Eamon Lynch: Greg Norman’s Saudi deal reveals nothing about golf’s future, but plenty about him

Since it took the Saudis almost 10 years to sign a player to their global golf ambitions, we might have expected someone more compelling than a 66-year-old retiree a quarter-century beyond his prime, whose unquenchable thirst for relevance has been laid (literally) bare-arsed on social media with an undignified frequency.

There are obvious reasons why Greg Norman is an appealing front man for LIV Golf Investments, the Saudi-financed outfit that has announced plans for 10 events to be held on the Asian Tour. For starters, he’s already contracted to design a golf course near Riyadh, so he didn’t need to be persuaded to overlook those pesky human rights abuses. Norman has already signaled that he doesn’t care about that.

He remains a brand name in the sport, though he might have finally jumped his own logo when he started slinging beef jerky. He’s no pied piper—attitudes toward him in the locker room have always been lukewarm—but for the casual fan who considers Norman’s catchpenny clothing line to be haute couture, his involvement confers legitimacy.

Finally, he has harbored undisguised animus toward the PGA Tour since 1994, when he launched a bumbling attempt at a world tour that was quickly squashed by then-commissioner Tim Finchem. Finchem was actually helping Norman save face, but Norman later accused Finchem of stealing his concept for the World Golf Championships. That appetite for avenging long-nursed grudges must have appealed to the Crown Prince when he was reviewing résumés of prospective patsies.

Friday’s Asian Tour announcement by the Saudis is a deft decoy, showing momentum on a lesser front to distract from their lack of concrete progress on the project they actually care about. At face value, the numbers seem impressive: $200 million, 10 years, 10 tournaments. Whittle it down and what you have is just a commitment to stage regular Asian Tour stops with piddling purses. The Saudi International, which was booted from the European Tour schedule, is separate from those 10 tournaments and becomes the Asian Tour’s flagship event.

Related: What we know about Saudi-backed rival golf league

PGA Tour members will need to request waivers to play any of these events—presumably for stout appearance fees—but this is not the makings of a true breakaway league. That concept, known as the Super Golf League, is a separate beast, and where the real Saudi ambitions remain.

The Super Golf League notion has been around for at least seven years and multiple iterations. It envisions lucrative tournaments featuring the world’s best players (no Davids among the Goliaths, please!), a team component and with guaranteed money and signing fees reported at upwards of $30 million. The financials are so exorbitant that a return on the investment for the Saudis is nigh on impossible, unless of course the only return sought is the laundering of a grotesque reputation.

Numerous players have flirted with the Super Golf League but none have committed, not least because PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has made clear he’ll ban anyone who does so. One player told me he’s been assured by his attorney that the Tour can’t expel him. A Tour executive, on the other hand, told me they have a Manhattan office building full of lawyers confident they can. The likelihood of a legal standoff also makes Norman an attractive tool for the Saudis.

PNC Championship Greg NormanPNC Championship Greg Norman

PNC Championship Greg Norman

Greg Norman removes his hat after finishing on the 18th green during the final round of the PNC Championship, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press)

As a 20-time winner, Norman is a lifetime member of the PGA Tour. And while his fronting a Saudi investment in the Asian Tour is of little consequence, any subsequent announcement that he will head up the rival Super Golf League would virtually guarantee a PGA Tour ban. That would pose no practical problem for the former world No. 1, who hasn’t made a start in almost 10 years. Any other player who signs with the Saudis—say, Phil Mickelson or Bryson DeChambeau—risks being benched while lawyers fight it out, unwelcome at a Tour that does exist and unable to play one that doesn’t.

Which makes Norman a perfect guinea pig for the Saudis—a PGA Tour member who can test the legality of a ban in court while having nothing at stake.

That, in turn, poses an intriguing dilemma for Monahan. Does he ban Norman for what would be meaningless posturing as commissioner of a rival league that doesn’t yet exist—thereby setting him up to challenge the Tour’s standing to enact such a ban—or does he ignore Norman and force another player to step up and risk everything? Monahan is acutely aware that no player has yet shown the stomach for that gamble.

It’s still feasible that the Super Golf League might sign players, but everything hangs on who and how many. The Saudis need a plenum of superstars to jump in lockstep and act as a tipping point to persuade any doubters. No elite player will rush to join a ragtag parade of washed-up guys who desperately need the money and who have no competitive runway left on the PGA Tour. Those still in their prime will be hesitant to board someone else’s rickety life raft when the yacht they currently occupy is very much seaworthy.

The war with the Saudis has exposed weaknesses in both the PGA Tour product and professional golf as a whole. The Tour faces a reckoning: on how it rewards top players, on how weighted it is toward journeymen, on what it delivers to fans. And the broader game must consider where and with whom it does business. Saudi Arabia is hardly the only reprehensible state in which golf plies its trade with no concern for human rights abuses by its host. If we are to draw a moral line in the sand—that murderous regimes not be permitted to use golf to sportswash their depredations—then it needs to apply to professional tours as much as to individual players.

Depending on who you ask, the on-boarding of Norman is momentum toward the Saudi end game or a means to buy time while they enter yet another year of trying to sign players to their League. Is it progress or desperation? Norman’s shotgun wedding to the Saudis—let’s call it a bonesaw betrothal—poses more questions than it answers. All we know for certain is that it says something about the character of Greg Norman, and that something ain’t flattering.

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