By Ben Morse, CNN
Golf has come a long way since Willie Park Senior and Old Tom Morris, in a field of just eight, competed in the first Open in 1860 at Prestwick.
The days of men playing in suits and using wooden clubs in a sport that has since grown into a multi-billion dollar business are long gone.
However, as the sport’s oldest tournament heads to the “cradle of golf” – St. Andrews, Scotland – for its 150th edition, traditional foundations face their biggest threat in more than half a century. .
The birth of LIV Golf Invitational Series rocked the sport, dividing players, organizers and fans over who is wrong, who is right and what the future of the sport should be.
The juxtaposition between golf‘s most historic and famous tournament played on its oldest course with this new threat in the background, particularly with LIV golfers playing in groups alongside their critics in Scotland, has led to the prospect of a fascinating middle finger.
Since 1968, the PGA Tour has faced no greater structural threat than the LIV Golf Series.
Although the official formation of the tour took place in the 1920s, the modern organization we now recognize came together at the late 1968 after a group of players parted ways with the PGA of America over a pay dispute.
Since then, it has become the main driving force in golf, hosting the biggest tournaments in the world outside of the four major tournaments.
Not only have the prize moneys steadily increased, but – alongside the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) – the PGA Tour has also made great strides in increasing opportunities in golf, a previously closed sport.
Despite this, breakaway golfers who have joined the LIV Golf Tour have cited issues with the current setup and commissioner Jay Monahan’s reluctance to listen to what they think would improve the PGA Tour, as reasons for joining the lucrative tour backed by Saudi Arabia.
LIV golfers will earn far more playing far fewer tournaments. As multiple big winner Phil Mickelson saidbeing able to maintain a work-life balance was one of the main reasons for his arrival.
Such reasoning has led to rebuttals from some PGA Tour players, including arguably the game’s most famous player, Tiger Woods.
“I don’t agree with that [the players’ decision to join LIV Golf]“said the 15-time winner on Tuesday. “I think what they’ve done is they’ve turned their backs on what got them into this position.”
Seven-time PGA Tour winner Billy Horschel succinctly dissected some of the complaints raised by players at LIV Golf, saying earlier this month that players who left had “made their beds”.
“They decided to go play on this tour and they should go. They shouldn’t come back on the DP World Tour or the PGA Tour,” Horschel said.
“To say that they also wanted to support this tour, whether it’s DP or PGA Tour in the future, while playing the LIV Tour, is completely silly. These guys have made their bed. They say that’s what they want to do, so leave us alone.
Horschel said Monahan and the rest of the PGA Tour staff worked “tirelessly” to ensure players could “reap financial rewards” and that criticism of the tour was also criticism of its members, the players themselves. . He conceded that some players were “more upset than others”.
He added: “I don’t see my family for five weeks, but that’s what my wife and I have decided. Am I crying for this? No. I am living my dream of trying to play golf professionally and supporting my family financially.
The LIV Golf series has certainly made waves.
The tour, which is backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia – a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia – has promised to offer players the chance to play less of events for a sharp increase in price. silver.
However, the source of the money and the players’ decisions to abandon established golf circuits have drawn criticism from many,
The players have been accused of being active participants in the Saudi sportswashing regime, a term used to describe corrupt or authoritarian regimes using sports and sporting events to whitewash their image internationally.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of using sports washing in recent years to distract from the country’s dismal human rights record.
Bin Salman was named in a US intelligence report as being responsible for approving the operation that led to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, although he denied any involvement. Human rights groups have also criticized the country for carrying out mass executions and for its treatment of gay people.
Players have been regularly pressed by journalists on the morality of taking money from such a source. In his press conference ahead of last month’s first LIV Golf event, Mickelson repeatedly said, “I don’t condone human rights violations in any way.”
For some, the backlash has taken its toll.
“I can’t activate my Instagram or Twitter account without someone telling me to go die”, Graeme McDowell said earlier this month. “I just wish I hadn’t said anything. I wish I was sitting there and shaking my head and saying, ‘No comment’, but that’s not who I am.
These were not considerations that Willie Park Senior and Old Tom Morris had to consider in 1860. The days when players could focus solely on their sport and avoid answering sensitive questions are long gone.
Similar to football players signing for Newcastle United backed by Saudi Arabia or Qatar-backed Paris St-Germain, golfers joining LIV Golf will have to answer questions about human rights and sportwashing.
But both factions will travel to Scotland to play on Thursday with high hopes.
Against the backdrop of history and the greats who came before them, this modern battle will be fought between rebels and conformists, between new and established. It could be the start of a new era.
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