Skip to main content

Phil Mickelson plays out of a bunker during the second round of the 149th Open Championship at Royal St George's, England, on July 16, 2021.LEE SMITH/Reuters

This week, Jack Nicklaus said he’d been offered “in excess of” US$100-million by the breakaway Saudi golf tour to act as its point man.

Nicklaus is 82 years old. He is probably not the electric leader you want criss-crossing the globe on behalf of your go-go start-up. All the Saudis could reasonably have expected from Nicklaus was a public blessing.

People focused on the dollars. Even in these inflationary times, nine figures in exchange for a news release sounds like a lot.

But it’s the cheek that astounds. Asking Nicklaus to front a breakaway golf tour is like asking Henry Ford to do ads for Toyota.

You don’t get as rich as Nicklaus by making people feel bad for trying to give you money. So he was apparently gentle in his refusal: “Guys, I have to stay with the PGA Tour. I helped start the PGA Tour.”

The Saudis evidently believed the Tour was so vulnerable that its founding father could be peeled away with a novelty cheque. And from the distance of a few months ago, it’s hard to blame them.

On paper, golf is doing fine. Its place as the official sport of business will only be challenged when middle-aged plutocrats decide cage fighting or steeplechase is a better way to close deals than four boozy hours of nature walking.

But if things are all either growing or dying, golf has been slowly expiring for 20-odd years.

In the mid-1990s, golf surprised itself by drifting into the midst of the general conversation. Tiger Woods did that pretty much by himself. It seemed reasonable to expect that at some point in the not-so-distant future, working- and middle-class kids would be swinging clubs that same way they played pick-up basketball and sandlot baseball.

Structural problems made that impossible – in order to swing a club, you need access to one first. But it was fun to pretend.

Woods’s decline pushed golf back onto the fringe. It’s a well maintained fringe, populated by well-to-do people, but it’s a still a fringe.

You can see it in the way the ads for golf changed. For a moment, they were everywhere – all the “Just Do Its” and ball tricks that had nothing to do with the minutiae of the game. All they said was “Golf is cool, so Product X is as well.”

Now the marketing has retreated back within golf’s borders. You will only see ads with golfers if you’re watching a golf tournament. The thrust of most of them is “Fix your swing” or “Add 10 yards to your drive.” Golf is back to being a niche concern for a few (million) obsessives.

No wonder the game can’t move on from Woods. It doesn’t matter how broken down he becomes, he’s still the headliner wherever he goes. He’s a human reminder of that window in time when the sport was briefly on top.

None of the next-gen golfers have had anything close to a Woodsian breakthrough. It is difficult to imagine kids around the world seeing themselves reflected in Jordan Spieth or Bryson DeChambeau.

That’s what the Saudis saw – a business with a fat bottom line, but one that had lost track of its own story. What is the PGA Tour about? Who put it in charge? And why would you want to belong to it?

When Phil Mickelson popped off about teaming up with the Saudis, that’s the weakness he was targeting.

“A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates,” he called it.

His goal wasn’t switching teams. It was pulling a coup.

Like other follies of conquest (Hello, Moscow), what this one didn’t take into account was people want to believe in something.

Every professional athlete exists in tension with management. There is no league that enjoys blanket support from its employees. There’s no business like that, period.

But regardless of their social station, people still like the feeling of belonging.

Until Mickelson’s pronouncements, the PGA Tour had become a logo. No one had thought of it as a going concern since the days when Nicklaus was helping set it up.

Thanks to Mickelson, the PGA Tour is hip again.

“I believe in legacies,” Woods said ahead of this weekend’s PGA Championship. “I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past.”

There’s your story.

Playing in a PGA Tour event puts you in the company of Nicklaus, Palmer and all the other greats, in an unbroken line reaching back nearly a century. It makes you part of something.

Playing in an event on the Saudi-backed tour will make you marginally richer.

I know which one of those two stories I’d rather be part of.

External threats – that’s one easy way to revive interest in a stagnating business. Other leagues ought to take notes. You want to solve Major League Baseball’s image problem? Convince Mike Trout and Aaron Judge to start talking about going over to play in Japan. That’ll concentrate a few minds.

None of this solves golf’s existential problem – that fewer people want to play it, meaning that eventually, many fewer people will want to watch it. But it puts pro golf on better footing to combat that problem. Maybe now this generation of male golfers will be juiced up enough to see beyond their own financial interests and start thinking about legacies.

If that’s the case then this may be the rare instance where everyone won a big fight. The PGA Tour is renewed. Pro golfers have something to rally around. The Saudis haven’t forked over any prize money yet, and they are the hot topic of conversation wherever golf is played.

The only big loser here is Mickelson. That’s what happens when your coup gets as far as the beachhead, and then you realize none of your colleagues have followed you in.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Jack Nicklaus no longer takes the ceremonial drive to open the masters.