Home » Ethical considerations drowned out as Adelaide’s LIV affair continues | Jack Snape

Ethical considerations drowned out as Adelaide’s LIV affair continues | Jack Snape

As LIV golf returns to Adelaide next week, Australia’s appetite for the breakaway tour appears stronger than anywhere in the world. The South Australian capital has been the most successful venue in the short history of the tour, and there are few signs that any ethical misgivings about the tour’s Saudi backers have diminished that popularity.

The manner of the challenger brand’s ingratiation of Australian officials, players and spectators serves as a model for LIV, particularly as the mooted merger with the PGA Tour shows little sign of delivering a united sport. The 2024 event, which gets under way on Friday 26 April, is therefore significant.

The existing deal with SA covers this year’s event, plus two more, and the state’s premier, Peter Malinauskas, has trumpeted its success. He has acknowledged the ethical misgivings about LIV, but has ploughed on anyway. The state “went out on a limb”, he told ABC last year, “and provided LIV Golf their breakthrough moment globally”.

Public discussion of the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled LIV’s rapid establishment through the country’s Public Investment Fund, has largely fallen away, but amid the South Australian backslapping there are still some who are pushing back. The Liberal opposition leader, David Speirs, has been opposed to the event since its announcement, and continues to criticise Malinauskas on the decision to host the event due to the links to Saudi Arabia.

But more in Australia are seemingly able to turn the other way, and view LIV’s presence as a boon for the sport. Golf Australia’s chief executive, James Sutherland, said last month this part of the world looked at LIV differently. “There’s clearly an ‘anti’ or a conservative sentiment about the Saudis in the US, and the further east you go on a world map from America, the more moderate the views are,” he told the SportNXT conference in a room featuring many of Australian sport’s senior executives.

Golf Australia’s close collaborator is the PGA of Australia, the body representing tournament and club professionals and organiser of the Australasian Tour, which is still aligned with LIV rival the DP World Tour. Despite the political complexity, Sutherland was matter-of-fact. “The Australian public just wants to embrace great talent in that golf sphere that ordinarily wouldn’t come to Australia.”

The 2023 LIV event in Adelaide sold about 77,000 tickets. Photograph: Mark Brake/Getty Images
Pat Perez celebrates a birdie on the 12th hole. Photograph: Mark Brake/Getty Images

Indeed, the most vocal local criticism of LIV’s Adelaide event last year was not about the crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia or the country’s repression of women, but rather the impact the event had on the condition of the host course.

Sutherland’s comments highlight the region’s appetite for the sport which – due to the PGA Tour’s historical dominance – has largely focused on audiences in the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe. They suggest LIV’s formula is, at least in Australia, working, despite close connections between Australia’s golf establishment and the DP World Tour, which alongside the PGA Tour in the US has been at loggerheads with LIV.

The appeal of LIV in Adelaide is simple. Never before has such an expensive collection of golfing talent been taken to Australia’s fifth-largest city. Last year 77,000 tickets were sold, roughly double the estimated attendance of LIV’s next most popular event (figures are not formally reported).

Although LIV has demonstrated its almost unlimited financial resources in the pursuit of players, the taxpayers of SA have paid – in money and time – for the privilege of hosting. The exact amount has been kept under wraps, with the government refusing to detail the deal in parliament.

The deep pockets of the breakaway tour have been regarded as its greatest power. December’s deal for John Rahm – reported to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars – underscores LIV’s long-term financial commitment, close to two years after it initially picked off its opening lineup.

But last year’s Adelaide event – although managed by LIV’s operating partner Performance 54 (another PIF-backed entity) – was only pulled off thanks to the help of more than 700 unpaid helpers. A similar callout is under way this year.

Brooks Koepka plays out of the bunker on the 18th hole during day three in 2023. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

LIV has reportedly offered millions in site fees to clubs in the US to host the tournament. But no such windfall has come the way of Australian host, the Grange Golf Club.

The Grange sits close to the beach not far from Adelaide’s CBD, and is approaching its 100th year. Its financial results for last year show no specific revenue spikes attributed to LIV, and the largest unexplained growth in a single line item was a $350,000 increase in “sundry income”. However, the documents describe a healthy club, boosted by more than $300,000 in additional bar and catering profit, a reduction in the club’s debt and a membership fee increase that was below inflation.

The club is not looking to be handsomely compensated, according to the general manger of the course, Barry Linke. He said hosting the event delivered multiple benefits, although the precise terms of the agreement with LIV were commercial in confidence. “[There were] improved playing conditions for members due to the additional maintenance and work done on the golf course – in 2023 we spent twice as much on course maintenance as a normal year,” he said.

“There is a financial benefit, improved infrastructure, worldwide recognition to the Grange, increase in membership inquiry and demand, increase in visiting player revenue, and improved club reciprocal opportunities for our members.”

The announcement of the Grange as LIV’s Australian host came in late 2022, but not out of the blue. One of its two courses is designed by LIV commissioner Greg Norman, and the club was the site of his first professional victory in 1976. He even has a testimonial on the club’s website.

Greg Norman hi-fives spectators on the 12th hole. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Grange reported 86% of members were satisfied with the LIV event, even though it interfered with access to the course. One member of 45 years went to the local newspaper complaining about the damage hosting LIV had caused. Not long after, his scorecard was leaked by another Grange member seemingly unhappy with the dissent. The X account that posted the hacker’s card said the complainant “should probably worry more about the state of his golf game than the state of the course”.

LIV’s divisive attack on world golf and sensitivities around the source of its wealth may linger in these debates. But they suggest SA’s long-ignored golfing community may be less concerned with the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and more with the condition of a course.

Speirs said the opposition party maintained its anti-LIV stance while the rebel event “remains under the control of the Saudi regime, which is notorious for sports-washing in order to cover up the deplorable mistreatment and basic rights violations of women”. That position means, come 26 April, the spectre of Saudi Arabia’s influence will not have been extinguished entirely amid the beats and beers along Grange’s exclusive fairways. But, like Chase Koepka on last year’s party hole, that sentiment is likely to be drowned out.