Greed, disgrace, scandal and murder are not normally associated with the sport of golf. But golf, invented 500 years ago in Scotland, finds itself this week embroiled in a battle between its reputation for scandal-free fair play and Saudi Arabia’s oil money. The controversy is a parable for our tense and turbulent times.

As part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to modernize the oil kingdom, the Saudi Investment Fund, valued at some $600 billion, has underwritten the new LIV Golf Invitational series. Golf, a lucrative sport for almost every player on the PGA Tour, which was shaped by the pros themselves in the late 1960s, has never seen anything like money from the Saudis. In fact, money is the only point.

Some 20 professional golfers, including Phil Mickelson, reportedly for a $200 million contract (he earned $95 million on the PGA Tour alone), have joined the Saudi league. Months ago, when it was rumored that Mickelson would jump to the Saudi company, he accused the PGA of “greed” that was “beyond hateful”.


Former No. 1 Dustin Johnson joined the Saudi LIV series for a reported starting payment of $125 million. As a professional golfer, he has earned more than $74 million. In a statement, Johnson, 37, said he is doing it “for my family.”

At the time the LIV Tour kicked off its first event in England last week, the PGA Tour suspended all participating players for violating competition rules, including eventual winner Charl Schwartzel, who earned $4.75 million for winning the 54 hole event. LIV is the Roman numeral for 54. I guess the 54 Tour didn’t sound right.

Greed interpretations aside, professional golfers are also pondering disgrace and murder mainly due to the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A group of 9/11 families also say LIV golfers are complicit in a Saudi “sports laundering” effort, such as China or Russia hosting the Olympics for reputational reasons.

Golf fanatic Midge Decter, the great conservative commentator, died last month at the age of 94. Midge, who never shied away from controversy, once told me that she and her husband, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, often spent weekends golfing, a Decter-Podhoretz hobby. she might never have guessed. Midge said that golf, with its physical beauty, pace and purity of competition, was a welcome respite.

Today, being over the top and going to extremes has become standard operating procedure in just about everything: politics, protests, meme actions, self-identity, Netflix storylines. At all times, golf has been a reliable and discreet constant. With the Saudi LIV league, he has joined the circus.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has been trying to bring his country into the 20th century, in particular by easing restrictions on women participating in its economic and social life, including sports. The treatment of internal dissent can still be brutal.

But in the real world, life is complicated. Although Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” the US president will travel there next month to ask the prince to pump more oil into a world of ruinous $5-a-gallon gasoline. And by the way, South Korea, today a model of golf, endured military dictatorships for years before stabilizing as a democracy.

If some professional golfers want to be the face of Arabia’s LIV league, measuring their lives on nothing but money instead of testing their skills at the highest level of a tough sport, and for more than just cash, that’s your business. As Justin Thomas, a golfer who has been at the pinnacle of his sport, exquisitely summed it up: “If you want to go, go.” stays

For the rest of us, participants or spectators, LIV or not, golf will endure as it has for centuries. As will happen when the US Open Merion Club of suburban Philadelphia (1912). And so will next month’s British Open at Scotland’s Old Course at St. Andrews (1754).

Professional tennis is gradually replacing people with electronic devices to call or draw balls. Golf still has officials on the course interpreting arcane ball placement rules. Unlike most sports, golfers calmly accept the rules. At all levels of the game, cheating remains the unforgivable sin of the sport.

The central act of golf, the swing, allows no shortcuts to success, either for the novice or the Masters champion. Every hit of the ball is fraught with the possibility of failure. Let the clubface drift half an inch from perfection and your ball can be in the woods.

So why has the difficult sport of golf survived and flourished, whether threatened by its frustrating physical challenges or Saudi oil money?

We know the answer because we learned it from Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: Tradition! “Because of our traditions,” says Tevye, “we have been in balance for many, many years.” The balance of tradition ensures survival.

Almost everywhere you look, balance through tradition has gone out of style. Contested golf may be the last bastion of tradition.

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