event.
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

As a general rule and as a matter of communications best practices, it is not optimal for the most famous representative of a big new public endeavor to spend the days immediately after its debut underlining that you, the face of that endeavor, do in fact believe that the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 were both serious and bad. It muddles the message, for one thing, and also it's uncomfortable to talk about in the ways that mass-casualty, state-sponsored violent crime tends to be. Phil Mickelson surely knew that this would happen when he took a reported $200 million from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the LIV Golf tour, an enterprise that exists at least in part to convince people to associate the kingdom more closely with golfers and golf than hijackers and bonesaws.

This is called sportswashing, now, although it could also just be called branding. The first term speaks to the means and the intention behind this endeavor, and behind oligarchs and dictators buying soccer teams and repressive states bribing and blustering their way into hosting Olympics or World Cups. But plain old "branding" might actually be more useful here, given that the term is both broad and fundamentally value-neutral. In any case, the idea is to make something seem less like what it is through implication and intimation and stagecraft. It's not complicated at all—if you do not like dictator-adjacent oligarchs or prolific financial fraudsters but you do like Chelsea FC or the New York Mets, you can see why the former might see an angle in spending their money to link themselves with the latter. At the highest level, this is kind of branding can look a lot like soft-power politics on the part of repressive states that want to seem normal enough to host big televised events of the kind that the whole world enjoys watching; franchise by franchise and oligarch by oligarch, it just looks like vanity. In the case of Saudi Arabia and LIV Golf, it is manifestly both.

Mickelson answered the question put to him on Monday—the short version is literally "How can you live with yourself?" and the longer one is whether Mickelson believed he was disrespecting the memory of those killed on September 11 by taking money from the nation that supplied (at the very least) 15 of the 19 hijackers that did that day's violence—about as well as anyone could. He said that he had "the deepest of sympathy and empathy" for the families of people who died on September 11, and there's no real reason to believe that he doesn't. There's just also no reason to believe that those feelings of sympathy and empathy, or Mickelson's blunt and unassailably correct assessment of the Saudi royal family as "scary motherfuckers," mattered more than what these particular scary motherfuckers were prepared to offer him to play golf in their new tour. The thing that connects and animates all of this is money; the question that runs under all of it is what kind of indulgence an effectively endless amount of money can buy a nation, and how much. It's a good question, although the answer isn't really very hard to know.

But if it was always and is already clear what actually matters and does not matter, or anyway what matters most, there is still the work of getting there. It all feels like sinking, and it feels familiar. The mid- and late-career golfers who resigned their PGA Tour memberships to join the LIV tour were asked how they felt about taking the money they were taking, and answered about as forthrightly as you might have expected given who was asking and who was answering. Many of them professed, quite believably, not to have ever really concerned themselves about where the money they got for playing golf came from.

But the ones who deigned to answer it did a pretty good job of it, and for all their effacements and howevers managed to do so more explicitly than Mickelson could. "I think we all agree up here, take the Khashoggi situation," Graeme McDowell said before the first LIV event, referring to the 2018 situation in which Saudi Arabian agents tortured, killed, and dismembered a dissident journalist named Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. "We all agree that's reprehensible. Nobody is going to argue that fact. We are not politicians. I know you guys hate that expression, but we are really not, unfortunately. We are professional golfers. If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we are proud to help them on that journey."

In some very obvious ways, there are basically no human beings on earth less qualified to weigh in on international affairs than mid-career PGA Tour golfers. In another more specific sense, though, it's tough to imagine anyone better prepared and better equipped to juggle these particular chainsaws. The broader line that LIV and the various retired golf icons orbiting around it settled upon prior to its launch, which was that Saudi Arabia Made Some Mistakes But Is Trying To Get Better, is a classic sports narrative taken to if not beyond its absolute breaking point; in its generalities, it is one with which many of them would have been not just familiar, but in which they might themselves have once briefly been the main character. Saying vague things about The Good That Golf Does is one of the default obligations of being a pro golfer, and one of the easier ones given that it seldom comes with a follow-up.

More than that, though, these golfers have spent their working lives under, around, and in the presence of the luxury brands and financial institutions whose various sponsorships have been so ubiquitous a part of the Tour for so long that they don't register. "I'm a golfer," Talor Gooch told ESPN's Kevin Van Valkenburg in London. "I'm not that smart. I try to hit a golf ball into a small hole. Golf is hard enough. I try to worry about golf." To be fair, that is his job. But it is a job Gooch does while festooned in the accessories and logos of the brands that pay him for that privilege. That, in combination with the purses that players can win at PGA Tour events, is how they make their living.

And what Mickelson and McDowell and Gooch and all the other Tour players who resigned their membership to join LIV were doing, at bottom, was just taking a better deal—LIV offers bigger purses, and a less-demanding schedule, and (for now) a less-demanding slate of competitors. (So far, those players' sponsors have mostly decided to stick with them.) Charl Schwartzel, who claimed the inaugural LIV tour championship, hadn't won a PGA Tour event in six years; he took home $4.75 million, which is more than any golfer has ever won for any single victory.

"Instead of skating around it, just call it what it is," a PGA Tour player told Van Valkenburg. "Just say, 'If I take the money, I don't care about other countries and other people, I care about my career and my family, and anyone who hasn't been offered this kind of money can't relate.'"

But if it is difficult to relate to the golfers—and it is always, at some level, going to be difficult to relate to the golfers—the rest of this is familiar. Saudi Arabia's gambit with LIV Golf is easy enough to grasp; that of the golfers who took their money is even more so. The Saudis do not really need LIV Golf to succeed in any of the ways that new gambits generally try to succeed, whether in terms of generating interest or profit or ratings or anything else. It just needs to exist.

So it doesn't matter much that no one, at least not yet, seems to care about LIV. Van Valkenburg noted that the tour gave away tickets to its first event "to anyone who would take them," and that most of the attendees spent their time in the Fan Experience Zone. LIV promised as much in its advertising for the event, which had an expensively uncanny energy that landed at the exact midpoint between Edgy Atlantic City Casino and Literally The Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia. The choice, for attendees, was between watching Phil Mickelson finish 33rd or watching what seemed to be a statue suddenly reveal itself to be a real guy who was abruptly really up in your grill, although kids could also get their faces painted.

Whether or not any or all of this sucks is, in the end, both not very important and wholly beside the point. The golfers get paid either way, with the money that the world sends to the kingdom to feed its addiction to the substances the kingdom has in such warping abundance. The point is for people to know about it; it serves, in a sense, more or less the same purpose as the ceremonial orb that the kingdom provided for Donald Trump to touch, in a solemn and characteristically inscrutable act of diplomacy, in 2017. The other soft-power considerations in play—this would seem to be the place to note that two of the five LIV events in the United States, including its $50 million championship, will be held at golf courses owned by Trump—are not any harder to suss out. The brazen and cheesy falsity of it all is, maybe, something like the point. If you don't need to drive anywhere, there's no real difference between a car and a hood ornament.

LIV Golf is an abstracted product with an abstracted goal—as with Qatar's World Cup or Russia's Olympics, the target is Public Opinion in a way that somehow seems to elide the actual opinion or interest of the general public. But for all that's oafish and overt about it, the bet behind it is clear. The PGA Tour, as an institution, was vulnerable to this sort of assault in the way that so many contemporary institutions are—it was cheap and smug and secretly weak, and so fundamentally incapable of defending its existence beyond pointing to the fact that it already existed. That it exists at all does have some meaning—Jon Rahm spoke to that on Tuesday when he explained that the PGA Tour was what he and other young golfers aspired to, if only because it was where the best golfers played. But the fact that the PGA Tour had been that for so long did not and does not mean that it will or should forever go on existing as it did. If the best golfers in the world are pretty much all still on the PGA Tour, almost all the best-paid ones will be in LIV. You can see how that stalemate might not last long.

But LIV Golf is not just a swaggering amoral bet on the power of boundless wealth. It is that, too, but it is also a correct assessment of a broader cultural gravity, not just in terms of the relative pull of personal principle and wild wealth, but in how the various forces that pin people down here on earth tend to work on us. It matters, in a sense, that LIV Golf sucks—that there are no stakes and no story, that the best players aren't a part of it, that the people behind it are cynical and murderous reactionaries. But the broader forces are already at work, and the wager here is that, eventually, the money will matter more—that, over time, fans will just tend to take the side of the people with the money and the people taking it. Some of this is aspirational in precisely the amoral way this particular aspiration works in the culture right now—9/11 or no, would you really turn down that money? Some of it is affective—are you a hater, or are you a champion who makes his own way and flies private? None of it is unreasoning, but as bets go none of it is unreasonable. This is the darkest part of it: not that normal might come this cheap, but that it could be so cruel.

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