The Saudi International may draw glances at present but it is not really a major problem for golf’s ecosystem. It is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s ongoing, ultimate disruption plan.
On Tuesday morning Greg Norman, the frontman for the golf operation of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, promised that the 10-event international series on the Asian Tour was “just the beginning”. Norman will believe this, even if the general tone of his carefully controlled press conference was uninspiring. Plenty of rhetoric, very little substance. “The most compelling indicator for me is the number of calls we have had from corporations and other individuals excited about the opportunity,” Norman said. Agents of footballers are suddenly very interested in Newcastle United, too. Bottomless pits of cash tend to have that effect.
As players flock to Jeddah this week to collect exorbitant appearance fees the rest of us can shake heads at the lunacy of it all. Nobody much cares about the Saudi International but those inside the ropes are also barely interested about the scepticism attached to their involvement. Players keep heads down, avoid awkward questions about the butchering of a journalist or human rights atrocities, bank the dollars and slip home via private jet. We are supposed to accept that “global players” keen to “grow the game” have more in mind than tsunamis hitting their bank accounts.
For existing tours, the Saudi International is a bit of a nuisance. The international series merely could be but the more fascinating part of the picture is Saudi’s desire to make players commit to their platform and ultimately move towards a Super Golf League. Should they do so – barring u-turns or legal challenges – the unwillingness of the DP World and PGA Tours to work in alliance with Saudi will fracture the golf environment completely.
Logically, the Saudis have pursued deals with individuals at the latter stages of their careers for whom a guaranteed payday of tens of millions of dollars triggers the rubbing of hands. Younger golfers are also known to be interested. Should, for argument’s sake, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood be tempted by this promised land then their future involvement in the Ryder Cup either as captains or players becomes almost impossible to square. The debate in this case would be a furious one; is it fair for players to effectively turn their backs on an event that has done so much for their profile, or would administrators on either side of the Atlantic be wrong to ostracise them? Even in the short-term, if Europe cannot or will not appoint Stenson as the captain for 2023 in Rome because of Saudi links then their Ryder Cup environment is undermined. And that, whatever the rights and wrongs, is a key issue.
Two discussions with high-profile players at last week’s Dubai Desert Classic resonated. One was adamant that, as a businessman, he is fully entitled to exert maximum value for professional services and provide for his family accordingly. When I pointed out the public perception that sportsmen of his standing already have sufficient wealth, the response was that nobody would choose to downscale their way of life if there was an alternative. I actually admired his candour.
Player two stated a belief that Saudi’s staging of golf tournaments increases focus on the kingdom and, in turn, should force them to improve upon behaviour and policies. Simply shutting a country off, under this theory, serves no actual purpose. Nonetheless, this notion of a force for good is contradicted by the unwillingness of golfers so far to speak out on Saudi’s hitherto appalling human rights record when in this very domain. While afforded a captive audience, golfers instead shuffle uncomfortably and trot out the wholly unsatisfactory line that they are “not politicians”. They are also being paid to front up the “new” Saudi Arabia. Altruism this is not.
Norman spoke effusively about his connection with the Asian Tour. It is worth remembering that the Saudi International was the domain of the DP World Tour before that entity forged a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour. Yes, the DP World Tour’s earlier dance with the Saudis was dubious in itself but it is amusing to hear Norman’s chat about Asian opportunity as if this was always the grand plan. What the Asian Tour does is provide the Saudis with legitimacy via, for example, world ranking points as are actually wildly distorted when fortunes are being paid in appearance money to prop-up tournaments. On Sunday, the winner of the fourth Saudi International will be named and instantly forgotten in the wider world. Worthy of more attention is the potential impact of the broader scheme.