San Francisco Chronicle
The Super Golf League being developed by Saudi Arabian government interests is dead, for now, and all the credit goes to Phil Mickelson.
If you’re just joining this adventure, a little background:
— The Super Golf League is a bold venture backed by the Saudi government and fronted by former golf great Greg Norman. The League was (probably still is) dangling huge amounts of money to lure top stars away from the PGA Tour.
— Some of those stars, including Rory McIlroy and Cal alum Collin Morikawa, quickly proclaimed loyalty to the PGA Tour. But several other players are said to be interested — by some reports, at least 17 Tour players were ready to sign with the SGL, despite a threatened lifetime ban from the PGA Tour.
— Last Thursday, veteran golf writer Alan Shipnuck posted an excerpt from his upcoming book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.”
Mickelson had phoned Shipnuck in November to explain the golfer’s support for the SGL, and he said of the Saudis, “They’re scary motherf—s to get involved with. They killed ( Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider (signing with the SGL)? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
The furor over Mickelson’s comments appears to have done two things:
One, it kneecapped the SGL, scaring away at least some key players just when the league seemed to be gaining traction and reportedly was about to make a big announcement. Once Mickelson’s comments hit the fan, major champions Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau — who had been curiously quiet amid the SGL rumors — said they were staying with the PGA Tour.
Two, Mickelson explaining that he publicly supported the SGL in order to force the PGA Tour to make changes probably didn’t go down well with the Saudis. If the Saudi rulers murder newspaper reporters and gay people, what might they dream of doing to a guy who just sucker-punched their billion-dollar project designed to burnish their world image?
Mickelson will pay a big price for his comments. His biggest sponsors have deserted him. He said he’s going to step away from golf for a while, and he’s 51, so his glory days may have ended.
And he has been exposed. Long a fan favorite, Mickelson’s popularity did not always extend to the rank-and-file Tour players. Some reportedly refer to him as “Figjam,” an acronym for “F— I’m good, just ask me.”
McIlroy called Mickelson’s SGL comments “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant.”
On the positive side, also revealed was the Tour players’ enlightened outlook. Some of them appear to have a heart and soul, as shown by the rejection of the SGL by McIlroy and Morikawa long before Mickelson’s comments.
Maybe pro golf is growing a backbone, outgrowing its less-than-glorious past. Long ago, I asked the late Arthur Ashe — a tennis Hall of Famer — if golf is the least socially enlightened sport. He said, “If you don’t count polo.”
That was 32 years ago, but there is a connection to current events. Ashe was co-founder (with Harry Belafonte) of an organization aimed at persuading the world’s sports and entertainment stars to boycott South Africa and its then-apartheid regime.
The South African government, like the Saudis now, was using sports to bolster and burnish — sportswash — the country’s image. The government offered stars huge cash payouts to play Sun City, a glitzy resort. Ashe’s boycott got widespread participation, but as Ashe told me, “By far, the most glaring exception to the boycott is golf.”
Many golf stars played Sun City, including Jack Nicklaus, but Norman was golf’s superstar. The United Nations published an anti-apartheid blacklist and Norman made the cut.
When apartheid was dismantled, the boycott was credited with a strong assist. Nelson Mandela, freed from prison, was asked which American he would most want to meet. He said, ” Arthur Ashe.”
The boycott was proof that athletes can influence public opinion. That’s what the Saudis are counting on. They are willing to run the SGL as a money pit because they believe it will sportswash away stuff like Mickelson mentioned.
Now, thanks to Mickelson, the rebel golf league is “dead in the water,” as McIlroy said.
Or is it? While the Tour sweetened its annual payout to golfers by $100 million, partly in response to Mickelson’s threats to jump, the Saudis light cigars with that kind of money.
Some believe that when the Mickelson noise dies down, the Saudis will merely up the ante. DeChambeau reportedly was offered $130 million to jump, and now that offer might bump higher, and he seems willing to listen. He said, “I want to make it very clear that as long as the best players in the world are playing the PGA Tour, so will I.”
Brooks Koepka said, “I don’t see (the SGL) backing down; they can just double up and they’ll figure it out. They’ll get their guys. Somebody will sell out and go to it.”
So let’s hold off on saluting PGA Tour pros for their heart and soul. We’re still on the front nine here.\
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