Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND. On the eve of the start of the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews how ironic that a man with the last name of "Slumbers" would send the strongest wake-up call, thus far, to the burgeoning LIV Tour.
The comments were telling and sweeping for the bluntness provided. Often the R&A couches such wording in diplomatic speak. Not this time. CEO Martin Slumbers did so during his Wednesday press briefing prior to the start of The Open and he provided a clear counterpoint in how the actions of LIV are being received by one of the biggest stakeholders in golf -- the R&A.
The 62-year-old Englishman articulated the most profound and candid comments to date. Outlining a clear shot across the bow in itemizing the R&A's displeasure. Prior to his press briefing -- the R&A's stance on the LIV Tour were delivered on another front. Formally not inviting Greg Norman -- the public face of the LIV effort -- to the pre-championship festivities including the exhibition of past winners and the champions dinner.
Slumbers was well aware that permitting the former two-time winner of The Open to attend would likely create a serious distraction to the grandeur of the event. Without saying it directly -- the underlying message to Norman was simple -- you need us (The Open) more than we need you.
Slumbers succeeded Peter Dawson as the lead person at the R&A in 2014 and for the most part has attempted to stay in the shadows when a variety of controversial topics impacting the sport have been debated.
At Wednesday's press conference his feelings were as firm as the fairway turf at the Old Course and for that wake-up call to be sent by a man with the last name of Slumbers was truly poetic justice.
Interestingly, Slumbers did not need to be prompted to deliver his comments -- they came early on in his press briefing.
"I firmly believe that the existing golf ecosystem has successfully provided stable pathways for golfers to enter the sport and develop and realize their full potential. Professional golfers are entitled to choose where they want to play and to accept the prize money that's offered to them. I have absolutely no issue with that at all.
But there is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe the model we've seen at Centurion and Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interests of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money. We believe it undermines the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special."
Slumbers articulated that the public relations position taken by a number of players who have joined LIV is not about the proclaimed salutary benefit in "growing the game." Without saying so directly -- the indirect reference was more in alignment with growing the size of the wallets for the players who have opted to be members of the LIV Tour.
"I would also like to say that in my opinion the continued commentary that this is about growing the game is just not credible and if anything, is harming the perception of our sport which we are working so hard to improve.
We believe the game needs to focus on increasing participation, achieving greater diversity, and making sure that golf is truly open to all, rather than this narrow debate involving a small number of players."
Slumbers was equally direct in discussing the issue of human rights but did so diplomatically by not assailing Saudi Arabia directly.
"Let me be very clear: Abuses of human rights, acts of terrorism cannot be condoned in my mind in any shape or form. They're abhorrent and unacceptable. I totally understand why you're asking the question, but I'm very clear on that part of it.
But for us, I'm looking at it in terms of the broader picture about how the game grows and how many of the positive things that are happening in golf."
The stewardship of golf is something Slumbers sees as being central to the broader health of the game -- "not just the very few who profit from playing."
"Golf is far more than just professional golf, and we should all remember that," said Slumbers.
In regards to participation in future Opens, Slumbers was quick to point out no players -- whether on LIV or elsewhere -- would be banned but that the R&A may revisit the exemption category and that could well mean previously exempt players will need to go through qualifying to secure a spot in the field.
"We absolutely reserve the right to make changes as our Open Championships Committee deems appropriate. Players have to earn their place in The Open, and that is fundamental to its ethos and its unique global appeal," said Slumbers.
When asked about welcoming money from Saudi Arabia and the related concern of sportswashing -- Slumbers did not name Saudi Arabia directly but believes the opportunity to work with the broadest range of counties in order to maximize participation in golf generally.
"And if you look around the world, we have a responsibility to work with many countries around the world that are affiliated to the R&A and are responsible for golf in their country. And we will continue to work with those countries all around the world," said Slumbers.
A central point for LIV success is in securing world ranking points for the events it runs. Slumbers was quick to point out that the formal OWGR has received the petition from LIV on this matter and the full committee will then weigh what action to be taken.
"That question will need to be addressed to the chairman of the OWGR. And I have nothing further to add to that point and will not add to anything more on that point," said Slumbers. When pressed about his involvement being a potential conflict of interest -- Slumbers simply reiterated he would have no further comment on that subject and leave it to the chairperson of the OWGR to address.
Slumbers did outline that the position of the R&A is simply that from one organization -- not a coalition of forces involving the leaders of the other three major championships. "We have great relationships. We have a common objective about improving the game and developing the game. But we all have our own independent agendas," said Slumbers.
When play concludes Sunday, it will be Slumbers introducing the 2022 winner as the "champion golfer of the year." And if a LIV Tour player should receive the Claret Jug, Slumbers indicated no hesitation in honoring the person's achievement.
"I think if -- whoever wins on Sunday is going to have their name carved in history. And I'll welcome them onto the 18th green. This is a golf tournament. The Open is about having the best players in the world playing, and I want to see who shoots the lowest score come Sunday night," said Slumbers.
While Slumbers provided far more clarity on the topic than the other leaders of the major championships the reality of golf's biggest stakeholders having to deal with a new landscape is one that will continue to impact the sport. More defections are likely.
When pressed about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia -- Slumbers fell back on his earlier comments that all such human rights violations and acts of terrorism are abhorrent. But when pressed about if he was comfortable with golf taking that money -- his answer was not related to the specifics of the question.
"I'm very comfortable in golf globally growing in terms of more and more people growing and the sport being a force for good, yes," said Slumbers.
But can "a force for good" actually happen in countries which flout human rights?
And are countries like Saudi Arabia simply using money to legitimize themselves in the broader global community -- beyond those simply in the golf lane? Do all such sports leagues and organizations have any reservations in doing business with such countries? Do fans of such sports care?
Left unsaid by Slumbers is whether major golf organizations such as the R&A should be involved with those countries that continue to demonstrate serious violations of human rights? Even if efforts are undertaken to show a desire to "grow the game" through host populations.
The issue of world ranking points and acceptance into the major championships are two central elements that will likely dictate the ultimate staying power for the new LIV Tour. Will the major stakeholders go beyond displeasure comments and go even further in isolating LIV?
That remains to be seen.
The comments by Slumbers showcased a clear displeasure but he stopped short of decreeing the LIV Tour a permanent pariah and one to be forever banished from The Open.
In short, a parental scolding but one that keeps the door open for LIV and the players associated with it -- for now.
Slumbers provided serious talking points in his briefing -- but will meaningful actions happen and, if so, when?
The Open Championship concludes Sunday and the next major championship will be nine months away when the Masters arrives next April. All eyes will then be on the statements from Chairman Fred Ridley. What Ridley says could well decide the role of LIV and how professional golf goes forward in relationship to the game's premier events.
In short -- to be continued.