At the time of writing details had yet to emerge but it seems that very soon we may have a clearer picture of the ramifications of the announcement late last month that Greg Norman, the 66-year-old two-time winner of the Open Championship (1986 & 1993), was to be the chief executive officer of LIV Golf Investments, which will create and promote events, probably ten to begin with, on the Asian Tour. Funding, reportedly $200 million initially, will be provided by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has declared assets in excess of $500 billion. It is this organisation which recently bought a controlling interest in Newcastle United football club. “This is only the beginning,” Norman said after announcing his new position, which one could take as either a promise or a threat.
The Saudi International golf tournament has been an official event on the European Tour (now rebranded the DP World Tour with effect from next year) for the past three season. No longer. February’s staging, assuming it stays in that month, will be run under the auspices of the Asian Tour. The European Tour and Asian Tour have co-sanctioned events for over 15 years. The Asian Tour has no such relationship with the PGA Tour. There is therefore much speculation about what might happen if, say, Dustin Johnson, whose name has been linked in this connection, applies for a release from the PGA Tour to play in Saudi and his request is rebuffed. Would he go anyway, citing the fact that as a professional golfer he was an independent contractor, not an employee of the PGA Tour? Which might be where the respective legal teams step on to the first tee.
In some respects, we have been here before. In 1994, the idea of a new world order for golf was all the rage. Joe Collet, the former business manager of Seve Ballesteros, had established an organisation called the International Golf Tour (IGT) and a players’ body called the IPGA. One of the players Collet had talked to was Norman, who may have been inspired by that conversation to go off to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports to sell a package of eight tournaments for 1995 on the ‘World Golf Tour’. The purses would be $3 million each, a barely noticeable amount to a top pro golfer since the arrival on the scene of Tiger Woods but back then seriously big bucks. Norman’s project in part failed not only because the major tours successfully resisted it (as would later be the case with Collet’s plans) but because the perception would be that Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, etc would be plying their trade on ‘Greg’s Tour’, which would obviously never do.
No one can accuse Norman of making that mistake this time. He has, however, been accused of helping the Saudi regime in a practice of ‘sportswashing’, improving the image of the Saudi government via sport, by his involvement in this scheme. “That’s a very easy word to throw out if you don’t find out where the money is coming from,” he told The Times this week. “The PIF is an autonomous, independent commercial fund.” That is disputed by many, and while Norman did say with regard to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, allegedly on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, that “what happened to Khashoggi is inexcusable – the whole world was in shock; I was in shock”, the controversy surrounding this project, whatever it exactly transpires to be, will continue and probably increase.
Whatever, early doors, my money is on lawyers rather than golfers likely making the most money out of all this.
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