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Golf is a sport rich in micro disappointments — shots that drift offline, putts that slide by — and at the elite level, the discouragement can be profound as championships, major and minor, slip away. But from a fan perspective, what has always been less prevalent in golf than in other sports is a searing disappointment in those who actually play the game.
Years of marketing about how ‘These Guys Are Good’ is partly to blame, one-note messaging so effective that it would be the envy of many a tinpot dictatorship. Disappointment is a subjective matter, of course. There will always be those who excuse conduct that others condemn, no matter how serious or trivial, whether it’s Patrick Reed’s estranged relationship with the rulebook, Dustin Johnson’s whoopsies with a jet ski, or Messrs. Nicklaus and Player designing courses with utter disregard for the source of the fee.
Whatever the issue, there’s a constituency that insists consequential decisions made in public are somehow not subject to public scrutiny or comment. These clods are working overtime at the moment, aided by an army of bots splattering social media with whataboutism in defense of the ongoing Saudi hijacking of professional golf. Some disappointments are nigh on impossible for even the most ardent admirer to excuse though. Graeme McDowell is proof of that.
On Tuesday, McDowell had a press conference promoting the LIV Golf Invitational, the first in a series of tournaments funded by the Saudi regime. The result was as appealing as most of his recent scorecards.
“We all agree the Khashoggi situation was reprehensible,” he said. ‘Situation’ is a curiously antiseptic word choice to describe the bonesaw dissection of a Washington Post writer that was ordered by his new employer, the Crown Prince, who might also require convincing that his handiwork was reprehensible. At least McDowell’s phrasing compared favorably with the contemptibly amoral guff of LIV Golf’s CEO, Greg Norman.
It’s what came later that represented the most disappointing moment in McDowell’s otherwise admirable career: “If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be, and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we’re proud to help them on that journey,” he said.
McDowell probably didn’t realize that his words were an unwitting explanation of how sportswashing works. It requires the three things he noted: an image-making objective, cash, and willing stooges. Nor will he grasp just how that craven statement will forever stain his legacy. He effectively equated doing public relations work for an abhorrent regime—one whose crimes are ongoing, not matters of history— with his servicing of any other corporate sponsor.
If Norman offered his players a bullshit bonus, McDowell won it, despite competition from Talor Gooch, who claimed to be too stupid to even consider human rights violations, which represented the closest thing to a truth uttered during the proceedings.
McDowell has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the more affable players on the PGA Tour, even if the image always felt a little more assembled than authentic. Over the years he has been amiable company. He’s not an idiot. He registers what goes on in the world as much as any Tour player. He’s not ignorant about Saudi abuses. Something else just mattered more to him, and that something is money.
He saw his near-term reality — guaranteed cash for a spent force on Tour — and decided it outweighed his long-term prospects of a lucrative career as a broadcaster, corporate pitchman and senior circuit regular. He chose the easy money and pariah status because the alternative required work.
McDowell’s decision is purely financial. There’s no surprise in that, and in many quarters no shame in it either. The same is true of every other player in London, and those who will join before the next event in Portland in July (LIV is clearly staggering player announcements to simulate momentum that a single unveiling of unknown and uncompetitive players would not otherwise confer). If people prioritize money over morals, fair enough. There’s something admirable in the upfront whore who doesn’t disguise the motivation underpinning the act, who offers no mealy-mouthed pretense of noble impulse or greater good, nothing beyond the purely transactional. But the honesty of streetwalkers was not in evidence at the LIV Golf launch.
Players involved with this sportswashing exercise have not distinguished themselves with their wretched prevarications about Saudi abuses. But then, it’s tough to manufacture a good response when asked how it feels to be employed by someone who commissioned a bonesaw murder and who treats human rights as inconveniences daily. None exists. “Every lie is two lies,” the author Robert Brault once wrote, “The lie we tell others and the lie we tell ourselves to justify it.” One wonders what lies McDowell told himself while sitting on that London stage, because we know what lies he told us, and on whose behalf.
McDowell knows why he pursued LIV Golf (cash) and he knows why the Saudis do too (helping present the image of a normalized state and distract from their atrocities). The latter demands that he can’t admit to the former, that he must peddle drivel about growing the game, exciting team formats and being a role model. He is paid to be a patsy, and he’s okay with that. To those of us who have known and liked him, McDowell’s debasement is dispiriting. To others, particularly a peanut gallery of failed pros desperate for a droplet of blood money to reach their parched lips, it is aspirational.
For all of his press conference fluffing, McDowell knows his move is no more visionary than the lining of his own pockets. Given his limited competitiveness and still-youthful vintage, he will have many years in which to proudly count what he gained from accepting the insidious embrace of the Saudis. But also many days on which to mull what he was willing to lose on the journey.