Despite being as obvious an attempt at sportswashing as one is ever likely to see, it is difficult to determine what, if anything, the much-publicised LIV Golf Series is likely to do to serve its intended purpose of presenting a more benign, warm and fuzzy image of its backers in Saudi Arabia.
Still in its embryonic stages, with the first ball not scheduled to be struck until later this week in Hertfordshire, things started badly for the Saudi rebel tour and seem to have gone downhill quicker than a bathtub full of pensioners in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine.
Derided eloquently by Rory McIlroy and with a lineup headed by several past-their-pomp marquee names apparently looking to cash in before qualifying for the seniors tour, the LIV has yet to provide anything resembling the bang Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman’s Public Investment Fund might have expected for the $255m (£204m) it has put up as prize money in its maiden season.
In February quotes emerged from an interview with Phil Mickelson, in which the six-time major winner memorably described his prospective Saudi benefactors as “scary” people to get involved with, voicing commendable reservations that it turned out weren’t strong enough to prevent the American accepting their largesse.
Well aware of his status as a pawn in the sovereign state’s Vision 2030 strategy to launder its bloodstained international reputation by buying Premier League football clubs, setting up golf tours or staging glitzy prize fights, wrestling bouts and grands prix, Mickelson was a more than willing stooge.
He even acknowledged some of the myriad atrocities perpetrated by the Saudis – a famously awful record on human rights and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – but conceded he was still willing to get into bed with them as they might prove a useful bargaining chip in his war with the PGA.
Famous as an enthusiastic bettor and by many accounts a very bad one, Mickelson’s latest gamble seems to have backfired. He subsequently issued an apology to the Saudis and remains, for the time being at least, in self-imposed exile from his sport, having done a fair job of torching his reputation.
In his role as chief executive of the LIV, Greg Norman has also done his own legacy and the series he fronts few favours, not least because he seems incapable of promoting it without sticking both his feet in his own mouth. Speaking at a promotional event in the UK last month, the Australian was quizzed about the death of Khashoggi and issued a response that prompted outrage. “Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” he said, seemingly comparing the brutal murder and subsequent dismemberment of the Washington Post journalist to a missed tiddler on 18 or a final-round collapse at the 1996 Masters.
So far, so ignominious for a golf tournament funded by a sovereign wealth fund which was probably hoping for more talk of brutal fairways and less of brutal foul play in the weeks leading up to its first tournament, which is due to tee off from Thursday and boasts an eye-watering prize fund of $25m to be split between 42 players.
With such riches up for grabs, Norman might have been expected to assemble a more stellar cast of golfers at the Centurion Club, but the lineup he has actually got is a combination of household names whose best days are long behind them and a range of low-ranked comparative golfing no-marks who might struggle to gain recognition in their own living rooms.
The winner of more than $75m on the PGA Tour, Dustin Johnson will be the highest-ranked player to tee off in Hertfordshire, where he will be joined by Kevin Na, who has just resigned from the PGA Tour to avoid potential sanctions. Former European Ryder Cup stalwarts such as Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio García and Graeme McDowell are also in the field and all seem eager to take the Saudi dime in times so straitened it seems even multi-millionaire golfers are feeling the pinch and are prepared to put their morals to one side in order to earn the kind of money one suspects they really want but can’t possibly need.
Having released a statement earlier this year committing to the PGA Tour, Johnson, 38 this month, is believed to have had his head turned by a contract reported to be in the region of $125m to hitch his wagon to the LIV Series before he even strikes a ball.
While the participation of young, hungry golfers desperate for their shot at a life-changing pay cheque they might not otherwise have a hope of trousering is more understandable, the willingness of fabulously wealthy senior professionals to help Bin Salman to launder his state’s image seems rooted firmly in nothing more complicated than outright greed.
Hardly renowned on the Tour as the archetypal family man, Johnson had his agent announce it was in “his and his family’s best interest” for him to defect to the LIV Series, even if it might mean the end of his time on the PGA Tour. McDowell, with career winnings of more than $35m, stated that he had “decided that following the LIV opportunity was best for me and my family” even if it is likely to cost the 42-year-old future captaincy of the European Ryder Cup team.
With its wacky format and field of has-beens and might-never-bes, the inaugural LIV tournament has failed to attract the interest of any major television networks, but continues to generate almost exclusively negative headlines due in no small part to the source of the obscene amounts of money on offer to those willing to play in it.
While the world’s elite golfers have thus far given it a wide berth, we can presume they will be taking a keen interest in goings-on in Hertfordshire next weekend while they are contesting the RBC Canadian Open. A tournament much higher in prestige, that will take a lot more winning, those competing in it will be acutely aware that its $8.7m purse is a pittance compared to the riches on offer elsewhere for what amounts to morally questionable but far less difficult work.