Dustin Johnson has defected. Only a few months after his statement of allegiance to the PGA Tour among all that Phil Mickelson-LIV Golf drama, the promise of what is rumored to be in the $100 million-plus range proved too tempting to turn down, moral compass be damned.
LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed attempt at creating a new golf league and poaching some of the PGA’s and European Tour’s biggest names in order to “sportswash” their country’s human rights record, kicks off its first tournament next week in London. D.J., the former world No. 1 and two-time major winner, is joined in the 48-man field by South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, Spain’s Sergio Garcia, the U.K.’s Ian Poulter, and Kevin Na of the U.S. (and notably, not Mr. Anti-PGA himself Phil Mickelson).
The decision by PGA golfers to agree to play in this controversial league has certainly caused a stir. PGA commissioner Jay Monahan came out strongly against LIV from the start, threatening suspensions from the PGA Tour at best, and lifetime bans at worst, for any PGA golfers who play in an LIV tournament.
It appears these players want to see the cards that Monahan’s willing to play.
The PGA released a vague statement following the release of the lineup that read:
“PGA Tour members have not been authorized to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s London event, under PGA Tour regulations. Members who violate the tournament regulations are subject to disciplinary action.”
It’s not exactly coming out on the hard line that Monahan’s been selling, but to publicly give the PGA the middle finger like this just might piss off the commish enough that he decides to make an example out of the defectors.
D.J. is one of the most well-known golfers in the world, having held the top spot for 130 total weeks in the past five years, and being tied to an even more famous sports family by virtue of his wife, Paulina Gretzky (yeah, that Gretzky). But he’s already lost one sponsor — the Royal Bank of Canada dropped him, writing that they were “extremely disappointed in his decision,” and he certainly risks further sponsorship losses if he does go through with this (RBC also dropped Graeme McDowell). But hey, if it’s $100 million in your pocket, do sponsorships even factor in?
Well, what definitely didn’t factor in was Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record — one that even Mickleson acknowledged existed, while justifying his decision to make the leap by arguing that the PGA wasn’t giving him his fair share of money. The Saudis don’t have much of a budget cap when it comes to that — the purses are generous, and the rumored participation dough to show up and hit balls are far more so. And if what Johnson is playing golf for is to line his pockets, then he found the place to do it, setting aside PGA consequences and previous promises and critical thought.
It’s about cold, hard cash. It’s not about “players’ rights” or “expanding the sport” or “an opportunity to start a movement that will change the course of history by bringing new and open competition to the sport we all love,” as Greg Norman said. And we know The Shark must be getting paid a ridiculous amount since Jack Nicklaus came out and said that he’d been offered upwards of $100 million just to be involved in LIV, which he ended up turning down, so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.
In regards to Mickelson, I’ll buy that he wanted to get back at the PGA for some perceived slight or another, and he was more than willing to forgive any number of Saudi sins to get this off the ground. But Johnson? No way. It’s about the money. And while he’s still willing to overlook the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critical of the Saudis, by participating in this clear attempt at sportswashing, it’s honestly not a huge shock coming from him.
Johnson and his wife are friends with former president Donald Trump, who has also come out in support of LIV, and will even be hosting their final event at Doral in Miami. Trump also stood by Saudi Arabia after the the murder of Khashoggi, even bragging to Bob Woodward that he “saved [bin Salman’s] ass” and “was able to get Congress to leave him alone.” So, yeah, this all tracks.
And to make this all the more interesting, Netflix’s Drive to Survive-style golf show is reportedly filming this season, and Johnson is on the cast list. Since the show is partnered with the PGA, I’m not totally sure how all of this will go down — I have to imagine Johnson will be painted as the season’s villain for his defection — but it makes things a whole lot more compelling than watching a bunch of guys play already-aired tournaments. Those producers must be thrilled.