Why pro golf’s power struggle hints at broader societal shift

from left: jimmy dunne, yasir al-rumayyan, tiger woods

From left: Jimmy Dunne, Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Tiger Woods.

getty images

For 175 years now, millions of us, representing every walk of life, have been drawn to professional golf for the civil-dogfight purity of it. Shoot the scores, get the prizes. And over all that time, the game has had a particular attraction to the rich and powerful, drawn to golf as Snooki is to the Jersey Shore. Golf as a capitalist’s tool. Golf as a well-trailed mountain for social climbing. Golf as a place to show off a soupçon of athletic ability.

(Caveat emptor: Be wary of writers dropping French and Latin into their copy when they have limited mastery over their native tongue. Be wary in general. Your correspondent knows nothing about Snooki, but he can vouch for the Jersey Shore’s bodysurfing and surfcasting opps.)

Enter Yasir Al-Rumayyan, a Saudi businessman of incalculable wealth and power but still seeking social status in some of golf’s better grill rooms and tee sheets. Yasir (easier) oversees the PIF’s funding of LIV Golf, which, from the day the league was announced, has been a perceived existential threat to the PGA Tour and its status as the king of the tours.

Enter Jimmy Dunne, American clubman and good stick, a self-made Wall Street success story. His stock-in-trade, to get it down to a single word, is charisma. As a member of the PGA Tour board of directors, Dunne had the idea that he could be a Lancelot or a Kissinger at a time when the PGA Tour needed some negotiating magic. He courted Yasir. In his opening salvo to him, that’s how he addressed him, first name only.

Enter Barack Obama, who played the West Palm Beach muni the other day — aka The Park — accompanied by the CEO of the PGA of America, Seth Waugh. 

Enter Donald Trump, who maintained, in campaign interviews in 2016, that one of his qualifications for the presidency was his ability to make short putts in pressure situations.

Yasir. Trump. Obama. Dunne. Some foursome, right there in your morning news feed.

On Monday, in a New York City courtroom, prosecutors revealed a list of 54 names, people Trump had on speed dial. Pete Bevacqua, Waugh’s predecessor as the PGA of America CEO, was on the list, among other golf people. Larry Glick, who helps run Trump’s far-flung golf operations. John Nieporte, the head pro at the Trump course in West Palm Beach. Lou Rinaldi, a contractor, engineer and scratch golfer whom Trump calls “my cart-path guy.” (Trump takes pride in the quality of his cart paths; Rinaldi has paved miles of them.) And Jack Nicklaus, once one of Trump’s sworn enemies in business, dating back to Nicklaus’s role in the construction of Trump’s West Palm Beach course, but later one of Trump’s closest golf confidantes.

You could say there’s nothing new here. After all, Arnold Palmer and Dwight Eisenhower were members of a mutual-admiration society. But through the prism of time, there seems to be something effortless and graceful about their friendship. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, in the 1960s, lived in a farmhouse adjacent to the Gettysburg Battlefield. Arnold and Winnie Palmer lived in a ranch house a few hundred yards from the first tee at the Latrobe Country Club. The Ike house to the Palmer house was a straight shot, 130 miles, on U.S. 30, aka the Lincoln Highway. You’d like to think they just enjoyed each other’s company, because it’s lovely to think that. Well, that’s surely true, but there was more to it than that because there’s always more, to anything. The levels we can see and those we cannot.

Bevacqua was on Trump’s Get-Me-Blank list because the 2022 PGA Championship was scheduled to be played at Trump’s course in Bedminster, N.J., and Trump was looking forward to that, and looking for more PGA of America events on his courses. He was looking to raise his status through golf, and make some money, too. 

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After the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol Building, Waugh, as Bevacqua’s successor, began the process of moving the 2022 PGA Championship from Trump Bedminster to Southern Hills in Tulsa. In a phone interview two years ago, Trump told me it was his bad luck that Bevacqua was recruited away from the PGA of America to become an executive at NBC Sports, and that Waugh was his successor. Otherwise, he would never have lost the ’22 PGA, won by Justin Thomas. Since then, Trump has had a divorce from the golf Establishment and embraced LIV Golf.

Brooks Koepka, a decidedly notable LIV Golf recruit from the PGA Tour, won last year’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill. It was and will remain a high-status win for a lot of reasons and one of them is because he won his fifth major at one of American golf’s great and historic courses. Jack Nicklaus won a major at Oak Hill as did Lee Trevino and Curtis Strange. Koepka’s win raised the status of LIV Golf. It made LIV Golf more of a force in world golf. Jon Rahm, signing with LIV late last year, the same. Status is a funny thing. It gets conferred on you by others. Try too hard to get it and you will fall in a pit face first.

This week’s PGA Championship (everybody reading this knows) is being played at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. It’s a Jack Nicklaus course. Big Jack and the PGA have a relationship that goes back to a simpler time, to Jack Grout, head pro at Scioto Country Club, to Nicklaus’s five PGA titles, the second of which came at PGA National, owned and operated by the PGA of America.

The PGA used to own Valhalla, until a recent sale to a private group. It’s good for business, when the show’s presenter owns the stage, too. Florenz Ziegfeld owned the Ziegfeld Follies and the Ziegfeld Theater. That worked out. In the future, a whole bunch of PGA of America events will be held at courses owned by the PGA in Frisco, Texas. Will that work out? We shall see.

But no PGA at a new course in Frisco, Texas, is ever going to have the instant-karma appeal of a PGA at Oak Hill in Rochester. That’s because Rochester has been a golf town for 140 years, and Oak Hill is a Donald Ross course that is as good as it gets. Yes, there is a lot of opinion in here, masquerading as fact. Be on the lookout for wonder (E.B. White) and for masks (Tom Wolfe). Mask and masquerading are close cousins. You don’t say kissing cousins anymore. Things change. Be on the lookout for change.

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Jimmy Dunne had a good idea: Find out what Yasir actually wants from professional golf. But he was never going to get a real answer because Yasir could not articulate it himself. Ownership of this great, old global thing, professional golf, in all its civil dogfight beauty? It might be in Yasir’s head. We would like to say it’s not for sale. Somebody else will tell you everything is for sale.

I don’t know.

Jimmy Dunne couldn’t calculate what Tiger Woods, who eventually, quote, joined Dunne as a member of the PGA Tour board, would do to protect his legacy. That legacy is built on those 82 PGA titles. He built wealth and status, on back of those 82 wins, 15 of them major titles. No matter what Woods says, and he says almost nothing, he liked the system that made him. He more than liked it. That system is at the core of who he is, at least in his public life. He doesn’t want a deal with the Saudi investors who recruited Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, thereby doing permanent damage to the PGA Tour. That is, his tour. Nicklaus’s tour. Arnold’s tour. Hogan’s tour. Why on earth would he?  

So, Jimmy Dunne got frozen out of the ongoing negotiations with the PIF leadership. And in this ongoing chaos, the man with the checkbook, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is gaining more power by the day. It says here that the basis of LIV Golf — 54-hole events, no cut, team play, beauty-contest roster — is offensive. At least, offensive to those of us who value, in our bones, the civil dogfight that is professional golf.

I have heard one truly smart insight into this insanity. It came from Fred Perpall, the president of the USGA. He’s new to golf but not to reading people. I asked him, What should the Tour say to anyone who wants to jump ship and go LIV? “Let them go,” Fred said. You can’t hold on to people who don’t value what they already have.

There’s so much in that I need a long lunch break to unpack it.

Ben Crenshaw had a certain fondness for a lifer caddie named Adolphus Hull, aka Golf Ball. I got this from Hull, on his deathbed. Ball was remembering a world that’s gone but sharing an insight that lives.

Ben: “Ball, what do you do if you love a girl but she don’t love you?”

Ball: “If she don’t love you, you gotta let her go.”

Ben: “I believe you’re right.”

Ball: “I know I’m right.”

Ball knew what he knew and, were he alive today, would know that Fred Perpall has it right.

There’s a fantasy solution here, a United Nations for professional golf where all the world’s best tours, for men, for women, for senior players, for developing players, operate under one roof. The 2034 PGA Championship is on the docket for Frisco. Maybe this will get resolved by then. Big maybe.

There’s been a broad societal shift, but it’s almost invisible. There’s a viewfinder into it via golf as there is a viewfinder into almost everything via golf. Arnold Palmer had a mentor in the world of business-and-life affairs. So did Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange and Adam Scott, a PGA Tour board member. But most of the star golfers under 40 don’t want Elder Statesmen telling them anything. They think their skill in one area translates to the world at large. Hmm. Not likely. It’s a tricky thing, to know what you don’t know. Jimmy Dunne wanted to find out what Yasir wanted. Look where that got him, and look where we are. 

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at michael.bamberger@golf.com

Michael Bamberger

Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.