Australian golfing champion Greg Norman, known in popular culture as ‘The Shark’, earned his place in the history books by winning twice at the British Open, the oldest golf tournament in the world.
But as the Open celebrates its 150th anniversary this week, he’s a notable omission.
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R&A) confirmed Norman would not be invited to their festivities after a furore erupted over his involvement in a new, breakaway tournament – LIV Golf.
Greg Norman holds his second Claret Jug after winning the 122nd British Open Championship in 1993. Source: Getty / David Cannon
What is LIV golf and why is it so controversial?
Greg Norman was announced as the chief executive in October last year of the US$24 million ($35.5 million) LIV Golf tournament, at 66 years of age.
The LIV Golf competition describes itself as “golf, but louder”, and according to the tournament website, says it will “help transform it to the sport it’s destined to become.”
It’s a firm rival to the establishment. LIV golf runs separately to the PGA Tour, which runs the world’s biggest golf competitions. Prize money for LIV tournaments far exceeds that on offer by the PGA and two LIV events have been held so far.
However the PGA Tour will not release players to participate in LIV events, and several golfers have been suspended for defecting. Australian golfer Wayne Grady referred to the impact on the PGA Tour as an “absolute disgrace” in a social media post in May.
But along with this fragmenting the players’ group, Norman has drawn the ire of critics over the venture being financially backed by Saudi Arabia’s wealthy sovereign fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Critics have accused the former world number one of being complicit with Saudi Arabia in “sportswashing”.
What is sportswashing?
Sportswashing is the practice of using sport “as a vehicle to try and overcome or change a country or institution’s reputation”, according to the director of the Brisbane 2032 Olympics engagement at Griffith University, Caroline Riot.
Many critics have argued that through PIF is ‘sportswashing’ its reputation amid allegations of human rights abuses.
Saudi Arabia has been the subject of criticism after journalist was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018. During his career, he was outspoken against the government. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has denied responsibility for the killing.
“The challenge that we see in this particular case is the very well-known and established and high-profile human rights violations of the Saudis,” Ms Riot said.
Amnesty Australia’s campaigner Nikita White said despite attempts to improve Saudi Arabia’s PR image, it remains the nation that orders the most executions in the world, with lagging rights for women as well as LGBTIQ+ people.
US golfer Phil Mickelson (left) signed up with Greg Norman’s (right) new venture, LIV Golf. Source: Getty / Luke Walker
“We know [Saudis] want people to associate them with things like sport, with music festivals. But I think it is important to remember that those reforms have often only been an illusion and Saudi Arabia remains a really prolific human rights abuser.”
Similar allegations against sportswashing in Saudi Arabia arose after PIF’s recent takeover of English Premier League football team Newcastle United. They acquired 80 per cent of the club in 2021, as well as
Dr Riot said sports leaders in the field have an obligation to be “ethically and morally informed” when choosing who funds their sporting innovations – or they run the risk of facing such criticisms.
“Where there are human rights violations in nations, they must be acknowledged. Public sports figures should not be benefiting from profits or taking money from countries that really need to clean up their act.”
‘Every country has done horrendous things in the past’
Greg Norman has denied claims of being complicit in sportswashing, telling the Washington Post that “every country has got its cross to bear.”
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” he said in May when promoting LIV.
“Every country has done horrendous things in the past … just look at America with racism, for example, it’s just so embedded here, it’s just ugly,” he also told the Financial Times.
And in comments made to Fox Sports, he said that the hypocrisy of the PGA was “deafening”, after claiming the tournament’s sponsors also receive financial backing from PIF.
Greg Norman’s legacy has now been marred in controversy as he continues his push to elevate the LIV tournament. Source: Getty / Aitor Alcalde
“Look, if they want to look at it in prism, then why does the PGA Tour have 23 sponsors within the PGA Tour doing 40 plus billion dollars worth of business with Saudi Arabia?” he argued.
“Will [PGA Tour commissioner] Jay Monahan go to each and every one of those CEOs of the 23 companies that are investing into Saudi Arabia and suspend them and ban them?”
Ms White said Norman’s comments in dismissing Khashoggi’s murder as a mistake were disappointing.
“[His statement] was really indicative of what happens when you take billions of dollars from governments who want you to be silent.”
Snubbed from the celebrations ‘petty’
It’s supposed to be a momentous occasion at St Andrews in Scotland, with the legends of golf commemorating the past century and a half of the British Open in an event ahead of the major commencing last Thursday.
The R&A concluded that Norman’s presence at the Celebration of Champions and the Champions’ Dinner would serve as a distraction from the celebration.
“The 150th Open is an extremely important milestone for golf and we want to ensure that the focus remains on celebrating the Championship and its heritage,” the R&A statement said.
Norman pledges to push forward with LIV, despite backlash received from the R&A. Source: Getty / Jonathan Ferrey
“Unfortunately, we do not believe that would be the case if Greg were to attend. We hope that when circumstances allow Greg will be able to attend again in future.”
US golfer Tiger Woods weighed in, saying Norman “has done some things that I don’t think are in the best interests of the game”.
For now, the PGA has also suspended any golfer who has signed up to LIV while it reviews exemptions and qualifications for its future tournaments.
Norman described R&A’s decision to exclude him from the festivities as disappointing, pointing to the work he has put into the sport he loved.
“[It’s] petty, as all I have done is promote and grow the game of golf globally, on and off the golf course, for more than four decades,” he told Australian Golf Digest upon hearing the news last Sunday.
Dr Riot said golfers who have been critical of Norman’s venture see LIV as a threat to the sanctity of the traditional PGA tournament.
“Their sport is being dismantled in some ways. It’s been challenged,” she said.
“In many respects, what they’re doing is also acknowledging that they’re disgruntled with the ethical and moral obligations that are not being considered by the players that are moving across and also the leader of that movement, being Greg Norman.”