The first Million Dollar Challenge started just over 40 years ago. It was on a course carved out by Gary Player for a new resort and casino named Sun City in a stretch of semi-arid farmland in the north of his native South Africa, a place with a million dollar name, Bophuthatswana. Half a million dollars was guaranteed to the winner, about 10 times what could be pocketed then for finishing first at any PGA Tour event, including the majors.
Before LIV Golf and its moral failings, there was Sun City
So, in Sun City, the biggest names in golf finally flocked. Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Lee Trevino, you name them. Even Lee Elder, who a few years earlier became the first black golfer to play in the Masters.
I rate Lee Elder because South Africa’s brutal apartheid system, although condemned by the United Nations in the late 1960s, was in full swing by 1981. The minority Dutch colonial class was beating , imprisoned and killed the majority of the indigenous black South Africans it separated. with impunity. The country was a scourge on humanity and as such a pariah in the world.
This is reminiscent of what the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should be considered after being incriminated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; continuing to wage a years-old war on Yemen — which the Obama administration has joined and the Biden administration has pledged to leave — that has killed or contributed to the deaths of more than a quarter of million people and created arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world; and the birth of nationals who carried out the 9/11 attack.
Yet to the Saudi riches, some of golf’s biggest names have flocked again in the past week, like, one might say sweetly, dung flies.
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Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and dozens more. They went down to Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club near Portland, Oregon, where that country first hosted the all-new LIV Golf Invitational Series. The winner was promised $4 million, far more than the biggest sack in a PGA tournament.
LIV is funded by the Saudi monarchy, which is bombing Yemen, from a fund controlled by its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s murder.
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Golf “lends itself to excessive wealth, loneliness and even selfishness – all of which can be breeding grounds for a lack of ethics,” sent Lane Demas, a researcher at Central Michigan University who wrote the best golf book I’ve ever read, “Game of Privilege: An African-American History of Golf.
It’s the only sport in my time spanning the industry that openly chose racial discrimination over inclusion. I had just finished covering Nelson Mandela’s summer freedom tour of the United States in 1990 when, a month after migrating to the sports page, the Butler National Golf Club in suburban Chicago forwarded the host of the Western Open, as he had done for 17 years, because a new PGA rule required that it be open to everyone, regardless of skin color. Butler was all white.
The new PGA rule stemmed from an admission by Hall Thompson, then-manager of Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, where the PGA Championship was held that year. He responded to a Birmingham Post-Herald reporter’s question about Shoal Creek’s membership by saying, “We don’t discriminate in any other area except black people.”
Legendary sports management professor March Krotee, now at North Carolina State, wasn’t surprised by LIV’s development. He was posted to Kenya for a stint in the 1980s and witnessed how South African financiers managed to take advantage of the greed of golfers in particular.
“Now we have the LIV tour; who is the leader of the LIV tour? Krotee asked rhetorically.
“Greg Norman,” I replied, pointing to the Australian Hall of Fame golfer who is the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf.
“Who played at the Sun City Golf Tournament? Krotee continued to question me.
“Greg Norman,” I repeated.
“For me, the fly in the ointment is Greg Norman,” Krotee said. “Because whoever is brave enough to go and play in the Sun City tournament was either ahead of his time or behind his time. Take your pick how you feel about it.
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Norman was not alone then. His name was on a UN blacklist of more than 470 athletes and entertainers who snubbed probity for profit at Sun City and refused to sign an anti-apartheid pledge.
Some in the music world have rallied behind a song called “Sun City” written by Steven Van Zandt, best known as the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. It started:
We are united and strong rockers and rappers;
We’re here to talk about South Africa, we don’t like what’s going on.
It’s time for a little justice, it’s time for the truth;
We realized that there is only one thing we can do:
I will not play Sun City.
Tennis players were also on this blacklist. Shirley Povich noted in these pages in 1983 how Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl split $700,000 in the final of a Sun City four-man tournament. But John McEnroe earned my respect at the time by turning down an even richer scholarship to play for Sun City.
“Golfers all have their heads in the sand, all of them,” said the late great activist and tennis player Arthur Ashe. “This is the most apolitical group of athletes I know. They’re all 5-11, blonde, went to Oklahoma; they’re all right-wing Republicans. As a group, they don’t give a damn.
Still not, apparently, with a few notable exceptions. Rory McElroy has made no secret of his disgust for his competitors who defected from the PGA Tour for LIV. Black golfer Harold Varner III said he turned down LIV’s money after consulting with Michael Jordan, who sadly did not publicly support the candidacy of Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first black mayor, against one of the the South’s most infamous segregationist lawmakers, Republican Senator Jesse Helms.
Golf is by its nature and conservation a selfish sport. It’s not about the team, except the jingoistic cups he puts together every two years. It’s not worldly; it just happens to be played all over the world. And he doesn’t care where or who he does business with.
LIV Golf didn’t reveal anything about Saudi Arabia that we didn’t already know. But he highlighted a truth about golf that so many who play and promote it have willfully ignored.