GOLF

Dustin Johnson’s act of greed stands out in vulgar Saudi rebranding game | Golf

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JHere’s a key issue with handing out a $4m (£3.2m) top prize in a tournament that features a shotgun start. There will be no way of knowing whether the winning putt at the Centurion Club on Saturday should be played on the 1st, 7th, 13th or any other green. Maybe the conventional move-and-play format as used on mainstream tours is boring to some, but at least people know where to be for the denouement.

If this were the only potentially messy element of the LIV Golf Series, which makes its debut in Hertfordshire on Thursday, Greg Norman would have no reason to worry. Instead, the confirmation that Graeme McDowell and Dustin Johnson would attend the $25 million event sparked the kind of backlash that was inevitable given the bottomless funding from the Saudi Public Investment Fund. The Royal Bank of Canada has terminated its sponsorship of the two players. Golf, once such a safe domain for corporate classes, now carries an element of risk like never before.

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A number of players have been shielded by the focus on Phil Mickelson – whose alliances with the Saudis are dubious legend – and to a later extent Johnson, but when they play in the coming days their role in a sports washing exercise will be abundantly clear.

It can’t rightfully be labeled in other words: there’s no business sense in paying huge sums to those who are marking time until the senior tour, wouldn’t turn heads on any high street in the Kingdom Kingdom or, in the case of Johnson, whose PGA Tour earnings from the game total around $72 million, set their reputations on fire with such a show of preposterous greed.

Golfers are willing pawns in the Saudi rebranding game, which is a real shame for the sport’s reputation.

There will be a plot around what LIV has to offer. The fact that he is hosting a tournament baffles many skeptics. There are no world ranking points available, unnecessary ticket prices and no mainstream TV channels to provide coverage.

The competition lasts 54 holes and has a pro-am event. In short, it’s not exactly treading into sports revolution territory. For every Johnson, McDowell, Lee Westwood or Sergio García there is a Blake Windred, Hudson Swafford or Jediah Morgan.

Australian Matt Jones, who has over $17 million in career earnings, explained his involvement: “A lot to do with my family, being able to support them. A purely business decision for me. I’m very happy of the decision I made.

And here’s the rub: the world doesn’t know or care enough about Jones to criticize the 42-year-old for it.

Last place in the 48-man field is worth $120,000. A team element carries a $5 million prize fund. Players have been told that a Tuesday night draft party will be a “casual red carpet event with a dash of LIV sass.” By contrast, there is no prize money for finishing last in a PGA Tour event and the next tournament on its schedule, the Canadian Open, is offering $1.5 million to the winner. The mind gets confused.

Matt Jones described his participation as a purely business decision. Photograph: Tony Gutierrez/AP

Mickelson’s involvement has not been confirmed, but some suggestions could change early next week. If he does arrive in the UK, his first public statements since stepping back from public view in February will be widely anticipated. Does Mickelson owe it to Norman and his Saudi cronies to trigger this level of attention?

The reaction of the existing ecosystem will be more interesting than the Centurion game. Players will not break any PGA or DP World Tour rules until they land a shot in the LIV Tournament. These actors will inevitably seek to assert – through lawyers – that they are independent contractors and free to perform wherever they wish.

If the LIV series flourishes, or even continues to exist, those who preside over major leagues and Ryder Cup eligibility will inevitably have to take a stand. The possibility of heavy penalties for players is real and can be defended on the basis of the Saudi connection, but senior officials must be careful not to lose high moral ground by behaving in a dictatorial manner. At the grassroots level, it’s a threat to two tours working in partnership.

If Norman is successful, the outside players will become jealous enough of the checks given to those who have a fraction of their talent to want to get involved. LIV’s problem for now is that Johnson is the clear exception as someone at least near the top of his sport who can be seduced by money.

“I don’t think at this point in my career I can take risks like that,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “I’m loyal to my family that I’ve created around me with sponsors and everything.

“And the world of golf will probably change to some degree. I don’t know how it is, it’s not my job to do it. I’m just going to continue to play professional golf and enjoy it wherever it takes me, playing with the best players in the world.

DeChambeau’s sentiment exemplifies what LIV is up against. That, plus the widespread sentiment, there’s very little competitive validity to its offering. It’s sport, just in too vulgar a form for us to expect to know.

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