A New Worker Upsurge in Pro Golf, Brought to You by Saudi Arabia

With its upstart golf league, LIV Golf, Saudi Arabia has picked a fight with the American golf establishment. And because that establishment has stiffed so many pro golfers for so long, the Saudis appear to be winning.

Brooks Koepka plays his shot from the 16th tee as former US president Donald Trump looks on during day one of the LIV Golf Invitational Bedminster on July 29, 2022. (Chris Trotman / LIV Golf via Getty Images)

For nearly a year now, LIV has been nearly the only thing anyone in golf has talked about, though likely that excludes many Jacobin readers. Professional golf, after all, is known for such incivilities as possessing a “Caucasians only” clause in its bylaws until 1961 — not exactly a progressive pedigree.

Yet the story of the Saudi Arabia–backed LIV Golf, its recent deal with the CW television network, and its larger war with the best-known organization in professional golf, the PGA Tour, may have effects far beyond the sports pages, because it is the story of how what one golf writer called a “rogue’s gallery of assholes,” backed by a brutal, authoritarian petro-state, are leading perhaps the strangest workers’ rights movement of all time.

LIV Golf first reached the public’s consciousness at the beginning of 2022, when golf writer Alan Shipnuck published an interview with Phil Mickelson. The long-hitting left-hander is one of the sports’ leading players, having won sixty-four tournaments as a professional (forty-five of them on the PGA Tour), including six majors (the last as a fifty-year old, the oldest ever to do so). While talking to Shipnuck, Mickelson outlined how the new tour would be supported by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), a sovereign wealth vehicle with assets in the realm of $600 billion.

Mickelson allowed that the sponsors of the new tour were some “scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” not least because “they killed [Washington Post reporter and US resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights.” However, he argued that the venture represented “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson, whose natural habitat is far more swanky country clubs around the world than union halls, thereby became the public face of a movement that, while disdained by golf’s traditionalists, is putting front and center a question on every worker’s mind: pay.

LIV Is Different

What is LIV Golf, and how does it differ from a standard, PGA Tour golf tournament? A standard PGA Tour tournament is conducted over four days by around a hundred fifty golfers playing seventy-two holes, with the lowest individual score winning the event. Each player is assigned a “tee time” over the course of a day, with the earliest players going out to play their rounds early in the morning and the last players no earlier than early afternoon. After two rounds, half the field is “cut,” or sent home without a check.

Paul Casey tees off at the LIV Golf Invitational Bedminster. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike professional tennis, which has long paid “appearance fees” for its stars, golf has prided itself on rewarding tournament play and tournament play only. The rewards are hefty: the winning player will usually score between a little more than a million dollars to nearly three million, meaning that the best players are incredibly wealthy. The players golf solely for themselves as “lone wolf” independent contractors, excepting the occasional international team competition like the Ryder Cup.

According to its founders, LIV Golf is an attempt to “disrupt” golf as it has been played professionally for about the last century. LIV Golf’s tournaments are played by only forty-eight golfers over only fifty-four holes. (“LIV” is “54” in the Roman numeric system.) Where the PGA Tour’s tournament rounds can last all day, LIV Golf’s tournament rounds take a little over five hours due to all the golfers beginning their rounds at the same time, in what’s known as a “shotgun” start.

Above all, there is no cut: every player who enters a LIV Golf tournament is guaranteed some prize money. Moreover, each of the golfers is paired with three others as a “team,” which can win money collectively. And this isn’t even to speak of the rock bands and other entertainment LIV hires for its events. The electronic duo Chainsmokers were scheduled to play a recent LIV event, before backing out at the last minute.

The music and other differences have, according to many observers, brought an alternative sort of gallery to golf tournaments than the PGA Tour’s events: a difference in audience that parallels the differences between the mainstream Republican Party voter and those for Donald Trump. According to Zach Helfand, writing in the New Yorker last year, “LIV embodie[s] Trumpism,” insofar as it appeals to a “younger audience” that isn’t as invested in the traditional model, either of the sport or politics. It’s no accident, in other words, that the upstart league scheduled two events in its inaugural season, 2022, at golf courses owned by the former president. It’s a louder crowd, more prone to yelling than to the traditional golf clap, and contrasts strongly with the typical golf audience.

That audience is beloved by television advertisers, who fight for air time on golf coverage despite the fact that viewership for even the biggest golf events is not large by television sport standards. Not only that, but they’re old: the Golf Channel’s median viewer is far older than that of any other sports network. But as the channel also reports, its audience has the highest income and most representation in the C-suite of any other. Luxury brands know that one of the best ways to reach their target is through golf.

What is golf’s appeal to this demographic? One example often cited by the corporate class is an incident from the 1925 US Open involving the great Bobby Jones, who is perhaps best known today as the founder of the Masters tournament and the golf club where it is held, Augusta National, but also won thirteen major championships as a player. During the first round of that tournament, Jones brushed the grass surrounding the eleventh green with his club, resulting in the ball imperceptibly moving. Jones nevertheless called a penalty on himself for violating the rules, which ended up costing him a chance at a win.

When Jones was profusely praised by the press afterward, he said: “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.” That sort of integrity is something that corporate America likes to think it prizes highly, and it’s likely to protect that aura that no major television network had, previous to the agreement with the CW Network, which has agreed to televise LIV’S tournaments. “Broadcasts” of these events are distributed on YouTube for free.

Despite America’s nearly insatiable appetite for sports programming, in other words, no content distributor — until now — has been willing to televise LIV, apparently to protect golf’s nearly unique prestige as a “gentleman’s game.”

Earlier this month, that changed.

A Disdain for Golf Propriety

On January 19, Nexstar Media Group announced it would host the golf events on its CW Network. The terms were not announced. Previously, both Apple TV and Amazon had turned LIV down, while CBS, NBC, and ESPN all had contracts with the PGA Tour. The new television contract has changed the battlefield between the two golf enterprises, considerably raising the upstart’s chances of survival.

For traditionalists, LIV Golf has disdain for golf’s sense of its own propriety. They decry the newcomer’s “no cut” format and its shortening of tournament length from seventy-two to fifty-four holes. At times, the response of old school golf types seems more visceral than necessary. Martin Slumbers — chief of the R & A, the body that, with its counterpart the United States Golf Association (USGA), determines the rules of the sport — said last July that LIV undermined “the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special.”

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Phil Mickelson at the awards ceremony for The Players Championship in 2007, which Mickelson had just won. (Wikimedia Commons)

For many outside observers, LIV Golf is, like Trumpism itself, simply a more obnoxious form of an already-dubious enterprise. That feeling may only increase when the curtains surrounding the new venture are lifted. Saudi Arabia’s moral failings are certainly no secret, as Mickelson’s comments acknowledge. The Middle Eastern monarchy has a 2.4 rating, out of 10, from Human Rights Tracker. It has waged a devastating war on Yemen, backed by the United States, and has a long history of exporting reactionary terrorism around the world. That record is one reason critics allege that the country is funding the new golf tour in the first place, as a form of what’s become known as “sportswashing.”

That term is a variation on “greenwashing,” defined as when a “company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes.” As Ewan Murray pointed out in early January, the LIV investment appears of a piece with other Saudi investments in global sport, such as Cristiano Ronaldo’s high-profile move to the Saudi Arabian soccer league last year. One of the world’s last absolute monarchies has also made investments in Premier League powerhouse Newcastle United and brought a Formula One race to Jeddah, the nation’s commercial capitol. Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk are set to box for the “biggest purse in boxing history” in March. LIV Golf, then, appears to be part of larger-scale attempt to woo sports fans.

While that much appears at least semi-obvious, the desert kingdom’s PIF is one of the largest chunks of money sluicing around the planet that is completely invisible to ordinary investors. According to Professor Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics, for example, it is “opaque, a black box,” meaning that PIF’s financial moves are immune to the usual forms of scrutiny.

What is known about the PIF does not inspire trust: the fund has invested with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s former secretary of the Treasury, to the tune of two and one billion dollars, respectively. So not only is LIV Golf a more obnoxious version of what some think of as an already pretty obnoxious sport, it’s even more so after drilling down just slightly.

Yet despite all the truly sinister details that surround the enterprise, the rising circuit has dramatically raised the purses of its tournaments by comparison with its competitor, the PGA Tour. Whereas the typical golf tournament has a purse of just under $10 million, all of LIV’s tournaments last year had at least $25 million.

Those purses are shared by fewer players: in a PGA Tour event, only those who make the cut are paid, but that’s typically around sixty golfers, whereas although all LIV players get paid, there’s fewer of them to start. As absurd as it sounds to depict Mickelson — one of the wealthiest human beings on the planet — and the other LIV golfers as waging class struggle against their bosses, within the rarified world of professional golf, that’s what they are doing.

Prior to the arrival of LIV, professional golf had been experiencing many of the same issues as other industries: the growth of managerial power in relation to labor. The previous PGA Tour commissioner, Tim Finchem, received, for example, 5.1 million dollars so long ago as 2009, and five other tour officials made more than 1 million dollars that year. Similar numbers are reported for other golf organizations, reflecting how golf generally is part of the massive upsurge in executive compensation that’s taken place over the past few decades.

Most significantly, the Wall Street Journal reported in September that in 2020, tour commissioner Jay Monahan received $14.2 million, which is not only an enormous number in itself but also is ridiculous in relation to another number: Monahan’s salary was roughly twice what 2020’s leading money winner, Justin Thomas, took home ($7,344,040). By joining LIV, professional golfers like Mickelson have, consciously or not, been protesting an imbalance in financial power.

PGA Ponies Up

One sign that the presence of LIV has affected the PGA Tour is that the tour has addressed that disparity with alacrity ever since LIV first made its appearance. In the first place, the established tour has attempted to placate its stars with something called a “Player Impact Program” (PIP). PIP is essentially a slush fund designed by the PGA Tour to reward players for driving the most “positive impact” on the tour, for the players who aren’t necessarily the best golfers but are famous nonetheless. In other words, the tour has broken one of its most sacrosanct precepts: upholding the legacy of Bobby Jones by only rewarding players for their performance on the golf course.

More recently, the tour announced that players who qualified for their “tour cards” by becoming members of the tour would receive a guaranteed $500,000 per year — a first, and another violation of the “Bobby Jones principle.”

The LIV golfers aren’t exactly comparable to the autoworkers who held up production on the General Motors line in Flint, Michigan, in the hard winter of 1937. They are a pretty unlikable bunch on the whole: the adjective “surly” usually accompanies LIV player and Masters champion Sergio García, for example. A few years ago, Brooks Koepka offered free beer to anyone heckling fellow player Bryson DeChambeau; now both play for the Saudi-financed operation. These are, in general, not likable people, even for professional golfers.

Yet that’s exactly the point. In the same July interview quoted above, golf executive Slumbers denounced LIV players as “entirely driven by money.” That’s exactly the response that should be expected from the golf establishment — when they’re losing. And right now, in a contest with an upstart tour backed by some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, the golf establishment is losing.