Mercenary Men

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Money matters, morals missing?
Posted on
May 17, 2022
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


TULSA, OK. Right off the top I am not a naive person. I am totally aware professional sports, at the highest of levels, is what Cuban Gooding, Jr. said in the movie, Jerry Maguire, "show me the money."

The consequential nature of money is always front and center for the simple reason the shelf life of any elite athlete is a short one. The belief that one should grab what you can -- when you can -- is a clear and certain reality. Should one's performance level drop or if a debilitating injury occurs -- the value of that athlete can drop off the radar screen not only quickly-- but permanently.

For athletes -- time is always a factor in what they ultimately decide.

For that reason, the ongoing saga involving the development of a professional golf tour fronted by Saudi Arabia has been one to watch.  The desire to tempt elite golfers with gobs of money. The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series is a clear attempt by a government hellbent on placing itself in the front row as a legitimate entity on the world stage while patently clear its collective record in human rights failures has been documented many times over. The term "sportswashing" is the method by which a country attempts to rinse away past or ongoing human rights transgressions by using the cover of high-level sports in order to showcase itself as a legitimate member of the global community.

Mercenary Men - Money

Prominent golf names have been in the lead role. Greg Norman, the former world-ranked number one player, serves as commissioner of the Saudi effort and his inability to fully grasp the totality of the human rights record of the Saudis -- is nothing short of incredulous.

Norman quickly weighed in when the PGA Tour refused to provide releases for the first tournament held under the banner of LIV in London (June 9-11) saying the move was "anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive." On the flip side -- when asked about collective atrocities including the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi and the public beheading of 81 people in March, Norman replied, "We all make mistakes," and then added, "I heard about it and I just kept moving on." 

One can only surmise how Norman would react if the dismemberment of Khashoggi had happened to a member of his family or close friend would he so quickly dismiss it with a glib, "We all make mistakes." How Norman can justify such a cold calculating reply shows where so much of sports has left the highway of respectability for the "show me the money" calculus that comes from the back alleyways.

Phil Mickelson became part of the controversy when critical comments of the PGA Tour were aired by golf writer Alan Shipnuck in conversations that Mickelson stated were "off the record" for a book that will be released this week on the star player's life. That "off the record" assertion was quickly denied by Shipnuck. Mickelson stated the "obsessive greed" of the PGA Tour and only when pressed did he make comments that the Saudi actions on the Khashoggi matter showed them to be "scary mother f*ckers." 

Mercenary Men - Money
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Phil later added his involvement with the Saudi effort was simply to gain leverage against the PGA Tour and the need to more fairly compensate the top players. Once again -- money in the forefront.

Mickelson opted out of this week's PGA Championship and his return to competitive golf is uncertain. What is certain is that if and when Lefty does decide to play again, he will face a media storm unlike any other in his career.

The situation extends to several top tier players on the PGA Tour when confronted with the ethical dilemma have stated they are sportsmen -- not politicians. They also assert the involvement they bring in through Saudi-sponsored events is meant to be a positive aspect in "growing the game" That comment is laughable given the current state of Saudi golf and how women have been held back from the most rudimentary of daily life actions that are more closely related to medieval than current times. 



But the hypocrisy goes further in terms of organizations providing a wink and a nod.  Golf in Saudi Arabia has been sanctioned by the former European Tour -- now called the DP Tour- and even the PGA Tour granted releases for players to compete in the Saudi International event this past January. The human rights record of Saudi Arabia was a secondary consideration -- if at all.

Golf is not the only sport that looks the other way when money and morals collide. The Olympics -- both Summer and Winter games -- has seen fit to enrich itself when autocratic or family-run countries bid to host the Games. Human rights and the moral imperative become nothing more than an annoyance. 

On the flip side the major sports leagues have seen what happens when critical comments are made about certain countries.

In October, 2019, General Manager Daryl Morey of the NBA's Houston Rockets tweeted -- "Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong." The post was in reaction to China taking a range of actions to derail democratic reform movements emanating from Hong Kong. The tweet set in motion a firestorm. The Chinese government took quick action to ban NBA telecasts and were even purported to have Morey fired from his position. Morey left the Rockets and is now President of Basketball Operations for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The leading players in golf are by definition "independent contractors." Those same players want the right to play when they want -- where they want. However, members of the PGA Tour agree to abide by the rules and regulations that govern Tour membership. It's also clear the dominance of the PGA Tour means the brain trust that runs the operation in Ponte Vedra, FL, has no desire to share the wealth with those opting to get into the tournament business.



In all probability, there will be litigation to test how "independent" PGA Tour players are and whether operations such as LIV can successfully land them for events they conduct. The key players are very much aware that such actions could well impact where and when they play.

Elite players have uniformly stated a desire to remain with the PGA Tour. The main focus for LIV has been to entice those players either nearing the end of their careers or those just starting out who have no status with the PGA Tour.



In an interview with John Huggan of Golf Digest, Lee Westwood who has earned tens of millions playing professionally both in Europe and the USA said it succinctly -- "I do this for money. It's not the only reason for doing it. But if anybody comes along and gives any of us a chance at a pay raise, then you have to seriously consider it. This is my job." Westwood has expressed interest in being a participant in the events LIV is scheduling and could well jeopardize the possibility of being selected Captain of a future European team for the Ryder Cup matches.

One can applaud Westwood's candor. Clearly if anyone had his golf skills and was in the same position the juxtaposition of money and morals would still be present and the final determinant could well be what he stated. The bigger question becomes how sports leagues and those competing weigh the moral imperative when seeking the riches that come from sources using sportswashing in order to cleanse past and current serious transgressions in the area of human rights? 


The PGA Championship will be played this week at Southern Hills in Tulsa. The field will be among the deepest and most talented assembled all season. The winner receives custody of the famed Wannamaker Trophy and the sum of $2,160,000, along with various exemptions in the years to follow. Will players willingly abandon what they have now with the PGA Tour and the major events connected to it. Right now, that answer is no but situations are fluid and can change. 

Money and morals present uncomfortable realities. Athletes and the various sports leagues far too eager to enrich themselves while paying lip service to the moral side of the equation.

The golf world generally operates behind closed doors but the nature of money and morals is not going away anytime soon and the debate will likely only intensify as matters play out in the weeks and months ahead.

Stay tuned.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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