*Edited on September 1 to include quotes from Cameron Smith.
A mixture of anger and sadness took over as I learned LIV Golf added a slate of six new golfers to its series on Tuesday. The latest group included Cameron Smith, Joaquín Niemann and Harold Varner III, all of whom I was a big supporter. In choosing to join LIV, these defectors have effectively ended their affiliation with the PGA Tour, as those who make this decision have been suspended by tour officials and some of those same defectors have resigned their tour cards.
This is the most gut wrenching announcement of defections to date, for me. Unsurprisingly, I have been called a “fake fan” by a bunch of loudmouths after expressing my disappointment on social media Tuesday. However, I have openly documented my support for all three the past several years, having met Smith and Niemann at the Wyndham Championship in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Prior to both of them making it big on Tour and, for Smith, winning The Open Championship earlier this year. I have also seen fellow North Carolinian Varner play in person several times and have followed his career since.
LIV Golf is a direct competitor of the PGA Tour, funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), arguably the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. The country’s leadership has come under fire for its human rights record, including the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, according to Forbes. To date, each defecting player has repeatedly dodged valid questions about the issue as if it did not matter. It does matter.
Smith and Niemann have been the slimiest of all the defectors so far, in my opinion. Both have not only dodged questions about LIV’s funding but continued to beat around the bush about their decision making process leading up to Tuesday’s news. Appearing to lead folks in one direction while obviously wanting to go in another direction. In fact, Niemann attended a players only meeting on August 16 with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods discussing plans to bolster the PGA Tour in the wake of LIV’s formation, according to Rex Hoggard of the Golf Channel.
Varner is no better than the other two. As recently as June, he told Alex Miceli of Morning Read the offer he received from LIV was “nuts” but he was “obviously not going” and he “looked at what was best for him and his family.” After news broke of his defection, Varner claimed in a word salad of a statement via Instagram – which has become commonplace for the defectors as a means to justify their actions – that “the opportunity to join LIV Golf is simply too good of a financial breakthrough for me to pass by.” What changed in a mere three months for Varner to go back on his word?
Upon hearing the news of the defections of some of my favorite players, I immediately threw away a copy of Golf Digest featuring Smith on the cover. Likewise with a photo of me and Niemann when we met after a round at the Wyndham Championship in 2018. Despite the beliefs of this world – and apparently all of the LIV defectors – money is not everything. Money, fame, and, in this case, a golf career are all fleeting. In my opinion, it’s pathetic that these guys have chosen to throw away their careers in favor of an exhibition series in LIV and make a quick buck by taking the easy way out.
Oddly enough, the Backstreet Boys song “As Long As You Love Me” popped in my head while thinking about all of this. Why? The chorus goes…
“I don't care who you are
Where you're from, what you did
As long as you love me”
Perhaps “love” should be swapped for “pay” in this case as I could not help but imagine the defectors singing this to LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman and to those who fund the series. The decision by these three and their counterparts is a decision that I cannot and will not support. Ever. Granted, I do not go on pretending that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world to have a poor human rights record. But to take this money while also not addressing concerns about human rights violations nor the concerns of September 11th victims’ families on the cusp of its anniversary is appalling, in my opinion.
Smith said ahead of his LIV debut that it is “really a shame that we are not getting world ranking points out here.” Those points help golfers to obtain status for playing in tournaments, such as the major championships each year. “To have 48 of the best guys around the world playing, and not to get world ranking points, is perhaps a little bit unfair. It’s still super competitive out here. I just really think it’s a little bit unfair.” You know what is unfair? The family of Jamal Khashoggi not being able to spend time with him anymore. Or Salma al-Shehab’s children not being able to see their mother after she was sentenced to 34 years in prison by the Saudi Arabian government for tweets promoting women’s rights and the respect of basic human rights. That is unfair.
I learned in college that sports is a microcosm of society, not an alternate reality. Maybe Smith, Niemann, Varner, and the rest of the defectors will look past the dollar signs and realize this one day. Even if they do, I will no longer be there to support them.