What a mess. The PGA Tour and the Saudi backed LIV Golf are locked in a cage death match right now, for all the world to see. As a big fan of the sport, it’s depressing. As a marketer, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch the sport’s brand be so badly tarnished, perhaps in ways that will be difficult to undo.
I think at this point most fans are hoping that the two sides can work something out sooner rather than later. We are tired of watching a bunch of already very rich people argue about money. We just want to see great golf. As I’ve said before both sides need to remember that all great businesses put the interest of their consumers first. That’s not what’s happening in this case.
Many have said that the only solution is for the PGA and to make peace with LIV by forging some sort of compromise that allows players to compete on both tours. While I agree with this in principle, there are real issues on the table, some existential, that transcend money.
The people who run the sport – tour commissioners, golf association leaders, players, and media executives – must confront these issues head on if the sport is going to continue to grow. And while everyone wants peace, it can’t be at any cost. Some principles are worth fighting for.
Unfortunately, the ineptitude with which the LIV Tour has presented itself to the market the past few months has only served to make the task of finding common ground harder.
I support the idea that golfers as independent contractors should have the right to decide when and where they want to play. And no enterprise in a capitalist system, including any sports league, should be immune from competition. Creative destruction – the idea that old institutions can be superseded, even replaced – by innovative, more ingenious ones is what leads to progress.
Greg Norman and the people who run LIV would like us to think of them as champions of capitalism and individual freedom. They are the scrappy start up taking on the sclerotic, entrenched incumbent that is doing everything in its power to protect its monopolistic fiefdom at the expense of progress. All they want to do is create more opportunity and grow the game.
This narrative doesn’t pass the laugh test.
First, it’s more important to point out that golf is not a business. Yes, of course there are plenty of entities in and around the game that exist to create value and build wealth for their stakeholders. But golf is first and foremost a game. Whether played for a green jacket or just for fun, whether the competition is intense or casual afternoon nine, in the end it is a game.
So before one starts lecturing the world about free markets, the nature of capitalism and the rights of labor, it’s important to remember that we aren’t talking about manufacturing Tesla’s or televisions. It’s a sport, not a business. And the integrity in which it’s presented, especially when played at the highest level, really matters.
I agree with Jon Rahm and Tiger Woods that a 54-hole shotgun event where everyone is paid handsomely regardless of how they perform is not a real golf tournament. The LIV events staged so far have less drama than a weekend interclub match. You can see it in the way the players carry themselves and their general lack of interest in the outcome.
What Greg Norman and the Saudis have created is nothing more than the ice capades of golf. I can hear the over the top radio promos now: “Come see Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and a parade of others this Friday when Golf On Ice comes to your town!”
Neither the PGA Tour nor any other professional golf association should compromise one iota on competitive standards. Exploring new formats is one thing but removing the competitive DNA from events and butchering the merit based nature of tournament golf, which is what LIV has done, can never be tolerated.
What I also find curious is that the same players who talk about fighting for their right to work seem more than happy to put a price on their free speech. It’s impossible to believe that Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Dustin Johnson, or any other player with half a brain actually believes these lame rationalizations and obfuscations about the Saudis. Have you seen Phil’s press conferences? He looks like a guy making a hostage video.
To me, any path to reconciliation requires that the players to strike the non-defamatory clauses that I presume are baked into their LIV contracts and speak the truth. You want to take the money? Ok, you already make a ton of money, but fine. At least have the courage to speak your mind with the same conviction you are venting your thoughts about the labor practices of the PGA Tour. I feel the same way about the NBA players and other athletes doing business in China and who stay silent on the repressive practices of that regime.
The LIV players should take every opportunity to highlight their objections to the Saudis human rights record. What if every player dressed in pink at a tournament in support of Saudi women who are denied many basic freedoms? Or wore armbands or logos on their apparel and golf bags in support of 9/11 families and other victims of terrorism?
It’s naïve and stupid for the LIV players to claim they’re just here to play golf and aren’t interested in politics. They need to acknowledge the obvious and stop acting like bought and paid for ambassadors. The Saudis are using them to burnish their image. Don’t let them. Follow the example of courageous athletes of the past, like Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, and use the platform the Saudis have given them to do some good.
Finally, if I’m the PGA Tour I would refuse to negotiate any reconciliation while Greg Norman is running LIV. It pains me to say this because Norman was one of my favorite players. I rooted for the guy, celebrated his victories, and agonized over his legendary collapses. Yet his entire strategy since taking over LIV has been to overly antagonistic and hostile. He is destructive, not constructive.
The product Norman has put on the course is embarrassing. He should know better given his track record as a player. Also, he’s needlessly politicized and polarized what could have been a healthy discussion about the evolution of the game. (Bringing Donald Trump into the discussion – really Greg? How could you possibly think that helps?). And worst of all, his rationalizations about the role of the Saudis have been clumsy and stupid. It makes you wonder which direction the guy’s moral compass is pointing, or if all he cares about is money.
I hate to compare this to a war. Analogizing a spat between golf leagues to battlefield conflict dishonors military veterans. But for lack of a better metaphor, to end a war sometimes generals or leaders need to be sacrificed. Firing Greg Norman would be a real signal to the PGA Tour and the rest of the world that the Saudis are truly interested in being additive to competitive golf and looking out for the long-term interest of the sport.
For the PGA Tour’s part, the only concession I would consider making at this point is to allow the LIV players who qualified for this year’s FedEx Cup the opportunity to play. They earned it fairly and it seems petty to change the rules midstream. They should follow the model set by the USGA and R&A for their respective major championships earlier this year. Obviously I’m no lawyer and don’t pretend to understand the PGA’s legal strategy, but allowing the players who qualified to participate would be a positive signal to the players that they want to bridge the divide.
In the end, like all fans I just want to see great golf. But let’s leave the ice shows to Disney and the former Olympians. If we come out of this with another new tour that is competitive and interesting, all the better. But as long as Greg Norman and the LIV players make a mockery of themselves and the sport there is no room for compromise.