Who knew there was any trouble at all in golf paradise?
Oh sure, there will always be drives too far left or too far right, annoying fairway bunkers, menacing bodies of water, greens like hockey rinks, and sure birdie putts lipping out at the last instant. Championship golf is a fiendish game in which your enemy is not so much the guy in your pairing as it is Mother Nature in the form of the course itself.
We who respect this sport know that going in. We don’t ever act surprised when someone follows a Thursday 7-under-par 65 with a Friday 4-over 76. There’s a reason why wire-to-wire tournament wins are rarities. We’ve all seen bogey-bogey finishes spoil a championship run. That’s just golf, we shrug.
But I’m not talking about all that stuff. I’m talking about the organization of golf, the way professional golf has evolved both here and abroad.
I, for one, never gave it a second thought. The PGA just was. It was just Old Man River, rolling along. The players presented themselves to us, and we watched them play, annually starting in Hawaii and moving ever eastward as they followed the sun.
We had the majors and, every other year, the Ryder Cup. In time there would be the Presidents Cup and the Players, but they didn’t really disturb the natural order of things. The FedEx business ruffled some feathers, but we got through it. The PGA calendar just was what it was. After all, it was the only professional golf show in town.
I came of age in my golf fandom when the two biggest names were Sam Snead, who was winning everything but the biggest one of all, and Ben Hogan, who won nine majors but who still has people asking, “How did Ben Hogan lose the 1955 US Open playoff to Jack Fleck?”
There was “Terrible Tommy” Bolt, who famously threw clubs; Billy Casper, who supposedly feasted on buffalo meat; Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who abandoned a dental practice at age 26 to win 39 times on tour; and long-hitting George Bayer, who once moaned that he was cursed by his lengthy drives because “then I have to baby a wedge up there.” Boo-hoo, right?
The players were identified by their local club affiliations. Snead was out of White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. And one name that has always stuck in my mind is Jack Burke Jr., who played out of Kiamesha Lake, N.Y.
It was a different world. The US Open concluded with 36 holes on Saturday, with an 18-hole playoff on Sunday, if needed. The PGA was a match-play tournament. Across the pond, there was no sense in showing up to the British Open because Australian Peter Thomson was going to win (he won it five times between 1954 and 1965, including a still-standing record of three straight in 1954-56).
Anyway, the PGA Tour was where you went in this country to display your talents, and that meant following its calendar with 72-hole tournaments that began on Thursdays and ended on Sundays. Membership on the tour was a meritocracy, although you did have your so-called “sponsor’s exemptions.” But everyone accepted the format because there was no alternative and you just went along with the flow.
Unlike the team sports, you didn’t have to worry about strikes. Players were going to show up. You would hear complaints about course setups, with moaning and groaning about the hellacious rough being a predictable US Open staple, right up to this year at The Country Club. But the PGA Tour seemed to be well run, and a lot of guys were making a lot of money.
Now we find out from Greg Norman, more famous for the tournaments he didn’t win than the ones he did, that the PGA is run by terrible people. We hear from Phil Mickelson, who can’t say he hasn’t profited immensely from what the Tour provides, that the PGA is “greedy.” We learn that a Saudi Arabian-backed entity is wooing people with the equivalent of Monopoly money to join something called the LIV, which is the Roman numeral for 54, the number of holes an LIV tournament encompasses.
Are there really that many unhappy PGA campers? Were there festering issues we had never heard about? Are there legitimate reasons other than money to induce a prime-of-life golfer to leave the PGA Tour and go to work for the Saudis? I haven’t heard of any.
It’s about the money. Of course it’s about the money. But it’s not just the money per se, it’s about whose money. This new threat to the PGA wouldn’t be the hot-button topic it has become if we were talking about some other source of the money.
This country has long had a complicated relationship with the Saudis. Oil, 16 Saudi participants on 9/11, oil, buying major weapons from the US, oil, enemy of Iran, and, of course, oil. Very complicated. But it has become far more difficult to make nice with them since Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, often a critic of the regime, was murdered and dismembered. The horrifying crime allegedly was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, the 36-year-old prince who effectively rules the country.
To many people — make that most people — signing on to the LIV is accepting blood money. And check out this rationalization in USA Today from Bryson DeChambeau, a PGA defector: “Golf is a force for good. As time goes on, hopefully people will see the good they’re [the Saudis] doing. And what they’re trying to accomplish, rather than looking back at the bad that’s happened before.” Yeah, Bryson, too bad about that murder.
Do I think the PGA is run by perfect people? Of course not. Could there be things they should consider changing? For sure. What business couldn’t get better?
But Bryson, I’m sorry. I just can’t help “looking back at the bad that’s happened before.”