IRC GOLFING
SHANKS AND LIPOUTS COLUMN # 3

It has been a while since Greg Norman, known as the ‘Great White Shark’, has been in the headlines, but the often-controversial Australian has again got tongues wagging. When it was recently announced that Norman had been appointed as CEO of LIV Golf, a newly formed company that is bankrolled by Saudi money, it was unsurprising that the former World Number One would take some flack. Not that he seems to care.

LIV Golf, backed by the Public Investment Fund which in turn operates as an arm of the Saudi Arabian government, has plans for shaking up the world of professional golf. Already the Saudi kingdom has invested a considerable amount in amateur and professional golf, and it is suggested that ultimately a so-called “Super League” for the top professionals will be established. This will stir up a hornet’s nest, and it is hard to think of a better candidate that Norman to head up this feather-ruffling initiative.

In his heyday, Norman was the undisputed king of the golfing hill. Sure, he will probably be remembered by many for the Major Championships he blew, most notably the Masters when holding a six-shot lead going into the final round. He suffered an inexplicable meltdown on the Sunday to eventually lose by five shots to Nick Faldo. Norman still occupied the number one spot in the official World Rankings for a combined 331 weeks, winning 89 tournaments along the way – a career that puts him among the all-time greats.

But Norman has done some silly things, like challenging a heckler in the crowd to a fight in the car park; this during a US Open at Shinnecock Hills. There were other indiscretions, and occasions when he only opened his mouth, as they say, to change feet. He certainly wasn’t a favourite among the golf media, and the Australian press has never missed a chance to lambaste their most famous sporting son.

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But for all his failings, perceived or real, the Shark has proved to be a very astute businessman, and over the years he has amassed a fortune. A clothing line, real estate, wine production, beef and golf course design are just some of the divisions within the $400 million Norman business empire. Earlier this year, 66-year-old Norman let it be known that he was scaling down his businesses and returning home to Australia, and he sold his Colorado ranch and his home in Florida. (For a combined total of more than $100 million). But settling down to a quiet retirement in Queensland is clearly not what he had in mind. Not when there was a group of Saudis willing to spend a lot of money to muscle into professional golf with the Shark’s help, which doesn’t come cheap. Of course, in certain quarters this is seen to be blatant “sports-washing”.

ON THE MONEY TRAIL: Greg Norman’s a true shark, but we’d all love to be in his boots!
(Image: geoffshackelford.com).

With respect to the Saudis, their strategy of hosting glitzy sporting events might well be a way of developing their tourism industry. Perhaps diversifying their economy away from oil and gas revenues also makes sense. Buying Newcastle United is presumably part of this strategy, and the 300-million-Pound deal represents a modest punt for them in the greater scheme of things. Amnesty International and other human rights activists have had a lot to say about dealing with a country that has a dismal record when it comes to basic freedoms. That hasn’t stopped world trade with the likes of China and Russia, not to mention certain African countries that have a decidedly dodgy record when it comes to democratic principles. But the politics aside, LIV Golf presents a serious threat to the dominance of US PGA Tour, and Norman has had his problems with the administrators of pro golf in America in the past.

Back in 1994, Norman tried to launch a World Tour that was planned to operate with limited fields of the best players competing for huge purses. The idea was shot down in flames, and the Australian was accused of being “arrogant” and “greedy”. In fairness, Norman, as well as the late Seve Ballesteros, believed that professional golfers should be considered independent contractors, and allowed to play where and when they like. As it was, and the rules are still in place, members of the Tour must apply for a “release” to play in a competing event, and if granted, they must then commit to play in another event in the US which they otherwise would not have entered. While it seems strange that professionals should be “forced” to play in events that offer rich pickings, one can understand that the Tour tries to guarantee sponsors that the big names will play in their tournaments. I suppose there are valid arguments on either side.

We cannot pretend to know exactly why Norman has embarked on what is clearly a threat to the PGA Tour (apart from another very healthy payday), but we do know that things are going get interesting. Initially the plan is for 10 events to be played on the new Tour with $200 million up for grabs. But the prize money aside, there are reputed to be huge chunks of money to made by golf’s elite for signing contracts to play in these “rebel” tournaments. One unsubstantiated rumour suggests that a certain American player has been offered $150 million to sign up to play for three years – not a bad gig if you can get it. The US Tour has made it clear that should a player opt to play in these unsanctioned events, they would face a life ban.

Norman, who coincidentally has been commissioned to design and build a golf course near Riyad, promises that the 10 events on his Tour “is just the beginning”, and that this initiative is going to expand. Two other executive appointments to the LIV Golf operation have been made – Ron Cross, a former tournament organiser for the PGA Tour will be chief events officer, and Sean Bratches, former VP of sales and marketing for TV sports network ESPN and most recently head of commercial operations for Formula 1 racing, will fill the role of chief commercial officer. These heavyweights, given eye-watering amounts of money, will no doubt find a way to make these golfing extravaganzas happen.

With the sort of money being doled out it is a good time to be among pro golf’s elite. But the PGA Tour will not go down without a fight, at which time it will be a good time to be one of their lawyers. – IRC.

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