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Phil Mickelson hits his tee shot on the fifth hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open golf tournament on Jan. 26 in San Diego.Denis Poroy/The Associated Press

At a PGA tournament this week, Sergio Garcia went looking for a lost golf ball.

The rules say Garcia’s got three minutes to find said ball. Garcia thought he was being shorted on the clock. So he began yipping at the course official following him around.

After losing the argument, Garcia also lost his cool: “I can’t wait to leave this tour. … I can’t wait to get out of here, my friend.”

What does that mean?

Maybe Garcia, 42, is going to retire to Spain and, I don’t know, work at Rafael Nadal’s gift shop. Or maybe he’s going to sign up for the breakaway Saudi golf tour.

The inaugural event in the eight-stop LIV Golf Invitational Series goes June 9 in London.

The breakaway league is backed by the Saudi government. It’s one prong of its plan to blow every nickel of oil money on cultural monuments that will survive millennia – such as golf weekends in Miami.

When last we were all discussing the alterna-tour, it was after Phil Mickelson broke the first rule of rebel golf club – “Whatever you do, don’t mention the Saudis.”

Because while everyone enjoys watching a bunch of guys chase a ball around a really well-kept garden, they don’t want to be reminded who’s paying for lawn maintenance. It makes people feel as though they might be part of the problem, which is unfair. Many of these same folks have compost heaps, for God’s sake.

If you had gathered together a team of scientists and asked them to construct the worst pull-quote in history, they couldn’t have come up with anything better than the gem Mickelson dropped.

After pointing out that the Saudi regime is capricious and murderous, he wondered aloud: “Knowing all this, why would I even consider [signing up for the tour]? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Right after that happened, Mickelson’s career hit a tree. He lost a bunch of sponsors. He issued a grovelling apology. He put himself in the timeout corner.

The expectation in some corners seemed to be that Mickelson’s freelancing had fatally wounded the new tour. A couple of online Pollyannas even wrote his professional obituary.

But now that a few weeks have passed and Russia is a bigger international bogeyman than Saudi Arabia, Mickelson’s back on the road. He plans to play in June.

Lee Westwood just asked for a hall pass to attend. He tried giving a nuanced answer explaining why – heavy emphasis on “tried.”

“I think, Saudi Arabia, they know they’ve got issues,” Westwood said. “Lots of countries around the world have got issues. I think they are trying to improve. They’re trying to do it through sport, which a lot of countries do. I think they’re doing it a lot quicker than some countries are trying to do it. And that maybe worries people, or scares people, because people don’t like change, do they?”


This is what happens whenever a public figure is cornered these days – he tosses a word salad made of therapy buzzwords and dares the interviewer to separate the ingredients in real time. It’s only once you’ve seen the answer written down that you realize how little sense it makes, including, I am very sure, to Lee Westwood.

I’d have more respect for the guy if he said: “I love money and I want more of it.” That is at least relatable.

Saying that would prompt fury. But as with Mickelson’s comments, it wouldn’t get us any closer to preventing bad people from sponsoring nice things.

No one involved in this mess is interested in right or wrong. All anyone cares about is telling their own version of the story.

The golfers want to remind everyone that they’re being cheated. The punters want proof the golfers are all scoundrels. The media wants to give it to them. The Saudis want to see their name repeated near words like “Garcia” and “golf” instead of “Khashoggi” and “assassination,” and that’s working for them.

Whenever someone is looking for a headline to slap on a story about this as-yet-theoretical tour, they like to lean on the word “rebel.” As in, “rebel league.”

Rebel is a nice, strong word. It calls to mind Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader in Cloud City. It promises the fun of verbal skirmishes to come and maybe – God, we could only be so lucky – two bold-faced golfing names taking swings at each other in public.

Rebel suggests respectable grievances among the PGA Tour, the Saudis, the rich would-be philosophers who work for them both, the people who pay to watch, the brigade of the permanently outraged and the ones who cover it all.

This is more 21st century than that. It’s people who’ve already sold off their scruples trying to figure out how much their non-existent scruples are worth.

As Westwood is keen to point out, there is already plenty of Saudi sports. The Saudis have a Formula One race. They own soccer clubs. They do horse races and big fights. As long as they’re paying, people will play.

From a state-level perspective, the malign brilliance of the golf tour idea is that it points out to the democratic West the enormous hole in the centre of its commitment to human rights.

By peeling off brand-name athletes and then watching the sports media force them to do PR on behalf of the regime, the backers of this league are proving we are all for sale. Even the people who don’t need the money are lining up to take more. A few muppets in golf shoes are making us all look dissolute.

Once that’s been established, the yelling back and forth about moral stands is just our way of negotiating the price.

The implication, of course, is that if you had the talent, you’d make the same choice. But you don’t, so you resent the people who do. Because you’re not going to become a scratch golfer in the next couple of weeks, there’s no proving anyone wrong.

That’s why even though it doesn’t play for a month, and it’s not yet clear who will show up, or if it will make money or last more than a single season, the Saudi golf league is already a success. For the Saudis.