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Rory McIlroy’s cash vs Saudi money: what’s the difference?

It's easy for the world No 3 to take the moral high ground over the new LIV Golf series but for the average player this presents a chance to secure their family's future

Rory McIlroy was winning the Canadian Open, and a cheque for $1.5 million, at the same time as the new LIV Golf series began Reuters
Rory McIlroy was winning the Canadian Open, and a cheque for $1.5 million, at the same time as the new LIV Golf series began

Oh Rory. It was all going so well, wasn’t it?

Four golfing majors by the age of 25. Add another 21 PGA Tour and 14 European Tour wins, not to mention over $200m in wealth, and you can see why everyone was already calling the Northern Irishman one of the all-time greats, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

But then on February 20, McIlroy, while playing at the Genesis Invitational, decided to do something many sporting legends have done and long since regretted: he got involved in politics.

In the space of a few seconds, he went from birdie to bogey.

As the unappointed and unofficial spokesperson for the “anti-LIV” golf tournament, McIIroy announced to the world’s media: “Who’s left? Who’s left to go? I mean, there’s no-one. It’s dead in the water in my opinion. I just can’t see any reason why anyone would go.”

Fast forward four months and the Saudi-backed LIV Golf kicked off at the Centurion Club in London with a host of golf superstars taking the field.

By the time the LIV circus hits its second round at Portland on June 30, some of the sport’s biggest names such as Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka will be on display.

For the golfing uninitiated, it’s all actually quite simple to explain: Founded 92 years ago, the PGA Tour has long been the bedrock of professional golf, organising six tours (most notably its North American series).

Anyone who plays golf dreams of one day making it onto the tour, with its prestige, its fame and not unreasonable fortune.

Then out of nowhere came LIV Golf, led by golfing legend Greg Norman and backed by $250 million of cash from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

The rival tour has a staggering $25 million purse per tournament on offer, with $50 million for the final of the eight events. Each individual winner will take home over $4 million per tournament.

What happened next was pretty predictable. Many golfing stars made a song and dance about never leaving the PGA Tour out of loyalty (they can’t legally play both) – before promptly jumping ship. The breakaway league is on a roll and set to change the nature of the sport forever.

And I would argue for the better.

But let’s get back to Rory first. His main argument against the LIV Golf series is that golfers shouldn’t just go where the most money is – and preferably not Saudi money. 

He said earlier this month: “I was speaking to a few people yesterday and one of those comments was any decision you make in your life that is purely for money usually doesn’t end up going the right way. I have a nice schedule but I can pick for myself. I can spend a lot of time at home with my family if I want to.”

Easy to say when you have earned $80 million from the PGA Tour, $35 million from the European Tour, have a private jet and a $30 million Florida home. McIlroy’s roll call of sponsors is impressive: Titleist, FootJoy, Jumeirah, Bose, Oakley and EA Sports.

In February he banked another cheque (reported to be “mega-millions”) from financial management company Workday – they have, I am told, very nice software for complex financial reports. The kind of stuff accountants love.

I don’t have a clue what the connection between the Workday brand and the Rory brand is, but don’t worry – McIIroy soon cleared this all up: “I admire how the company approaches its business.”

Presumably he had similar admiration for Nike on how the company approached the sweat shop scandal before agreeing to take $20 million a year from the firm between 2013 and 2016 – but I am only guessing here.

The fact is that in most sports the stars are the exception to the financial rules. Take Andy Ogletree, the 24-year-old American who finished last in the first LIV Golf tournament this month, with a score of 24 over par (the kind of score I would be disappointed with).

Had he been playing on the PGA Tour he would have been booted out after two rounds for such a bad score – and ended up with a financial loss. Instead, he took home $120,000. His career earnings in the past four years have totaled $38,186. I want to hug him.

Surely this is a great thing for the likes of Ogletree and the vast majority of professional players who are trying to do what 99 percent of the rest of us are: make a living.

For all the sniping from golfing millionaires like McIIroy, they are also forgetting to see the bigger picture here.

Just as it has in football and boxing, the PIF has done its research, it knows what it’s doing and is playing a long game. They shouldn’t underestimate it.

Probably the most significant star signing LIV Golf has made is a player you have almost certainly never heard of, the world amateur (which means unpaid) No 2, Eugenio Chacarra.

This not only shows the Saudis are looking to find future stars, but that future stars are heading to them rather than the PGA Tour.

To his credit, Chacarra didn’t mince his words when asked why he was joining the new league: “I have not earned money while I have been an amateur. This contract gives me peace of mind and ensures the future of my family.”

Exactly. And rightly. Who can begrudge this super-talented youngster for effectively getting an incredibly well-paid new job?

Over the last three decades some of the world’s biggest sports have been completely revolutionised for the better thanks to big money. Sky Sports changed football forever, Liberty Media did the same for Formula One, and now LIV Golf is tearing up the rule book. About time someone did.

Anil Bhoyrul is a veteran Middle East journalist and founder of Dubai-based JES Media

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