Sport: LIV and Let Die
Michael Cooper visits the Presidents Cup in Charlotte and addresses the consequences of one of the biggest controversies in professional athletics
I’ve never had the chance to pull for the United States, at least not in sports. September changed that. The Presidents Cup at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte was a rare opportunity to be a fan for the United States. I had an extra reason too. It wasn’t just any golf tournament, or any Presidents Cup. More on that later.
The Presidents Cup is a competition between the United States and the best golfers from around the world. It’s a team event. The players represent their country. I showed my patriotism by waking up early to arrive at Quail Hollow just as the gates opened at 6:30 AM. It was cold and dark but early enough to beat most of the crowd and find a spot in the first tee grandstand. That’s where you want to be: where the atmosphere is a combination of the Olympic opening ceremony, a PGA tournament, and College Gameday.
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The trophy itself, a 24-carat gold cup, sat prominently on the tee box ordained with flowers. Everything else felt more like Happy Gilmore than The Legend of Bagger Vance. There was pre-game hype music blaring from loudspeakers: “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones, and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds. There were wafts of vape and cigar smoke and plenty of cans of Michelob Ultra and Stella Artois. The couple next to me had mixed drinks before the first tee time at 7:15 AM. A jumbotron came on and introduced the players. They included Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas among the Americans and former Masters champions Hideki Matsuyama and Adam Scott on the international side.
Uncharacteristically for golf, the home field advantage was real. There were chants of “U-S-A!” and “I … I believe … I believe that we will win”. The fans yelled “Ohhhhhhhh” during the practice swings of the internationals. Outside of a living room, the grandstand in a team event is the only time you’re allowed to heckle a pro golfer and get away with it. So we did and by the dawn’s early light we did our best to cheer on the United States.
The players hit driver on the opening 500-yard par four. Some turned to watch it land on the giant screen. We yelled out when an American found the fairway and when an international found a bunker. After the morning groups teed it off it was time to walk the golf course. I walked on ahead of the pairings and found an opening on hole seven, a par five flanked by some of the nicest homes in Charlotte.
Standing there waiting for the golfers to come through gave me time to think. I realized I’d forgotten my sunglasses and noticed how many people wear them. I’d also forgotten sunscreen. I noticed the entourages inside of the ropes: team captains, assistant captains, volunteers, Roger Maltbie live on NBC; the wives and girlfriends of the players in their own matching outfits.
When I got hungry, I wandered through the hospitality area where there were food tents from Charlotte’s own Toro Bruto, What The Fries, Ace No. 3, and Inizio Pizza Napoletana. I settled for a $10 sandwich and bottled water and saved my money to buy a t-shirt for dad. Then I made my way to the back nine and what’s called “The Green Mile” at the Charlotte club: a stretch of challenging holes with a giant pond, a long par three over the water, and a zig-zag creek. The course looked difficult.
It was my first time at the club. Quail Hollow is not Augusta National and it is not Pebble Beach. You don’t enjoy spectacular views and you don’t battle the elements like at the Old Course at St. Andrews or TPC Sawgrass. However, Quail Hollow is the best course in a growing city and that means it’s in great condition. It’s like your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant. Not exotic or necessarily to die for, but always gratifying and reliable. Good enough for championship golf.
It got warmer as the day went on and I regretted not having the sunscreen. By the afternoon the fans in the grandstand had gotten wilder, singing “Sweet Caroline” and dancing to “Shout” by The Isley Brothers and “Y.M.C.A” by the Village People. I wondered what the international visitors and their families must have thought of the scene (and what really goes on at a YMCA). The crowd was an intersection of American sports and culture and a great place for people watching.
Throughout the day I saw fans draped in the American flag and hundreds of others wearing it in the form of polos, jumpsuits, and a red, white, and blue kilt. I saw a guy in a bald eagle mask and another dressed like Uncle Sam. I saw a Marine in full dress blues. I joined in the chant of “U-S-A!” when Jordan Spieth chipped in on the 15th to close out his match and later when Xander Schauffele made a long putt from off the green. The crowd got pretty into it. So did I.
In the days leading up to the Presidents Cup, I reflected on what it meant to be patriotic. To love our country and want it to win. There’s more to the United States of America than Mount Rushmore, fireworks on the 4th of July, and the Statue of Liberty. It’s what they represent: freedom, democracy, and equality.
Patriotism is more than symbolism. There’s words and deeds and how we choose to live. If we’re proud and feel lucky to be American, we should seek to repay that debt by remembering the cost and then paying it forward. That means helping others have those opportunities. It means standing up to bullies and defending rights and liberties. It means doing our part.
As for me, I’m patriotic for the United States that liberated Europe on the beaches of Normandy. For a country that passed the 13th Amendment and the 19th. For a country that enacted Social Security and Medicare and the Clean Water Act. For a country that built the Blue Ridge Parkway and made Yellowstone a National Park. I’m patriotic for Bayard Rustin, George C. Marshall, and Fannie Lou Hamer. For jazz, baseball, and Johnny Cash. For our entrepreneurial spirit. I love this country. I loved getting to stand in the crowd to see America compete in sports.
When we watch gymnasts like Simone Biles in the Olympics, or figure skaters, or the basketball team, we’re watching individual talent, but we’re also hoping America wins because of what our country stands for. There’s not always a direct connection to that in sports, like the “Miracle on Ice” game against the Soviet Union; but sometimes our teams do represent something more than our colors.
In Charlotte, it had to do with who wasn’t there.
Several of the biggest names in professional golf have left the PGA to form a new tour called LIV Golf. It’s a series of events with guaranteed contracts and large cash prizes. That’s made LIV a divisive issue in the game of golf. If successful, LIV would gut the PGA Tour and destroy most of its schedule because the best players wouldn’t come. It would pull the ladder up from younger players and journeymen who are still trying to make it on tour. It would be the end of lesser tour events like the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro and the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow. That’s why the PGA took a stand.
The PGA suspended the LIV defectors who still wanted access to some PGA sponsored events like the Presidents Cup. That’s why several of the best players in golf weren’t a part of either team, including Americans Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, and Gastonia’s own Harold Varner III, who likely would have made this year’s team.
That means the players who did compete in Charlotte were ones who said no to LIV. Most likely had offers. It’s not nothing that they’ve turned LIV down: Johnson reportedly signed for $125 million and Koepka for $100 million. To turn down that kind of money is a high price to pay for loyalty to the PGA. There’s also another reason: where the LIV money comes from.
LIV is bankrolled by a sovereign wealth fund controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He’s an authoritarian ruler in a country where a woman was recently sentenced to 34 years in prison for using Twitter, where egregious human rights violations are common, where there’s religious persecution, discrimination against women, and a lack of basic civil liberties, and where they (try to) make us forget all about all that by buying Newcastle Football Club and starting LIV Golf.
What LIV is doing is called “sportswashing.” LIV is trying to improve Saudi Arabia’s image without actually changing their policies. The players joining LIV know this. Here’s what Phil Mickelson said about a tour run by the Saudis: “They are scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed [the journalist Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
Knowing all of that, Phil signed for $200 million.
It’s not uncommon for athletes to make decisions based on money. We all do that. It’s their career. It’s their life. However, there’s a difference between the star wide receiver holding out from training camp to get a bigger contract, or the NBA player demanding to be traded, or the effect of NIL on college sports, and what LIV does. To use a golf term, it’s out of bounds. It crosses a moral line. Some things are right and some things are wrong. LIV’s funders are not on the right side of history.
That’s not to say there aren’t sponsors on the PGA Tour who do bad things. Several come to mind. But there’s a difference between playing in a tournament sponsored by an oil company or a bank and signing a contract to work for murderers. Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t a terrorist. He was a journalist. He was assassinated by the man who is funding LIV. That’s how you want to pay the bills?
There’s a difference in life between the attorney who defends the guilty and innocent alike and the one who works for mob bosses. There’s a difference between the United States doing business with authoritarian governments to keep gas prices affordable - something we should talk about more - and selling out to them for your own personal gain.
It’s like being the lobbyist for Big Tobacco. Those people exist in every industry, including sports, but we shouldn’t want our children to grow up to be like them. We shouldn’t put them on a Wheaties box, or buy their sneakers, or want them representing the United States.
At the 2022 Presidents Cup in Charlotte, they didn’t.
The United States ended up winning the cup again. It got close on the back nine on Sunday, but even without the LIV guys Team USA was too strong for the remaining internationals. We are the best in the world at this sport, and that was something I got to be proud of on that Saturday at Quail Hollow. I was proud to be an American because we were victorious and because of who we are.
We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. We believe in democracy … or at least most of us do. That doesn’t mean we always live up to those ideals but at least here we usually know better, and when America falls short, we get to protest. We’re allowed that right. That’s worth celebrating.
It’s not exactly popular to love our country right now. But we should. While we’re coming to terms with our own sins, we are not Iran, North Korea, or Russia, and we are not Saudi Arabia. It means something to know the difference. And to live your life accordingly (or die a little on the inside).
We don’t know what will happen to LIV Golf. There may be a compromise. The defectors may soon be allowed back on the PGA Tour and back in the Presidents Cup, but this time they weren’t. That’s pretty noteworthy when you think about it. That doesn’t happen often.
That happened in Charlotte. That’s worth remembering.
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