A conversation with Thomas Friedman: LIV & PGA

July 29, 2022

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim

Dear Thomas Friedman,

I and the others may not agree with what you write, but the truth is, what you write is read all over the world.

Yes, no doubt about it, and we got used to it. Sports and politics are mixed forever. Always together.

Sports and Politics. We have seen it and will continue to see it. From the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics to Qatar World Cup 2022 and all other international sporting events.

Tom, out of the blue, the whole world is reading and seeing so many articles, Op-Eds, talk shows and tweets talking about golf. Not only about golf as a sport and entertainment, but so much talk about Saudi sports activities. All activities.

So, what is it about golf, golfers, golf enthusiasts, and golf courses? Is it an all-American sport or is it an international sport played by many around the world? And is there any harm to the sport if there were more than one champion/tournament?

So, here is my say about golf.

If every major American city gave up one, just one golf course, there would no homeless in the streets.

I didn’t say the above sentence. I heard it on American comedy TV shows when I was 19 years old attending Maritime College in The Bronx in the late 1970's. Interesting enough, that's where I refined my very little golf skills. And nope, it wasn’t my game. But, I really liked watching it and attended many tournaments in the United States. In that school, I also refined my English vocabulary. I learned many nautical terms like port & starboard in addition to basic golf terms like, ace, double edge, eagle, bogey and hole in one.

So, Mr. Thomas Friedman, there are many sides to any story about sports. But, there are always many political sides to it which go as far as talking about other countries’ internal politics and strategies.

Fast forward Tom.... Recently, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times on April 22, 2022, by the Editorial Board that said, “Turn golf courses into housing? We're desperate enough that it should be on the table”.

Then, on June 14, 2022, you wrote an article in The New York Times titled “Saudi Arabia Should Take a Mulligan on Golf. Here's What It Can Instead”

As a Saudi, I read the articles with interest but only thought, well, it is just another article about golf.

But, a short time after you wrote the article, you joined a discussion on July 7, 2022, with Golfer's Journal and talked about LIV Golf and of course, you talked about politics. Days later I saw a tsunami of news outlets and twitter accounts that talked about LIV and Saudi Arabia more than anything else. From The Washington Post to countless Twitter accounts, the talk was about LIV. In short, it is not about LIV, but it is pure political talk.

Mr. Friedman, what is it with golf or what is it with Saudi golf?

Is it an obsession with golf or an obsession with Saudi Arabia?

To the readers, what is LIV? In short, LIV means 54 in Roman numerals which have something to do with the score, par-72, and birdied. In general, LIV is a long story if you want to talk about how it started, who is funding it, how is it played and what's it all about.

To be honest, after reading your article and the other comments and tweets, a few historical memories came to my mind. One is the British football arrogance and its failure in the 1930s. They only wanted to play in their backyard and compliment themselves on how good they are, but they shied away from competing with the rest of the world. In the end, they had no choice but to participate. They waited until 1950 to participate in the World Cup only to lose not against Brazil or Germany, but against the United States, which was new to football. The Americans don’t even call it football. They call it soccer.

What’s more, the British waited till 1966 to win a controversial and probably fixed final against Germany. England would have not won their first and only world championship if the match wasn’t played in London with Queen Elizabeth present at Wembley Stadium.

England became exposed to international football tournaments, but they failed to impress the world or their own people. They even failed to qualify for 1974, 1978 and 1994 World Cup finals. So, no matter what historians say about England and football, England failed in world competition because they thought they were too good to be in such a tournament and the idea of losing a football match to any team was not acceptable.

Lessons learned Tom: Professional sports athletes and enthusiasts shouldn’t be afraid of competition.

One more thing Mr. Thomas Friedman. Do you remember the 1970’s decision by New York Cosmos Football Club to go international, improve the game and introduce the American fans to football? They brought Pele to the team and paid him handsomely. At that time, America was so serious to expose Americans to football, it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who convinced Pele to help raise football in America. Many around the world were shocked of seeing Pele play in America instead of Italy. And many thought Pele made the wrong decision. At that time, Italy was light years ahead of America in professional football. But, at the end of the day, it turned out that Pele’s decision to play in America was the right decision for him and for America. A few years later, the American football team became a force to be reckoned with and the American women's football team won the World Cup. Now, it’s 2022. America qualified for the 2022 World Cup, Italy didn’t. Ironic, isn’t it?

From the British football experience and American New York Cosmos experience with Pele and your article, I only ask why would a golfer or golf enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and others worry about LIV? Is it really a disruption or a threat to the PGA? Or is it just pure politics? And why would an American golf enthusiast with thousands of golf courses in his backyard worry about a country with less than 20 golf courses?

Let’s make it simple Tom. I enjoy and watch LIV and you enjoy and watch the PGA and no harm done.

One more thing Tom, are Saudis new to golf? The answer might surprise you.

Golf was introduced to the Saudis about 75 years ago. Long before you and I were even born. And, ironically, it wasn’t professional American golfers who brought and introduced golf to the Saudis, it was American geologists and petroleum engineers who introduced golf to the Saudis during the 1940s. Yes, I am talking about employees working for Saudi Aramco. And that’s when the Saudis had the chance to see Americans hitting a poor little ball with a long stick in Dhahran on a sandy golf course. But, sandy no more, it is a very green Rolling Hill Golf Course.

In Dhahran, the world capital of oil industry, I was exposed to golf when I was a little boy. I was visiting Dhahran from my hometown, Alhasa. I saw many Americans and a few Saudis who are working for Saudi Aramco play it. And as kids, we tried to imitate the Americans by playing a game in which we end up getting something into a hole using a little stick. For the ball we usually use peach kernel or little glass marbles. I mean how hard is it to hit something into a hole?

We, the Saudis for a long time didn’t only want to see golf tournaments being played or held in Saudi Arabia, we wanted other tournaments such as Formula 1, WWE, international football finals and other sports to be held in Saudi Arabia. And this is what we are seeing and enjoying right now. So, what the fuzz is really about?

Tom, you said in your article, that we have to invite as many journalists as we can to Saudi Arabia. But, isn’t golf courses and tournaments the best attraction to journalists?

Tom, we all know you even played golf in Lebanon during the civil war.

Abdulateef Al-Mulhim

Political analyst


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