Golf-tournament media days are typically low-wattage affairs that generate minimal news. A smattering of reporters and photographers might graze on a breakfast buffet before convening in a conference room to talk with tournament organizers (“Can you explain why you decided to shave down the bank at 14?”) or the defending champion, who often is beamed in via teleconference (“Jordan, do you have a favorite barbecue spot in Dallas?”). At many such gatherings — and this will come as no surprise — the biggest attraction for the press is the golf course, and the chance to play it. Good times all around.
It’s hard to know how Greg Norman might have envisioned LIV Golf’s media day playing out Wednesday at Centurion Club, in the suburbs north of London. But in his chief executive and commissioner roles, Norman certainly had plenty to crow about: the June 9 launch of a league that many believed would never get off the ground; a new surge of investment in his organization, to the tune of $2 billion; the black cabs that will deliver players to their designated starting holes in the unusual shotgun-style format.
Instead, what Norman faced from the Fourth Estate was a steady line of questions about a deeply inconvenient truth that not only isn’t going away but also appears to be heightening as the league inches closer to becoming a balls-in-the-air reality: LIV’s funding. GOLF.com’s request for a transcript of the Wednesday press conference went unanswered by LIV’s media office, but as Rick Broadbent reported for the Times of London, “many of the questions … centred on sportswashing and human rights, including the 2018 murder and dismemberment of [journalist Jamal] Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.”
Norman had to know those queries were coming, just as they had in an interview that Sky Sports aired earlier this week. In that session, with Sky Sports correspondent Jamie Weir, Norman said that he “does not answer” to the Saudi government and that what happened to Khashoggi was “reprehensible.” But Norman declined to expound, saying some form of what he has on previous occasions: “I’m not going to get into politics, I don’t know what the Saudi government does. I don’t want to get into that. Every country has a cross to bear.”
Saudi Arabia’s investments in international sports — it also has stakes in Premier League soccer, Formula 1 and the World Wrestling Entertainment — date in earnest to 2016 when the government established Vision 2030, a sweeping plan to modernize both the Saudi economy and society. One of the stated goals in that detailed roadmap was for Saudi Arabia to become “a global investment powerhouse … to stimulate our economy and diversify our revenues.” Another goal was to expand Saudi Arabia’s golf footprint, both domestically and abroad. Squarely in the cross-section of those two missions was the formation of LIV Golf — which is underwritten by Saudi Arabia’s $600-billion-plus sovereign wealth fund — and, ultimately, the appointment of an iconic Australian golfer to be the face and voice of the organization.
Which brings us back to LIV Golf’s coming-out party at Centurion on Wednesday.
There was Norman, on the brink of a moment for which he has been pining since at least the early 90s, when his first attempt at launching a breakaway golf league sputtered. But, according to multiple reports, the media seemed far less interested in the tournament’s prospective field, unconventional format and $40 million purse than it was in Saudi funding, human-rights violations and Khashoggi. To be sure, there are no good answers to most of those questions, but there are tone-deaf ones, the kind that not only light up social media but also make headlines on CNN, Politico and ESPN, as Norman’s comments did Wednesday.
“Just take ownership of what it is,” Norman said of Khashoggi’s slaying. “Take ownership no matter what it is. Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
He added: “I’m not going to get into the quagmire of whatever happens in someone else’s world. I heard about it, and I just kept moving on.”
Later on Wednesday, LIV Golf attempted to clarify Norman’s comments in a statement:
“The killing of Jamal Khashoggi was reprehensible. Everyone agrees on that, including Greg, as he has said as such previously on many occasions. Greg also knows that golf is a force for good around the world and can help make inroads toward positive change. That is why he is so excited about LIV and that was the point he was making.”
Among those who saw Norman’s remarks was Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who told The Telegraph: “It is so hurtful when Jamal’s brutal killing is brushed off as a ‘mistake’ and that we should just move on. Would you say that if it was your loved one? How can we go forward when those who ordered the murder are still unpunished, and continue to try to buy back their legitimacy?”
Yes, more difficult questions, and certainly not the last of them for Norman and his upstart enterprise.
Indeed, as the league finds its footing, the biggest obstacle in its way may not be the PGA Tour — which earlier this week denied its players releases to play in the London event — but the thorny public-relations battle it faces. That’s not to say LIV won’t endure. It will. As Norman said in a statement earlier this week, “We have a long-term vision, and we’re here to stay.” LIV has expanded tournament schedules set not only for next year but also for 2023 and ’24. It has players. It has funding — not in the form of millions but billions.
What Norman and his team are lacking is all the answers.