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The Saudis, The Long Game & Keeping Your Eye On The Prize

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

Those of you that read my musings regularly know that I love sport. Rugby, tennis, golf – games I particularly love to watch more than play. Cycling I like to play more than watch. In none of these cases, I am a particularly exceptional user case (as a player) but as a watcher, I am pretty slick.

Golf is a great playground for unearthing amazing business metaphors. I’ll give you three great examples I wrote about here:

  1. Matt Fitzpatrick and the humility of level 5 leadership. Classic moment: When he hugged his caddy after he won his first major. Not because he needed a hug. Because the caddy did. Read about it here.

  2. Paul Azinger and applying Navy Seal POD technique to the Ryder Cup, and snapping a US losing streak in the process. Alignment through psychometrics, empowerment and detail planning. A masterclass in people management and execution.

  3. And, recently, those chaps with all the oil. Man, did they execute a master plan of taking over golf with playbook precision over the last two years.

Let me reflect on the third example for a moment, and how this is a wonderful test case for understanding your end in mind and activating lead measures to execute the strategy. The Saudi Prince must be a helluva chess player.

Here’s the current situation from two years ago: The man wants to play catchup to his Qatari and UAE neighbours, and fast. They embraced all things Western a long time ago and are seeing the benefits. Time for Saudi to get in the game. Key advantage: a 500USD BILLION war chest. How do we get there? Mega modern cities! Tourism projects! And let’s get in on a few of the prime sports. Only problem? Golf is a tightly controlled club, ruled by the European and US tours, and they are not open for newcomers unless they call the shots.

How does one shake things up? Use that big-ass war chest and disrupt the game so they can’t ignore you.

The LIV Golf playbook for taking over world golf:

Step 1: Announce a golf league that will rival the dominant golf leagues on the planet. Get a big name (Greg Norman) to front it, and put that big money behind it. Start throwing that money at the problem, i.e. getting name players to participate. Particularly, get a divisive and charismatic player like Phil Mickelson or Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter. The press loves to write about them, and this will accelerate the conversation.

Step 2: As more and more past and present stars sign up, your rival league gains momentum. Players cite security for their families and better work-life balance as reasons for jumping ship. The press still labels them traitors. But for Joe everyman, it makes sense. If my future is as insecure as any pro sportsman knows past sell-by date, if I need one bad year to lose my card and be sent back to the minors, there’s something to be said for taking a big paycheck while working fewer hours. Especially if my previous boss wasn’t really all that flexible…

Step 3: Traditional tours, protecting their turf, play their only real card. They threaten players with expulsion if they leave the fold. The money is too good, and the threat doesn’t work. By the end of year 1, there are a few name players that took the cash, and golf if in a bad spot with the traditional tours throwing every PR trick in the book at the upstarts to try and discredit them. The LIV golf league rolls on, having fun and disrupting the game. The regular tour has lost a few big names, with more set to defect. The majors still have these players, and now the focus is on year 2, and if one of them will come back and win a big one.

Step 4: Step up Brooks Koepka! You need one of the rebel golfers to win an important tournament – a major. Brooks Koepka, hot off a great bit of PR courtesy of Netflix, obliges as a comeback story for the ages. Public and sponsor pressure to resolve the situation increases (a Ryder Cup is imminent, but it will be a diluted event without Koepka, DeChambeau and quite a few others). Traditional tours wake up to an endgame where the money follows money, and the other guys have deeper pockets. Suitably punchdrunk and playing a reaction game, Goliath is ripe for an olive branch. The golf world is very much changed from 24 months ago, and they won’t ignore you now.

Step 5: After two years of acrimony and mudslinging, be the bigger person. Offer a great deal (and a ton of money) to the traditional tours, where you will merge your tour into their operations. All the insults and badmouthing? No problem, we can get past that. But we need a seat at the table, and this will of course come with major concessions (more tournaments in Saudi Arabia, full backing from the tours for these) and probably a public apology or two. Watch the other guy squirm as they know that saying no will cost them a lot of time and money, and at the end of the day, it’s a business.

Ill feelings will persist. It won’t be a happy marriage. But it will be a functional one, and the Saudis will get what they always wanted: A seat at the table. And, in a few years, Rory McIlroy might still hate Phil Mickelson’s guts… but then again, I reckon he probably always did.

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