Golf

Greg Norman’s ambivalence towards the atrocities of the Saudi regime are not born of ignorance but rather of a blinding obsession with bringing down the PGA Tour. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Greg Norman’s dubious links

Greg Norman promoting his breakaway LIV Golf series in London on May 11.
Greg Norman promoting his breakaway LIV Golf series in London on May 11.
Credit: Glyn Kirk / AFP

Earlier this month, Greg Norman – one of Australia’s finest golfers – dismissed the Saudis’ murder of a dissident journalist with the line “we’ve all made mistakes”. Norman was speaking at a promotional event for his rebel golf league, funded by Saudi Arabia, and had been asked again to justify the source of its money.

I like to think of Greg Norman as one very angry Don Quixote. A man whose long-held dream for a rebel golf league – one that challenges the “illegal monopoly” of the PGA Tour – has since transformed into a mad and deeply compromised obsession. It’s Norman’s windmill, and he’s been angrily tilting at it for at least three decades. The Saudis just happen to be paying him for it now.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, when he spent 331 weeks as the world’s No. 1 golfer, Norman felt constrained by the regulations imposed upon PGA members. They were very well compensated, and enjoyed other benefits – prestige, sick leave, healthcare – but Norman considered the PGA a monopoly that unfairly restricted where its golfers – “independent contractors”, he called them – could ply their trade. And, as such, their earning capacity.

It also meant he had to apply for an exemption to compete in Australia’s own largest tournaments, as they weren’t affiliated with the PGA Tour. He’s never forgotten this. In an interview last month with Britain’s The Telegraph, Norman’s anger was obvious: “They told me once I couldn’t play in the Australian Open,” he said. “My Open! That pissed me off. The hypocrisy was putrid. It still is. If someone wants to put up millions for the pros to compete, in a new exciting format, then why the hell shouldn’t they? It’s the players’ choice.”

In 1994, antitrust lawyers working for the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommended the government strip the PGA Tour of its power to dictate where its members played. It became intensely political. Members of congress were successfully lobbied by the PGA to advocate for them, and the following year, during senate confirmation hearings for Bill Clinton’s nominee for the FTC chief, the issue was raised. Eventually the FTC’s commissioners voted the recommendation down.

That same year, Norman sought to form a rebel league in partnership with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network. This also failed, not least because the PGA shrewdly affiliated itself with various, smaller global circuits – enlarging the pool of tournaments its members could participate in, and subtracting the potential size of the market for Norman’s proposed circuit.

Norman was humiliated. And seriously pissed off. In 1996, he confronted the then head of the PGA, Tim Finchem, in a hotel lobby. “I told him I was irritated with him,” Norman said not long afterwards in an interview. “I’ve had it up to here with Tim Finchem. It’s the end of the rope for me. He hung me out to dry.”

Norman never forgot his humiliation and the anger never dulled. Almost 30 years later, Norman is trying – with Saudi money – to coax players from the PGA and establish his long-dreamed-of rebel circuit, the LIV Golf Invitational Series.

And nearly three decades later, the same legal threats are being made. The PGA Tour has warned it will ban any of its members who play in Norman’s league, while Norman says the PGA members are independent contractors who are being denied their rightful participation in a free market. In February, after the PGA head, Jay Monahan, issued this threat to rebelling players, Norman wrote him an open letter. It read, in part: “For decades, I have fought for the rights of players to enjoy a career in which they are rewarded fully and properly for their efforts. They are one-in-a-million athletes. Yet for decades, the Tour has put its own financial ambitions ahead of the players, and every player on the tour knows it … But when you try to bluff and intimidate players by bullying and threatening them, you are guilty of going too far, being unfair, and you likely are in violation of the law.

“[And] when you threaten to end players’ careers and when you engage in unfair labour practices with your web of player restrictions, you demonstrate exactly why players are open minded about joining a league that treats players well, respects them, and compensates them according to their true worth. Commissioner – this is just the beginning. It is certainly not the end.”

Norman may have a point, and the FTC’s resolution back in the ’90s was hardly untainted by politics. The PGA would argue that its exclusivity maintains its prestige, and that prestige is funnelled to players through earnings and lucrative private endorsements.

But Norman’s rebellion has ceased to be purely an arcane matter of antitrust law. His proposed circuit – scheduled to begin in London on June 9 – is bankrolled, like his enormous but undisclosed salary as chief executive of LIV Golf, by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, valued at about $US620 billion, and overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Bin Salman is the man US intelligence says directly ordered the assassination of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Khashoggi, believing the Saudis wouldn’t harm him on Turkish soil, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to complete some basic forms. He died there. Turkish intelligence, and a later United Nations investigation, found that Khashoggi was tortured, suffocated and then dismembered with a butcher’s bone saw.

This is hardly the sum of Saudi atrocity. The country is a malignant theocracy, one that effectively renders women the property of men, that jails female activists, clerics and pacifists, that chemically castrates homosexual men and sentences its children for capital crimes. Its judicial system is arbitrary, opaque and brutally punitive, and derives convictions from confessions obtained through torture. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia prosecutes a bloody war in Yemen that has serially violated international humanitarian law. In March this year, and despite pledges to reduce its state-sanctioned killings, the country executed 81 men in one day – most of them foreigners.

What’s interesting with Greg Norman is that a sense of injustice is not foreign to him. In fact, it seems to be the burning motivation for his rebel league – an intense, engulfing and long-nursed sense of grievance. It’s just that his sense of injustice – that pro golfers should have greater freedom to earn more – is valued vastly more highly than the injustice of Saudi atrocities.

The question of Saudi support has haunted Norman’s venture. So too have his answers, which amount, in sum, to an indignant shrug. Last week he sounded astonishingly glib when he followed his “Look, we’ve all made mistakes” line with: “… and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”

In the same event, he was asked about the 81 executions: “I look forward. I don’t look back. I don’t look into the politics of things.”

And about the violent, state-sanctioned persecution of Saudi’s LGBTQIA+ community? “I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”

As the Saudis’ pitch man for the competing circuit, Norman has been formidably stubborn and frequently blithe. He’s also often been unwittingly revealing. “I’ll be honest with you, yes, the criticisms have stung a little, but I’m a big believer that you can’t run through a brick wall without getting bloody,” he told The Telegraph in last month’s interview. “I’m willing to run through this wall because I’m a big believer in growing the game of golf on a global basis.”

That “brick wall” was a perfect metaphor for describing his self-harming obstinacy.

Norman’s proposal has become publicly toxic. Players have pulled out, and his great endorser – PGA champion Phil Mickelson – painfully withdrew from the sport, and the public eye, in February, after criticism followed the revelation of a similarly glib response about the Saudis to his biographer. This week, Australia’s greatest female golfer, Karrie Webb, tweeted: “The little girl in me just died well and truly!! Has anyone’s childhood hero disappointed them as much as I am now??”

Norman’s old mate, the Australian golfer and former PGA champion Wayne Grady, was incensed. “From someone who has known Greg for 50 years, Greg is only about Greg,” Grady wrote on Facebook. “He has been trying to take down the tour for 30 years. The admiration I had for him, for what he has achieved and what he did for Australian golf is gone ... You should hang your head in shame, Shark.”

Still, the criticism seems too easy. Happily, we are not Saudi Arabia. But as I listed the sins of Saudi Arabia, our own cousins to those sins occurred to me. The Saudis’ war in Yemen? It’s been supported by our ally’s weapons, so much so that US State Department officials warned it might make the country liable for war crimes. Arbitrary imprisonment and torture? We supported Guantanamo Bay. The mistreatment of children? We sent kids, fleeing the same war zones to which we sent our soldiers, to poorly regulated camps in corrupt countries, and then we frequently obstructed their medical evacuations.    

Righteousness is blinding. It might be a gross rhetorical convenience for Norman to say that “every country has its cross to bear”, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Dubious links".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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