Opinion: Teeing off on golfers taking Saudis’ LIV Golf cash ignores realities of complicated world

Instead of whacking some morally woebegone golfers over the head for allowing themselves to be money-whipped by Saudi Arabia let’s give at least one of them some credit.

Here was Talor Gooch, a 30-year old who probably would need to wear a sign that says “I am Talor Gooch” to be recognized in public (and even then it’s no guarantee), at a news conference Tuesday in London being asked about the human rights implications of becoming a de facto employee of the Saudi regime on the new LIV golf tour.

“I’m a golfer,” he said. “I’m not that smart. I try to hit a golf ball into a small hole. Golf is hard enough.”

Though almost certainly unintentional — if we take him at his word, Gooch would not have the capacity to figure this out on his own — the reigning champion of the RSM Classic stumbled into one of the most revealing quotes about the human condition any athlete has ever delivered.

The Saudis think they can buy whatever and whoever they want, largely because there’s always someone willing to be bought. If it’s not a golfer or a Formula One driver, it’s the current President of the United States, whose political standing is so tied to gas prices that he’s planning to visit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman next month after once calling the Saudis a “pariah” because of their human rights record. Or it’s his predecessor, who chose Riyadh for his first overseas trip as Commander-in-Chief so that he could kiss the ring. Or it’s decades of foreign policy that has made Saudi Arabia the largest purchaser of American-made military equipment in the world, most recently to fight a horrific war in Yemen.

This point is this: When it comes to every facet of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, America sees what it wants to see and justifies what it wants to justify. Are we really going to hold “not that smart” Talor Gooch and the likes of Dustin Johnson, who has never said anything remotely interesting in public about any topic other than golf, to a higher standard?

Yes, it would be much cleaner and more honest if these guys just told the truth. The LIV tour, backed with hundreds upon hundreds of millions from the Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, is going to guarantee them an even higher standard of living than they were able to achieve on the PGA Tour. They’ll earn more while playing less. If you can talk yourself out of caring where the money comes from, it’s a great deal.

Luckily for the likes of Gooch, Johnson and Phil Mickelson, doing business with the Saudis fits into a long American tradition of doing exactly that — for the right price, of course.

And that’s where so much of the backlash to these guys feels a little bit misguided and unfair. Yes, what they’re doing is ridiculous because of who they’ve gotten into bed with. At the same time, the PGA Tour is not a sacred vessel.

It benefits the PGA Tour to turn this exclusively into a morality play where anyone who wants to partner with its new rival is accepting blood money. Ultimately, that might be what saves the tour from losing more stars.

But if LIV survives over the long haul, this will ultimately be about two competing business models with very different visions of how professional golf operates.

The PGA Tour philosophy has always been based on competitive merit. There are no guarantees or appearance fees. You qualify for the Tour, you show up every week and you collect what you earn based on how well you play.

Thanks to Tiger Woods and the massive amount of money that got poured into the sport over the past 20 years, this arrangement has worked pretty well for players. Last year, the 100th-ranked golfer on the PGA Tour prize money list still made nearly $1.3 million.

LIV’s model makes golf more like every other professional sports league where the big money for the top players is tied to participation more than results. Though the prize money for the individual tournaments looks pretty appealing, too, LIV is essentially packaged as an entertainment product more than a competition where value is both derived from and funneled toward the stars simply showing up.

If you were to blow up the PGA Tour and start from scratch, it would undoubtedly look more like LIV. And the PGA Tour knows that, which is why it’s offering $50 million through its “Player Impact Program” to shovel more into the pockets of its most popular members while it offers $18 million to the winner of the season-ending FedEx Cup, an event that has no more impact on the wider sports landscape in 2022 than it did when it started in 2007. As a golf event, the FedEx Cup is a total snooze. As a way to make sure the stars get paid more while ensuring no rival startup tour can peel off the best players, it has mostly done its job — even in the face of LIV’s open checkbook.

But you can understand why some players need more than a reference to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to turn down Saudi money. Sports are not geopolitics, but telling athletes — not businesses or governments — that they’re the only people in the world who can’t make money from repressive regimes seems wildly inconsistent and unfair.

It’s inconsistent even within sports. Until Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia this year, you never heard criticism of women’s basketball players accepting an oligarch’s money to play for their teams during the WNBA offseason. What, did you think women’s basketball was so much more popular over in Russia that Griner could make nearly five times more than she did in the U.S.? Does anyone yell at horse breeders in Kentucky about sportswashing when the Saudi princes and Emirati sheikhs come spend millions at the yearling auctions while employing hundreds of Americans on their farms and in their racing operations?

Of course not, because we are all awash in these thorny moral imbroglios, whether it’s how our shoes and phones are made, what our government is doing to decrease the price of gas or what political causes in various countries are being supported by certain companies we patronize. That doesn’t make it right. We’d all like to think if we were in the same position as these guys, we’d have the moral clarity to say that playing under the LIV banner isn’t worth the sacrifice of conscience.

It’s easier not to draw those hard lines in our complicated world, but what’s worse is not even acknowledging that they exist. If someone like Gooch really isn’t smart enough to do more than hit a ball into a hole, he’s probably right where he belongs.