The moral outrage over Greg Norman’s extraordinary defence of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has spread far beyond golf but rarely pierced the complicity within its locker rooms. Norman’s obscenely lucrative invitational series, solely funded by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, has drawn coy interest rather than condemnation from players over the past few months and it was only after Phil Mickelson made a similar gaffe in February that the prospect of a rival league was reduced to a series of eight disruptive events.
The first of those will take place at Centurion Club in St Albans next month, with Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter among those who have sought releases to compete in the $25m tournament. That has become a legal battleground in itself, with Norman pledging to “defend, reimburse and represent” players if their participation leads to fines and bans from the PGA and DP World Tours. That threat of uncertainty may well provoke a new wave of hesitancy but moral impediments have been far less apparent.
In February, Mike Lorenzo-Vera, a colourful and popular journeyman on the European Tour, said he wouldn’t accept an invitation to any Saudi-backed event after watching a BBC documentary on the war in Yemen. Now the Frenchman is urging his fellow players to speak up and is calling on fans to boycott the first event at Centurion.
“If you go to the players’ lounge at any time, at least one table is speaking about [the LIV Series],” he tells The Independent. “Even me, I’d love to play for that amount of money as well for my family, my passions, but there is a time when you need to stand up a little bit and be a human being. I know there are players who are uncomfortable with it but it feels like they are staying quiet just in case there’s a piece of the cake coming to them one day. Some players will speak but the crowd needs to boycott it as well, don’t go there.”
The LIV Golf Invitational Series is set to be worth an astonishing $225m in 2022 alone and Lorenzo-Vera says the vast sums being thrown at players are “not logical” and make it nigh on impossible for the main tours to ward off the threat of a rival league, with Norman announcing that the Saudis had invested an additional $2bn on Tuesday.
“There is no chance it can be stopped now,” Lorenzo-Vera says. “They have so much money and they have Greg Norman. They’re going to build a tour slowly, they’re going to succeed for sure. I’m just speaking my voice but with no hope.”
Until such a rival league is properly established, though, Lorenzo-Vera likens the invitational events, which will be played over 54 holes without a cut, to a “comedy show”.
“If you play like s***, you still take a hundred grand,” he says. “The guys at the top will be fighting but for the rest, it’s like a paid holiday. The format is not golf. It’s just a show.”
Lorenzo-Vera idolised all of Norman, Westwood and Garcia growing up and “respects them so much as golf players”. But in the case of the latter two especially, who have earned a combined £60m in career prize money alone, Lorenzo-Vera says he struggles to reconcile that admiration with their choice. “I’m huge fans of them but I don’t get it,” he says. “I don’t understand, I might be stupid, but just for money you would spit on the PGA Tour?”
He is not blind to the hypocrisy of that statement, having twice accepted invitations to play in Saudi Arabia in the past, nor does he claim to be virtuous or politically correct. But on the second of those visits for the controversial Saudi International event that used to be part of the European Tour schedule, Lorenzo-Vera said he felt “uncomfortable” and the experience “left a strange taste” in his mouth.
“I’m only a sportsman, I stopped school early, I didn’t reach much of the news when I was younger so I speak about emotions and how I feel,” he says. “Some places feel wrong for me to go to play and Saudi is definitely one of those. And don’t get me wrong, we’re going to places [on the European Tour] we shouldn’t go already. But that doesn’t mean we should allow Saudi as well. We can minimise the problem instead of keeping it going.”
It is an individual choice and Lorenzo-Vera stresses that he can sympathise with less successful players who may need the money to secure their future. “I would’ve definitely made the mistake to do it when I was younger,” he says. But he’s 37 now and worries that one day, once his children are older, they might feel ashamed that he took the money. That is not a cross he wants to bear, nor does he believe he’s alone in that regard.
You cannot be perfect, but you can try to be just a bit better,” he says. “The players are scared to say this, they’re scared to take the heat. Be respectful to people but if you’re against something, just say it.”