Saudi politics and pageantry as Norman brings LIV fever dream to Adelaide | Golf

In a late 19th-century issue of Vanity Fair a caricature of famous big-bearded cricketer WG Grace carried a caption that read simply ‘Cricket’. In Australia, from about 1980, a Greg Norman version might have read ‘Golf’. The man was Australian golf. He didn’t have to sky-dive from planes to promote tournaments (though he did), his presence was enough. And it still is.

This weekend Norman has brought LIV Golf to The Grange Golf Club in Adelaide, and Australian sports fans, as ever, appear powerless against his siren song. The golf course is heaving with over 35,000 fans daily. Admission has been sold out for all three rounds. A ticket into the ‘Cellar Door’ marquee back of the 12th green – known as the ‘Watering Hole’ and styled like the PGA Tour’s ‘Party Hole’ in Arizona – is $1200. The hole is surrounded by similar marquees and ‘sky boxes’. After a golfer’s shot, good or bad, plastic beer cups rain onto the tee like frothy white mortars.

Famous players are close enough to touch, striding about with chiselled calves, trailed by caddies in tight, tucked-in kit. At the driving ranges and putting greens, fans crane three-deep to see local favourite Cameron Smith along with famous one-name Americans and Brits: Brooks, Bryson, DJ, Phil, Lee, Case, Poults. Richard Bland? Not so much. But on Friday he shot six-under 66. Even a 50-year-old world No 114 can shoot lights out.

There are giant banners with the team names, like mighty heralds of the great houses of Rome (or Hogwarts). People are getting around in branded t-shirts and stiff-billed hats declaring team allegiance to ‘Cleeks’, ‘4 Aces’ and Smith’s ‘Rippers’. Australians, it appears, have bought in, unconcerned that the funding of this great golfing fever dream comes from a country that in March of 2022 executed 81 people in a single day.

Critics of LIV Golf are equal parts horrified and mystified that the league’s funder, Saudi Arabia, is using the imprimatur of sport sponsorship to hose down and spring clean – ‘sportswash’ – its deplorable human rights record.Is it working? Since LIV Golf’s inception last year Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has rarely received as much publicity.

The reason is in part due to the magnetism of Norman himself. He walks into a room, everyone looks. When Norman was asked about the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – which according to US intelligence agencies was on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – and replied “anyone can make a mistake”, a flak-storm rained down upon him like the frothy beer-mortars he inspired on the 12th at The Grange.

Mining for similar gold, a journalist asked Norman this week if he had ever had a conversation with bin Salman, chairman of the Public Investment Fund, about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

“No, I have not,” Norman replied. Why not? “Because I’m the chairman and CEO of LIV Golf Investments, and that’s where I focus. I focus on golf. I’ve been involved with golf … as a player, as well as golf course design. I’ve built golf courses in third-world countries. I’ve built golf courses in Communist countries,” Norman said.

“Golf is a force for good. It goes everywhere with the right platform because it delivers the right message, from education to hospitality to employment to tourism. Everywhere you go, golf is a force for good.”

Norman and LIV Golf have many arguments justifying their dalliance with the House of Saud. Critics call it ‘Whataboutism’. Corporations from Microsoft to McDonalds continue to do business with Saudi Arabia.

The United Kingdom has resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The United States never stopped. When the Formula One Grand Prix and T20 Cricket World Cup came to Melbourne so did their sponsor Aramco, the company that manages Saudi Arabia’s font of mega-wealth, the viscous black fluid that powers our cars.

Asked about sportswashing and concerns from human rights advocates ahead of hosting LIV, South Australia’s Premier Peter Malinauskas pointed to Australia’s $2.93 billion trade relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“We choose as a country to actively trade with Saudi Arabia, the largest economy within the Middle East, and we do that knowingly, without at any step of the way compromising what we collectively believe in as a country,” he replied. “But LIV is not a representative of Saudi Arabia. LIV is a golf tournament. It’s shaking things up, and I think that’s a good thing.”

In the Grange’s $1200-a-head Cellar Door marquee where Norman makes an appearance with Malinauskas and former Treasurer and US Ambassador Joe Hockey to remind us “golf is a force for good” and that LIV Golf Adelaide is the greatest party the city has ever seen, fans seem to agree.

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