There were not literally tanks parked on the lawns of Centurion Club in Hertfordshire on Wednesday, but they might as well have been.
The fleet of black London cabs, emblazoned in LIV Golf logos, which stood massed in the club car park all day were like metaphorical armored vehicles; Ready to transport the 48 footsoldiers of the inaugural LIV Golf series event to their starting tee boxes on Thursday, all the while firing petrodollars at the crumbling defenses of the sport’s traditional powerbase.
Make no mistake, Wednesday represented the biggest landgrab yet in golf’s power struggle. A day to make the top brass at the PGA Tour and DP World Tour shiver.
There was a time, earlier this year, when the sport’s traditional tours thought they might have seen off the putative threat of the Saudi-funded LIV Golf Series.
After PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan made it clear that anyone who signed up to the series would have their Tour membership revoked, it looked for a while as if Greg Norman’s breakaway league might be dead in the water. Sure, there were a few early defectors, but they were largely written off as has-beens or never-will-bes.
No one can claim that anymore. An extraordinary day that began with six-time major champion Phil Mickelson explaining why he was “so happy” to pledge his future to LIV Golf despite describing the Saudis as “scary mother ——-” only a few months ago ( albeit useful as leverage in his efforts to extract more money out of the PGA Tour), that took in a toe-curling press conference with British duo Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in which they were grilled on human rights, ended with a Telegraph Sport exclusive that Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed were also signing with the Saudis.
These are far from has-beens. DeChambeau and Reed are two bad boys of the PGA Tour, admittedly. And there are no doubts that those on the PGA Tour will wish them good riddance. But they are also – like Dustin Johnson, whose defection hinted earlier this week at what was to come – box-office players.
What began as a trickle is rapidly becoming a torrent as players look to “get in on the ground floor” (DeChambeau’s description) of the upstart league.
It was a head-spinning day, and at times deeply uncomfortable. Mickelson’s press conference was awkward enough – particularly the moment when he said he was sorry for voicing his opinions quite so stridently to his biographer late last year and was asked pointedly whether he was sorry “for speaking the truth about the Saudis or for the shameless hypocrisy. of taking their money anyway ”.
But it reached a whole other level when Poulter and Westwood were grilled on whether the astronomical sums of money being thrown at them trumped the human rights of women and the LGBT + community and journalists in Saudi Arabia. “If the money was right, is there anywhere you wouldn’t play?” Poulter was asked at one stage. “If Vladimir Putin had a tournament, would you play there?”
Poulter tried to look dignified. “That’s speculation. Not even going to comment on speculation. ” Westwood was not let off the hook. “Lee, would you have played in apartheid South Africa, for example?” Again, an awkward pause. “You’re just asking us to answer a hypothetical question which we can’t answer,” he waffled.
Whether it was fair to put these questions to professional sportsmen looking for the biggest payday of their careers when the same questions aren’t routinely asked of Newcastle United’s footballers, for instance, or Manchester City’s, is open to debate. Should golfers be held to higher ethical standards than footballers? Or F1 drivers?
But that is the moral maze golf currently finds itself in. The sight of Mickelson and Westwood smiling for the cameras before teeing it up in Wednesday’s Pro-Am with the Newcastle chairman, His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan – who also happens to be governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is bankrolling the series – was a further reminder that, when it comes to LIV Golf, it is going to be impossible to separate the sport from the politics.
As night fell, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, speaking on the eve of the Canada Open, were busy performing a rearguard action in defense of golf’s traditional tours. But their efforts are increasingly futile.
Rickie Fowler is heavily rumored to be the next defector. Those black cabs will take LIV Golf’s first 48 players to their tees for a 2pm shotgun start on Thursday afternoon. But if we were in any doubt, the starter pistol has already been fired on the battle for the future of golf.