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opinion

Phil Mickelson plays the Pro-Am at the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire, England, on June 8.Steven Paston/The Associated Press

In some future public-relations case study, someone is going to make a meal out of studying the LIV Golf Series’ assault on the PGA Tour.

What it proves is that public relations, at least as it applies to sports and entertainment, is simple. You don’t need to be right. You don’t need to convince anyone of anything. What you need is money and a lack of shame. If you have enough of both, you can get away with anything.

The formerly dead-in-the-water Saudi-backed breakaway tour is now pulling a Jaws on the PGA Tour. It isn’t just circling the boat. It’s starting to eat it.

Up until yesterday, most of the pros who’d quit the PGA Tour and jumped ship were middle-aged dad types – Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, et al.

The Benedict Arnold of this movement, Phil Mickelson, has re-emerged, too. He’s got a new slicked-back hair-do and bought himself one of those shiny leather jackets that is undoubtedly very expensive, but looks incredibly cheap. The effect is more ‘Miami Vice Halloween costume’ than James Dean, but we all handle pressure differently.

Those guys are big names, but you won’t find many agile young startups where the average age of the work force is 50.

Now things are starting to tilt the other way. According to London’s Telegraph, LIV has just scooped two stars in their primes – Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau. They are expected to compete in LIV Golf’s first U.S. tournament, in Portland, Ore., from June 30 to July 2. The inaugural event on the tour starts Thursday at Centurion Club outside London.

Mr. Reed, 31, is best known for winning the Masters and being a bit of a pill, while Mr. DeChambeau, 28, is best known for hitting the ball a very long way and being a bit of a pill.

Outside of Tiger Woods, Mr. DeChambeau might be the most immediately recognizable golfer in the world – he’s the one who looks a grizzly bear wearing a tam o’ shanter.

Forget about the future. Mr. DeChambeau and Mr. Reed are the present of the PGA Tour. If their heads can be turned, everybody’s on the table.

The problem is impressions. Last week, you had the impression the PGA was the big league of golf. Right now, you have the impression it is the feeder league to a preposterously well endowed newcomer.

This is starting to feel like the moment you realized that in a few years, no one was going to have a home phone. The PGA Tour is beginning to feel like the home phone of golf.

This impression may turn out to be wildly incorrect. But impressions are what matters in the entertainment business.

How did LIV do this? The first answer is money.

The numbers getting thrown around are remarkable, even with inflation. Dustin Johnson reportedly got US$125-million guaranteed. Mr. Mickelson got US$200-million. LIV chief executive Greg Norman said LIV had offered Mr. Woods “high nine digits” and been rebuffed.

For me, “high” nine figures starts around US$800-million. If you’re willing to pay that much for one guy, we can find you a half-dozen others who are nearly as good.

The PGA Tour only guarantees its members the opportunity to compete for prizes. It’s getting knocked out of the financial ring while it’s still trying to climb through the ropes.

But the more important factor is shamelessness.

Last year, a similar sports coup was attempted – the European Super League. That would have banded the biggest soccer clubs in the world together, cutting out the existing domestic leagues. It was an idea born of pure greed that aimed to strike oil by tearing up the game’s foundation.

Like the LIV Golf Series, the Super League popped into the public imagination via a leaked story prompting general outrage.

The Super League reacted by panicking. Within hours, member clubs were negotiating willy-nilly through the media. You had Italian clubs saying one thing and English clubs saying something different. That only encouraged more people – including a few politicians who recognize the smell of blood – to pile in.

That pressure cracked the core membership. Within a few days, clubs were piling off the bus and the whole thing collapsed.

LIV learned that lesson. When Mr. Mickelson was first quoted about leaving the PGA Tour and hooking up with the Saudi regime, LIV Golf Series did nothing. It was Mr. Mickelson who said it, so LIV let Mr. Mickelson explain it. He couldn’t.

While the controversy was bad for Mr. Mickelson’s personal brand, it had the side-effect of getting people used to the idea that there was going to be a new golf tour and it was going to be backed by the Saudis.

Mr. Mickelson finally had the good sense to disappear and people wandered off to find something else to be angry about. The impression at that time was that public rage had solved the problem. The PGA Tour felt so empowered that it forced public-loyalty oaths out of a few of its wavering stars, including Mr. Johnson.

This was the first bad sign – the PGA Tour needed a stick; LIV Golf Series was offering a lifetime supply of carrots.

A couple of months later, a few other golfers said they were leaving. They also got raked, but less so. Again, LIV said nothing. Excuses are oxygen to outrage. If you deny people your excuses, they lose interest.

Then Mr. Johnson said he was leaving. That was the first big name in his prime. Now it was a straight-up competition story. Not ‘How dare they?’, but more ‘Is the PGA Tour in trouble?’. The human-rights angle was being erased from the story not through refutation, but through the steady application of shamelessness.

With brazenness now pervasive, Mr. Johnson felt free to explain his decision this way: “I chose what is best for me and my family.”

He makes himself sound like a Newcastle coal miner, rather than someone who’s already won US$200-million in prize money.

“I don’t condone human-rights violations,” Mr. Mickelson said when pressed. “But, again, I love this game of golf …”

These two concurrent thoughts have nothing to do with one another. But if you have no shame, the outraged public has no hard edges to grab onto. You are free to make as little sense as you like.

It’s yet to be seen if the LIV Golf Series beats the PGA Tour – whatever that means exactly. But it has already provided a crisis comms template for well-financed, controversial sports outfits of the future: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’