Australian golf champion Greg Norman, known in popular culture as “The Shark”, has earned his place in the history books by winning the British Open twice, the world’s oldest golf tournament.
But as the Open celebrates its 150th anniversary this week, it’s a notable omission.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) has confirmed that Norman will not be invited to their celebrations after a furor erupted over his participation in a new splinter tournament, LIV Golf.
Greg Norman holding his second Claret pitcher after winning the 122nd UK Open in 1993. Source: Getty / David Cannon
What is LIV golf and why is it so controversial?
Greg Norman was announced as Executive Director of the $24 million (US$35.5 million) LIV Golf tournament last October at the age of 66.
The LIV Golf competition describes itself as “golf but louder” and according to the tournament’s website it says it will “help shape it into the sport it is destined to be”.
It is a strong competitor to the establishment. LIV golf is separate from the PGA Tour, which hosts the world’s largest golf competition. The prize pool of LIV tournaments far exceeds the amount offered by the PGA, and there have been two LIV tournaments so far.
However, the PGA Tour does not release players for LIV events, and several golfers have been suspended from competition for desertion. Australian golfer Wayne Grady called the impact of the PGA Tour an “absolute disgrace” in a social media post in May.
But along with this division of the player group, Norman has drawn the ire of critics because the venture is funded by Saudi Arabia’s wealthy sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Critics have accused the former world number one of complicity with Saudi Arabia in “sports money laundering”.
What is a sports wash?
According to Caroline Riot, director of participation for the Brisbane 2032 Olympics at Griffith University, sports washing is the practice of using sport “as a vehicle to try to overcome or change the reputation of a country or institution”.
Many critics have argued that erodes its reputation through PIF amid accusations of human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia has been criticized after a journalist was killed at the Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018. Throughout his career, he openly opposed the government. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has denied any involvement in the assassination.
“The challenge we see in this particular case is the very well known, established and high-profile human rights violations by the Saudis,” Ms Riot said.
Amnesty Australia campaigner Nikita White said that despite attempts to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in PR, it remains the country that orders the most executions in the world, with rights lagging behind for women as well as LGBTIQ+ people.
American golfer Phil Mickelson (left) signed with Greg Norman’s (right) new venture LIV Golf. Source: Getty / Luke Walker
“We know [Saudis] want people to associate them with sports, with music festivals. But I think it’s important to remember that these reforms were often just an illusion, and Saudi Arabia remains a truly prolific human rights abuser.”
Similar allegations against sports money laundering in Saudi Arabia arose after PIF’s recent takeover of English Premier League football team Newcastle United. They acquired 80 percent of the club in 2021, as well as
Dr. Riot said sports leaders in the field have a responsibility to be “ethically and morally informed” when choosing who funds their sports innovations or they risk facing such criticism.
“Where there are human rights violations in countries, they must be recognized. Sports figures should not profit from profits or take money from countries that really need to correct their actions.”
“Every country has done terrible things in the past”
Greg Norman denied allegations of involvement in the sports wash, telling the Washington Post that “every country bears its own cross.”
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and know how you can fix them in the future,” he said in May while promoting LIV.
“Every country has done terrible things in the past… just look at America with racism, for example, it’s so ingrained here, it’s just ugly,” he also told the Financial Times.
And in comments to Fox Sports, he said the PGA’s hypocrisy was “deafening” after he claimed the tournament’s sponsors also receive financial backing from the PIF.
Greg Norman’s legacy is now overshadowed by controversy as he continues his quest to take the LIV tournament to the next level. Source: Getty / Aitor Alcalde
“Listen, if they want to look at it through a lens, then why does the PGA Tour have 23 PGA Tour sponsors doing a $40+ billion business with Saudi Arabia?” he objected.
“Will [PGA Tour commissioner] Jay Monahan will go to each of those CEOs of the 23 companies that are investing in Saudi Arabia and suspend their operations and ban them?”
Ms White said Norman’s comments that Khashoggi’s murder was a mistake were disappointing.
“[His statement] it was really revealing what happens when you take billions of dollars from governments that want you to keep quiet.”
Disdainful of celebrating “petty”
It is expected to be a landmark event at St Andrews in Scotland as golf legends celebrate the 150th anniversary of the British Open ahead of a major tournament starting last Thursday.
The R&A concluded that Norman’s presence at the Celebration of Champions and Dinner of Champions would be a distraction from the celebration.
“The 150th Open Championship is a hugely important milestone for golf and we want to ensure that the focus continues to be on celebrating the championship and its legacy,” R&A said in a statement.
Norman promises to promote LIV despite the backlash from R&A. Source: Getty / Jonathan Ferry
“Unfortunately, we do not believe that this would have been the case if Greg had been present. We hope that when circumstances permit, Greg will be able to attend again in the future.”
American golfer Tiger Woods gave his opinion, stating that Norman “did some things that I don’t think are in the best interests of the game.”
As of now, the PGA has also suspended any golfer who signed up for the LIV while considering exceptions and qualifications for their future tournaments.
Norman called the R&A’s decision to exclude him from the celebration disappointing, citing the work he has put into his favorite sport.
“[It’s] petty as all I have done is promote and develop the game of golf around the world, on and off the golf course, for over four decades,” he told the Australian Golf Digest after hearing the news last Sunday.
Dr. Riot said golfers critical of Norman’s venture see the LIV as a threat to the integrity of the traditional PGA tournament.
“Their sport is being destroyed in a way. He is being challenged,” she said.
“In many ways, what they are doing is also acknowledging that they are unhappy with the ethical and moral obligations that are not being taken into account by the players who are moving, as well as the leader of this movement, Greg Norman.”