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Saudi LIV Series has cost so much yet it felt so CHEAP on its first day

There was a mock double-decker bus. There was a mock red phone box. There was a mock Grenadier band and at the heart of it all there was a mock golf tournament, too. How many mocks to make a mockery? How can something that cost so much feel so cheap?

We’ve heard a fair amount on it across the past week in a Saudi-bought corner of St Albans. We have seen a bit, as well. But there was nothing quite like this, on a day when golf’s world finally received the asteroid.

If the dream for Greg Norman and his cast of wash cloths was for some respite, that the awkward conversations might stop with the chips and putts, then perhaps he misread the wind and the yardage. 

Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Co teed off in the inaugural LIV Golf Series event

The fanfare of the opening day included a mock Grenadier band on the first tee box

The fanfare of the opening day included a mock Grenadier band on the first tee box

The mockery of the event spilled over into the fan zone making the event feel cheap

The mockery of the event spilled over into the fan zone making the event feel cheap

Greg Norman was there on the first at 2.15pm on Thursday

Greg Norman was there on the first at 2.15pm on Thursday

Like one of those ‘mistakes’ he mentioned the other week. We all make them, as he said when discussing the matter of how the Saudis came to dismember Jamal Khashoggi with a bonesaw.

To think, this once-great golfer now shares his bed with that same state, either a tool for the laundering of abysmal reputations, or a missionary spreading golf to new markets, depending on the generosity of your spirit.

He was there on the first at 2.15pm on Thursday, grinning as his purchases took centre stage. Either side of the world No 91 Scott Vincent, there was Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, acquired for £120m and £160m respectively, as the whispers go. Of the trio, it was Johnson up first, that most gifted of talents for whom £60m in career prizes on the PGA Tour just wasn’t enough.

He waited for the Blades aerobatics team to pass overhead, he waited for a local band dressed as Grenadiers to go silent, likewise the sizeable gallery, and then he split the first fairway at Centurion with a three wood. Sweet, just like the shots we used to know. Then it was over to Mickelson, for his first competitive swing since the Saudi International on February 6.

Just imagine, they were the innocent days, before he entered exile after it emerged he had called the Saudis ‘scary mother*******’ and wished to use their start-up as ‘leverage’ against the ‘obnoxious greed’ of the PGA Tour. Funny how life works out.

Either side of the world No 91 Scott Vincent (right), there was Johnson and Mickelson

Either side of the world No 91 Scott Vincent (right), there was Johnson and Mickelson

The former world No 1 teed off first and split the first fairway at Centurion with a three wood

The former world No 1 teed off first and split the first fairway at Centurion with a three wood

Unshaven and a few sponsors lighter, he took out his driver and hit one of those lovely high draws. It looked like golf. It sounded like golf. It just didn’t smell like it.

And that takes us back to the point. Back to whatever misplaced ambitions Norman may have held for this opening round. Because how could anyone believe the content would overtake the context? How could anyone believe a five-under round by Charl Schwartzel would ring louder than the other noises? Noises about human rights and golf’s civil war.

The latter is the one which threw off the biggest boom on the day. Johnson and Mickelson were wrapping up at the second when the statement from the PGA Tour dropped. Banned. Not welcome any more. Like any other Tour player who switched to the LIV Invitational.

Charl Schwartzel leads the inaugural LIV Golf event after an opening round of five-under

Charl Schwartzel leads the inaugural LIV Golf event after an opening round of five-under

We can have our opinions on all that, pious or nuanced or indifferent, and it is probably important here to separate the issues between the moral and the sporting. The sporting one will have vast consequences to a game many of us love, about who can play in the Ryder Cup and the majors, and that will be decided by lawyers; like everyone else in this circus they will do very well out of this $2billion invasion.

But let’s not ignore some of the hypocrisy around that part of the debate — the European Tour have been to Saudi Arabia. The Asian Tour does now. Players from all Tours have dipped in and loaded up in recent years without consequence, so the griping between establishments is about power balances, not the origin of the loot.

The morality question is different. That is about how much is enough, whose back you are scratching, and on the other side, if governments like ours can sell weapons to the Saudis, why should it fall on golfers, Anthony Joshua, F1 or Newcastle United to reject vast sums for the high ground?

Why should it fall on golfers, Anthony Joshua, F1 or Newcastle United (pictured owners Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Amanda Staveley) to reject vast sums for the high ground?

Why should it fall on golfers, Anthony Joshua, F1 or Newcastle United (pictured owners Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Amanda Staveley) to reject vast sums for the high ground?

There are interesting conversations all around this issue in the current era of sport, but the attempts to rationalise it as anything other than the acquisition of wealth is iffy or ignorant at best. At worst it is brazen sportswashing.

Which is what made one of the discoveries ahead of the first round so interesting. It transpired the organisers had provided a crib sheet with suggested answers that the players might offer to certain questions from the press.

Among them, under the header of ‘money grab’, was the justification that they wanted the ‘game to flourish’. To get a pound for each mention of that this week would be to live the life of a LIV golfer.

Of course, the show went on. It always does. Mickelson and Johnson finished at one — and then neither got into the subject of the PGA ban. From what they did say, Mickelson struggled to putt and Johnson hit a couple of loose drives. 

The American guy in last place on 12-over, Andy Ogletree, the world No 1,371, will still get at least £95,000.

World No 1,371 Andy Ogletree (+12) will still get at least £95,000 if he finishes in last place

World No 1,371 Andy Ogletree (+12) will still get at least £95,000 if he finishes in last place

All around them was a decent crowd, though as ever with this, it might have been a touch misleading. In chatting with punters in the fan zone, loaded with stereotypes of London — double- deckers, red phone boxes and all that — a significant number of locals said their tickets were free. None we met seemed overly fussed with the bigger picture.

Organisers weren’t forthcoming on how many paid, nor the actual attendance. Likewise, information was limited from the lad in the merchandise tent who was attempting to flog caps with the logos of the assorted teams for £30 a go.

Quite how any of the sums add up to balance a £20m prize pot is anyone’s guess. As is the answer to the question of what will happen to golf and its rebel faction. When it is done ‘flourishing’, that is.

WHAT THE REBEL LIV GOLFERS ARE BEING TOLD TO SAY… 

After days of intense questioning over their involvement in the breakaway tour, we can reveal the contents of a crib sheet which has been given to the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Lee Westwood by organisers in an attempt to dampen the fury towards them. 

 Why:

 I love playing golf.

This is a great opportunity to grow the game.

It’s a great opportunity for me, my family, to advance my career, try something different.

It’s a great opportunity to improve the product for fans.

I like the concept. The format is new and exciting. 

I don’t see why we can’t have the choice to play in all Tours. I love to compete.

Every sport gets better with competition.

The game of golf is bigger than one tour.

 Money grab:

There were a number of factors in my decision-making, and money was certainly one of them.

We are professional athletes just like our contemporaries in NFL, MLB, NHL — we deserve to be compensated for our skills and entertaining fans.

I can compete in both (tours) which is best for me professionally and financially.

As I understand it, their goal is to grow the game, provide additional opportunities and give fans more fun and a better product. We all want the game to flourish.

 PGA Tour Bans/Sanctions:

I hope it doesn’t come to that but we will see what happens.

I don’t know how banning players is good for the game.

There should be no reason to prevent players, as independent contractors, from choosing where and when to play.

I hope the PGA Tour will do the right thing and just let me play golf.

The Tour issued waivers for players to play in the Saudi International — what’s different now?

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