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Before LIV Golf and its moral weaknesses, there was Sun City

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The first Million Dollar Challenge began just over 40 years ago. He was in a field created by Gary Player for a new resort and casino called Sun City on a stretch of semi-arid farmland in the north of his native South Africa, a place with a million-dollar name, Bophuthatswana. The winner was guaranteed half a million dollars, which was about 10 times more than he could earn for finishing first in any PGA Tour event, including the majors.

So, to Sun City, the biggest names in golf eventually flocked. Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Lee Treviño, the names. Even Lee Elder, who a few years earlier became the first black golfer to play the Masters.

I take note of Lee Elder because South Africa’s brutal apartheid system, despite being condemned by the United Nations in the late 1960s, was in full swing in 1981. The colonial class of minority Dutch settlers beat, jailed and it killed most of the indigenous black South Africans it segregated. with impunity. The country was a blight on humanity and as such an outcast in the world.

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That is not unlike what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should be considered after being framed in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; continue to wage a years-long war against Yemen, joined by the Obama administration and vowed to withdraw by the Biden administration, which has killed or contributed to the deaths of more than a quarter of a million people and created arguably the worst crisis world humanitarian; and the citizens who gave birth who carried out the 9/11 attack.

To the Saudi riches, though, some of golf’s biggest names flocked last week, like, you might kindly say, Diptera to the dung.

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Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and many more. They got off at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club near Portland, Oregon, where the country first hosted the fledgling LIV Golf Invitational Series. The winner was promised $4 million, far more than the largest purse in a PGA tournament.

LIV is financed by the Saudi monarchy that is bombing Yemen, with a fund controlled by its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s assassination.

Abandonment is endemic to golf. It’s in your DNA.

Golf “lends itself to excessive wealth, loneliness, and even selfishness, all of which can be breeding grounds for unethical behavior,” Lane Demas, the Central Michigan University scholar who wrote the best book on golf, wrote in an email. golf I’ve read, “Game of Privilege: An African-American History of Golf.”

It’s the only sport in my time covering the industry that openly chose racial discrimination over inclusion. He had just finished covering Nelson Mandela’s summer freedom tour of the United States in 1990 when, a month after migrating to the sports page, Butler National Golf Club in suburban Chicago stopped hosting the Western Open, as he had done for 17 years. because a new PGA rule required that it be open to everyone regardless of skin color. Butler was all white.

The new PGA rule stemmed from an admission by Hall Thompson, the boss at the time of the Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, where the PGA Championship was taking place that year. He responded to a question from a Birmingham Post-Herald reporter about Shoal Creek membership by saying, “We don’t discriminate in any other area except blacks.”

Legendary sports management professor March Krotee, now at North Carolina State, was not surprised by LIV’s development. He was stationed in Kenya for a time during the 1980s and witnessed South African financiers successfully tap into the greed of golfers in particular.

“Now we have the LIV tour; Who is the boss of the LIV tour? Krotee asked rhetorically.

“Greg Norman,” I replied, pointing to the Australian Hall of Fame golfer who is the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf.

“Who played in the Sun City golf tournament?” Krotee continued to question me.

“Greg Norman,” I said again.

“For me, the fly in the ointment is Greg Norman,” Krotee said. “Because anyone who has the guts in the world to play in the Sun City tournament was either ahead of his time or behind. Make your choice what you think of that.”

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Norman wasn’t alone then. His name was on a UN blacklist of more than 470 athletes and entertainers who flouted probity for profit at Sun City and refused to sign an anti-apartheid pledge.

Some in the music world rallied behind a song titled “Sun City” written by Steven Van Zandt, best known as the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. It started:

We are rockers and rappers united and strong;

We are here to talk about South Africa, we don’t like what is happening.

It’s time for some justice, it’s time for truth;

We have realized that there is only one thing we can do:

I’m not going to play Sun City.

Tennis players were also on that blacklist. Shirley Povich noted in these pages in 1983 how Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl shared $700,000 in the final of a four-player tournament in Sun City. But John McEnroe earned my respect back then by turning down an even richer purse to play for Sun City.

“All golfers have their heads in the sand, all of them,” the late great activist and tennis player Arthur Ashe said then. “They are the most apolitical group of athletes I know. They’re all 5-11, blonde, went to Oklahoma; they are all right-wing republicans. As a group, they don’t give a shit.”

Not yet, apparently, with a few notable exceptions. Rory McElroy made no secret of his distaste for his competitors defecting from the PGA Tour for LIV. Black golfer Harold Varner III said he turned down LIV money after consulting with, of all people, Michael Jordan, who infamously failed to publicly support the run of Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor, against one of the segregationist lawmakers most infamous of the south. Republican Senator Jesse Helms.

Golf is by its nature and conservation a selfish sport. It is not about equipment, except for the jingoistic cups that he puts together every two years. It is not worldly; it just happens to be played all over the world. And he doesn’t care where or with whom he does business.

LIV Golf has not exposed anything about Saudi Arabia that we did not already know. But he has highlighted a truth about golf that many who play and promote it have deliberately ignored.

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