Golf, a sport long associated with lazy summer Sundays, has become the source of headline-grabbing controversy in the last year. In June of 2022, LIV Golf – a breakaway league that lured many of golf’s biggest stars from the established PGA Tour using massive cash payouts from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – livestreamed its first tournament.

The new tour faced widespread objections stemming from Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but LIV’s legitimacy as a PGA competitor was hard to ignore after spending a reported $200 million to woo Phil Mickelson, a fan favorite. Tiger Woods, by contrast, declined to make the switch despite an offer approaching $1 billion; he was among the golfers praised by the families of the victims of 9/11 for refusing to take money from a foreign government suspected of funding the terrorist attacks.

Then last month, the PGA Tour merged with LIV Golf – “a complete 180,” in the words of a spokesperson for the 9/11 families. PGA players who had refused handouts from LIV were left in the lurch as the PGA seemed to abandon the moral high ground it once claimed.

The intrusion of global politics is a new twist, but there is a rich – if somewhat distant – history in American sports of athletes seeking outside leverage to increase their wages. In the mid-20th century, as television supercharged the profitability of sports, athletes began to realize that they were worth a lot more than they were being paid. Back in 2014, Retro Report dug into the birth of free agency in American professional sports, charting St. Louis outfielder Curt Flood’s crusade all the way to the Supreme Court.

FOR CONTEXT By taking a stand against Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, Curt Flood put the power dynamic of American sports on trial, both in the court of law and of public opinion, and championed a movement that changed the game.

The significance of Flood’s fight in baseball centered on a unique antitrust exemption that essentially made it impossible for a rival league to mount a real challenge. But throughout this period, upstart leagues appeared in other sports: the AFL to the NFL, the ABA to the NBA, the WHA to the NHL. The new leagues poached top talent, setting off bidding wars that forced the same kind of merger on which LIV Golf and the PGA have now settled.

While salary fights at that time in baseball, basketball and football were freighted with the concurrent gravity of the civil rights movement, golf did not face similar pressure. The PGA had a formal “Caucasian-only” requirement until 1961, and few minority players could afford equipment and course access.

In 1968, pro golfers took on the P.G.A., with an open letter in Sports Illustrated by the sport’s greatest player, Jack Nicklaus, that declared: “We want the right to cast the decisive vote in matters that affect our livelihood.”

By the late ’60s, stars like Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer felt the PGA needed to put more money toward golfers trying to make a living on tour instead of focusing its resources on golf pros at the local level. The breaking point came when the PGA rejected a new $200,000 tournament backed by Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs because it fell within a few weeks of a Bob Hope competition in the same locale. Touring players put the wheels in motion to start their own league, American Professional Golfers, setting a tournament schedule and lining up sponsors unless the PGA shifted its financial priorities.

The PGA agreed to many of the players’ demands, and no APG tournaments were ever held. Today’s golfers winning multimillion-dollar paydays at the biggest PGA tournaments – as well as lower-tier players who are guaranteed $500,000 per year even if they don’t take home any trophies – owe a debt of gratitude to the pioneers who put their foot in the sand 55 years ago.

In 2023, it’s hard to determine if the Saudis’ LIV gambit, and the stars who broke ranks with the PGA , should be seen as another chapter in the story of free agency and player empowerment. Certainly, the decision by Mickelson and others to follow the money destabilized the PGA’s future. But whether the merger will mean more money for everyone is unclear. Embattled PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan has said the loyalty of golfers who stood by the PGA over the last year “will be rewarded,” but hasn’t offered any specifics.

To make sense of the LIV-PGA saga, it might be helpful to view the arc of free agency in sports as a reflection of society. In the 1960s, American athletes, surrounded by the spirit of cultural revolution, stood against the establishment to win a bigger piece of the pie. In the 1990s, a deluge of corporate sponsorships and media attention turned professional sports into an enormous global business, and athletes into endorsement-seeking pitchmen.

The Saudis’ move into golf reflects a number of modern-day factors: the rise of the global south, the desire of petrostates like Saudi Arabia to diversify beyond oil, and the practice of “sportswashing” that incentivizes paying an exorbitant price to be the face of golf. It’s a truism that golfers and golf fans lean Republican, and former president and current Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump allied himself with LIV both through his connections to the Saudi government and the PGA canceling a tournament at one of his courses after he incited an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Through that lens, the PGA-LIV merger may be the perfect modern free agency story. Jack Nicklaus, the face of golfers’ discontent in 1968, slammed the PGA for shunning Trump as “cancel culture.” Given its unique position in the sporting landscape, devoid of certain socio-political pressures weighing on other sports in America, golf got right to the point: Virtue be damned, cash is king.

MATTHEW SPOLAR is a Retro Report producer whose work includes documentaries on sports, politics and genetics. He is the producer of “The Birth of Free Agency.”

This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. You can subscribe here and view past newsletters here. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.