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Greg Cote: Mickelson, Johnson, et al., are Saudi pawns pocketing blood money as LIV Golf Series begins

MIAMI — Dustin Johnson sat in front of a “LIV Golf” logo in England this week and, with a straight face, said, “I chose what’s best for me and my family.”

The money, he meant. Blood money, but never mind that.

When you have made a mere $72 million in your PGA Tour career, when your additional outside endorsement money starts with the TaylorMade cap they pay you to wear, when your father-in-law happens to be Wayne Gretzky, well, you get used to wealth and all that matters is more more more.

No matter the cost, apparently.

The cost in reputation, in legacy — all of the things that comprise one’s good name, the things so readily sacrificed in the name of greed.

Johnson is not alone. Former star Greg Norman and fading star Phil Mickelson are with him. So are Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell and a bunch of lesser lights.

But Johnson, a two-time major winner, currently ranked No. 15 in the world and still in his prime(ish) at 37, is the top current golfer to abandon the PGA Tour for the riches of the upstart LIV Invitational Golf Series.

On Wednesday, it was reported 2020 U.S. Open champ Bryson DeChambeau will join the breakout tour for its first U.S. event in three weeks in Portland, Ore.

History will note these are the dubious trailblazers who, in 2022, volunteered themselves as for-hire pawns of Saudi Arabia and all it stands for. And they always will be, the stain on their name indelible.

The first of eight tournaments in the LIV season is this week, beginning Thursday on a course just north of London.

It has no mainstream television network showing it.

It offers no world-ranking points.

It is a 54-hole, shotgun-start golf tournament happening in a vacuum.

The 48-man field is heavy with marginal pros you wouldn’t recognize if they walked past you in a Walmart.

Did I mention there is $25 million prize prize purse including $4 million to the winner? And that, unlike the PGA Tour, there are not cuts and even last place gets paid?

The song says money can’t buy you love, but it sure can buy you golfers.

Here is the country Johnson, Norman, Mickelson and the rest are climbing in bed with, albeit undoubtedly on the finest silk sheets.

This is the capsule description of Saudi Arabia by the independent international group Human Rights Watch:

“Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator. Scores of human rights activists remain in prison or on trial for their specific criticism. Authorities failed to hold high-level officials accountable for the suspected involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi [of the Washington Post] in 2018. Through 2021, the Saudi-led coalition continued a military campaign against the Houthi rebel group in Yemen that has included scores of unlawful airstrikes that have killed and wounded thousands of civilians.”

The CIA concluded Khashoggi was ordered killed by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the same person who runs the Saudi’s “Public Investment Fund,” which stages blatant public-relations ploys such as the LIV Golf Series.

In describing Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch might also have mentioned that belonging to the LGBTQ community is a crime there, sometimes resulting in death. Or the oppression of women. Or the abuses of migrant workers. Or the country’s sham criminal justice system that saw the execution of 81 men this past March 12, most for what HRW called “protest-related charges following patently unfair trails.”

This is the government Mickelson himself once called “scary motherf——” in acknowledging its “horrible record on human rights — before being offered enough money to set that aside and be their pawn.

They call it “sportswashing”: the practice of using sports to improve a tarnished reputation. Might be China hosting an Olympics. Might be Qatar hosting the World Cup later this year. But Saudi Arabia and its oil wealth has few rivals in sportswashing.

Formula One races, soccer matches … LIV Golf is just the latest crown jewel.

Mickelson supposedly got $200 million as a sign-on fee just to lend his name and game to the Saudis. Only took $100 million to buy Johnson, which certainly eases the sting of major sponsor Royal Bank of Canada dumping him over his Saudi ties. Legend Jack Nicklaus, on the other hand, says he turned down $100 million to be involved.

Mickelson rebuts rumors his infamous love of gambling is why he’s taking the easy money. He told Sports Illustrated’s Bob Harig, “Gambling has been a part of my life ever since I can remember. But I feel good where I’m at. My family and I are and have been financially secure for some time.”

It’s one thing for the NBA and its owners to do business with China, or for Formula One to run a race in Saudi Arabia. Heck, we all know the U.S. government must maintain an uneasy alliance with the Saudis as a compromise against gas prices going even higher.

What’s happening in golf is more controversial because it’s more personal, more relatable. These are individual athletes attaching their names and faces to the Saudis’ blatant sportswashing propaganda.

This isn’t some NBA owner you’ve never heard. It’s Dustin Johnson. It’s Phil Mickelson!

Meantime the PGA Tour and commissioner Jay Monahan are trying to flex what little muscle they have, threatening the traitors among them with suspensions or fines or even banishment.

Already the tour’s leverage is eroding as next week’s U.S. Open says it will welcome all those who are qualified to compete, including those who have opted for the LIV Golf Series.

Might tennis be the next sport targeted by Saudi riches?

As long as greed lives and money talks it seems anything is possible.

Except this:

Saudi Arabia’s reputation for human rights violations is so richly earned, no amount of money and no amount of soul-selling golfers can make it go away.

Branding for the forthcoming LIV Golf event, is pictured during a media day for the event, at The Centurion Club in St. Albans, north of London, on May 11, 2022. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Branding for the forthcoming LIV Golf event, is pictured during a media day for the event, at The Centurion Club in St. Albans, north of London, on May 11, 2022. (Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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