ST ALBANS, ENGLAND | For a man whose opening blow was usually straight and true, Greg Norman found that his first tussle with the media regarding LIV Golf on Wednesday at Centurion Club, host of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational next month, went horribly askew. Judged as a whole, it was less an imperious drive straight down the middle than an off-balance hook out of bounds.
In describing the 2018 slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a “mistake,” Norman ensured that LIV Golf created worldwide headlines and social-media mockery in every wrong way imaginable.
Midway through the Q&A session, he had utilised the “drop the mic” trope. A normal person in Norman’s shoes might later have wished he had quite literally dropped the mic at the start of proceedings and never picked it back up.
Despite the heavy flak flying his way, however, Norman almost certainly doesn’t see it that way. Self-confidence and resilience are the traits that have propelled his success on and off the golf course, and they were, for the most part, on show again.
LIV’s polite marketing appropriation of another trope (“Shot just got real”) might have inadvertently reverted to its original form in the wake of mistake-gate, but it was also quite clear that the backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has Norman and his team feeling bulletproof.
Early in the day, it was apparent from its language and spirit that the team is skittishly excited by the project, one to which they refer as a startup, evoking notions of a new app or a craft beer that has a year to retain the support of a venture capitalist, rather than what Norman indicated is the limitless and timeless backing of an oil empire.
There was talk that no new idea is too radical for discussion, of a fearless culture regarding the inevitable mistakes they would make. Who knew then that mistakes would be such a theme of the day?
“We've got an incredible legal team, and we're going to defend the rights of the players going forward. We’ve got your back. ... If you so choose to want as an independent contractor to come and play with us, we've got your back. ... We’ll defend, we'll reimburse, and we’ll represent.”
But first there was brash acceptance of the coming clashes with the PGA Tour, almost the feeling that an end to the phoney war was welcome. Of the overnight news that player releases would not be forthcoming from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, Norman narrowed his eyes and said: “We anticipated it. A little history lesson: I knew what was going to transpire since I came on as CEO of LIV back in August because of what happened to me in 1993 and ’94. They’ve been so predictable with their motions and their movement. ... This time it’s different. We’ve got $2 billion backing us.”
The rhetoric was revolutionary. “Oh, my God, the hypocrisy of what’s been going on in the world of golf, guys. You’ve all seen it. What is wrong with competition? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with competition. ... To shut down the competition and make it anti-competitive for these poor kids who have the right to come and play for $25 million, shame on these institutions. Seriously? Shame on them.” You had to remind yourself these were already-wealthy golfers he was talking of, not the dwellers of some shantytown.
“What is the PGA Tour really, truly scared of?” he added. It’s a good question, but one he asked without being willing to address an answer that didn’t fit with blue-sky thinking. Attempts to suggest the vast Saudi investment could capsize the sport’s current corporate support network, or to wonder what might happen if the Saudis choose to redirect their money after transforming the landscape, were consistently brushed away.
Instead, there was more front-foot talk of any future visits to court.
“We've got an incredible legal team, and we're going to defend the rights of the players going forward,” he said, later adding that he has told players: “We’ve got your back. Simple as that ... if you so choose to want as an independent contractor to come and play with us, we've got your back.”
Will LIV pay fines? “I’ll break it down in three very simple things,” he said. “We’ll defend, we'll reimburse, and we’ll represent. Simple as that.”
He also insisted: “We don’t want it to end in a court battle. We’re not looking for a fight. We never have.”
This bullishness was on display whenever he addressed business issues. “One of the most proud moments for me sitting here is I represent three hats. I represent the player’s hat because I’ve been there, done that," said Norman, a two-time Open champion and a World Golf Hall of Fame member. "I know how the system works. I understand their moves and countermoves. I’m a CEO, and I’ve built a brand. Pretty simple.
“So, it’s a huge honor for me to be sitting in this position that I can finally, finally push forward and give these players a true voice, a true direction where they want to go as their sole decision and choice in life.”
“We’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward. ... I’m not going to go down this path, guys. Let's just stay focused on golf, OK? That's all I'm going to do. Simple as that.”
He rebutted the idea that he is driven by a vendetta against the PGA Tour and, asked if everything had to be about money, he was unapologetic: “They (the players) have every right to play for money and make as much money as they possibly can.”
The sense that the two sides of the room would forever be incomprehensible to the other was revealed in one accidentally comic episode.
“When you saw that slide about 48 players, 12 teams, 54-hole, no cut, what's the one word that stands out to each and every one of you?” Norman asked, referring to an aspirational LIV Golf presentation.
“No cut,” said a voice. “Money,” said another.
“You're all wrong so far,” Norman said. “Anybody else want to … there's only a few more words left out there.”
“The word ‘team,’ guys. What does the word ‘team’ mean?”
Norman explained what it means to LIV: “It’s a very good commercial proposition. Nobody (here) is picking up on this fact and understanding what a team value truly is.”
If one side of the room had revealed its distaste for brazen talk of money (and also incompetence at spying a financial opportunity), the other side of the room was now about to be exposed for what it prefers to avoid.
Asked about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the PIF, Norman insisted: “I’ve never met MBS. I don’t report to MBS. None of this executive team reports to MBS. We report to our single-source investor, and that’s it.
“We have a board of directors, and that board of directors is made up with a very diverse section of CEOs and people from around the world, and it's simple as that.”
That led to questions about news in March that Saudi Arabia had 81 men executed in one day. “I’m not going to get drawn into the quagmire of whatever happens in the political or somebody else’s world,” he said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
And then came the question about Khashoggi’s killing.
“We’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” he said.
“So, the murdering and sawing up of a journalist is just a mistake?” came the follow-up.
“I’m not going to go down this path, guys. Let's just stay focused on golf, OK? That's all I'm going to do. Simple as that.”
It was too late. “Mistake” was out in the open. An Amnesty International response read: “Greg Norman’s remarks that the Saudi government’s brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its attempted cover-up were a ‘mistake’ are wrong and seriously misguided. Far from trying to ‘move on,’ the Saudi authorities have attempted to sweep their crimes under the carpet, avoiding justice and accountability at every turn.”
Norman had insisted all afternoon that sport and politics should not mix. For a man with such a hard-nosed attitude to so much else, it is a curiously pie-in-the-sky notion to cling to. But he will, and his appetite for this battle is far from lost. Many are appalled by his backers, but only a fool would underestimate the fierce fire in his belly and the oil that fuels it.
Top: Greg Norman's news conference at the Centurion Club goes a little off the rails with "mistake" comment.