LONDON – The Gulf champions were sitting on their chairs at a news conference to promote their new Saudi Arabia-sponsored tournament when a reporter raised an uncomfortable question about the oil-rich kingdom’s human rights record. 2010 United States Open winner Graeme McDowell took it upon himself to the apparent relief of the players seated next to him.
“If Saudi Arabia wants to use the game of golf as a way to get where they want to be,” McDowell said“I think we’re proud to help them on this journey.”
That journey is the point, though: The Saudi Arabian-funded project, dubbed the LIV Golf Invitational Series, which begins Thursday at an exclusive club outside London, represents nothing less than the planned hostile takeover of an entire sport that, in reality It’s time, with the best golfers being cast as prizes in a multi-billion dollar, high-stakes tug-of-war.
Unlike the vanity purchase of a European football team or the hosting of a major global sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s foray into golf is not a mere branding exercise, not just another attempt by a country to use its wealth to rebrand its global reputation define. Cleaning process widely derided as sports wash.
Instead, Saudi Arabia is trying to seize control of golf by winning or, cynically, buying the loyalty of some of the world’s best players. Its strategy has been bold – nine-figure offers, huge guaranteed paydays at every event – but it has squarely targeted the structures and organizations that have governed golf for nearly a century.
While the Saudi plan’s potential for success is far from clear — the series hasn’t yet signed a television rights deal or the slew of corporate sponsors needed to cushion its extravagant launch costs — its direct appeal to gamers and seemingly endless financial resources could justify it eventually affecting the 93-year-old PGA Tour, as well as the corporate sponsors and television networks that have made professional golf a multi-billion dollar business.
“It’s a shame it’s going to destroy the game,” four-time Major champion Rory McIlroy said this week, adding, “When the general public is confused about who’s playing where and what tournament is this week, and ‘Oh , he plays there and he doesn’t get into those events, it just gets so confusing.”
The pros who signed up to play this week’s LIV Series inaugural event tried (not always successful) to frame their decisions as principled decisions that pertain exclusively to golf, or as decisions that would secure their families’ financial futures. But by accepting Saudi riches in exchange for adding personal glamor to their project, they placed themselves at the center of a storm in which fans and rights groups questioned their motives; the PGA Tour has threatened them with suspensions; and sponsors and organizations are cutting ties, or at least to distance oneself.
All of this has opened cracks in a sport famed for its decency and so committed to values of honor and sportsmanship that players are expected to punish themselves for breaking its rules.
Saudi Arabia is, of course, not the first country to use sport as a platform to buff its global image, to rebrand itself and its economy, drawing attention away from everything from human rights abuses to autocratic governance to towards the financing of terrorism . Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most notably Qatar, which will host the World Cup later this year, have all invested heavily in international sport over the past two decades.
But Saudi Arabia’s foray into golf may be the most ambitious attempt yet by a Gulf state to undermine a sport’s existing structures: in fact, it is trying to use its wealth to lure players away from the most prominent tournaments and the best tournaments. established course in golf, the PGA Tour, by creating an entirely new league. Not that many of the players attending this week were keen to talk about those motives.
McDowell admitted so in his meandering response to a question that raised, among other things, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and the execution of 81 of its citizens in a single day in March. “We’re just here,” he said, “to focus on the Gulf.”
After all, it was a rocky start. Even before the first ball was hit at the Centurion Club, just outside London this week, the money-soaked LIV series – funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – had become a lightning rod for controversy. One of the biggest signings, Phil Mickelson, provoked outrage in February when he hailed the series as “a once in a lifetime opportunity” despite acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s “horrible” human rights record and using an expletive to describe the country’s government as “dangerous”. . The project’s lead architect, former player Greg Norman, then made matters worse a few weeks later when he dismissed Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying, “Look, we’ve got them all Made fault.”
Most, but certainly not all, of the world’s top players have flatly rejected the concept: McIlroy, for example, derided the project as a money heist in February. On Wednesday he said he understood the motivation of the players who had joined but made it clear he would never make the same decision. “If it’s all about the money” said McIlroy“it never seems to go the way you want it to.”
Even the rare chances for LIV series players to defend their decisions directly to reporters this week have often been strained. At a press conference on Wednesday, a group of players were asked whether they would play a tournament in Vladimir V Putin’s Russia or in apartheid South Africa.”if the money is right.” A day earlier, Korean-American player Kevin Na was caught at a live microphone saying, “This is awkward,” as he press conference ended with a British reporter yelling at the presenter.
Despite the repeated firestorms, many of the players arriving in London this week for the first event of the series, the most lucrative golf tournament in history, appeared unprepared for harsh questioning. Some tried to deflect questions by saying they were just golfers or by optimistically speculating that golf was a force for good in the world. But some also stumbled when asked how those values squared with the sale of their talent to Saudi Arabia as part of an effort to cleanse its image with its sudden and spectacular turn to sport.
In a particularly uncomfortable exchange, a lineup that included three big winners – McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen – doubted who should deal with an issue related to the treatment of women and gay men in Saudi Arabia.
However, most players seem to have come to the conclusion that the money was just too good to pass up. The reported $150 million incentive for Johnson, the highest-ranking player to break into the new series, would be more than double the total prize money he’s earned on tour in his career. The prize purse for this week’s last-placed Centurion is $120,000, which is $120,000 more than finishing last at a PGA Tour event is worth. The $4 million check for the winner is three times the winner’s share offered at this week’s PGA Tour event, the Canadian Open.
Money may actually be LIV Golf’s biggest lure right now: Two other big champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, are said to be on the verge of accepting similarly sized paydays to join the series when it moves to the United States this summer will include a visit to New Jersey for the first of two planned events on Donald Trump-owned courses.
Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is part of a much broader, aggressive focus on the sport as a means for the kingdom to meet the ambitious political and economic goals of its de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Similar controversies over Saudi interests have dogged other sports, including boxing, auto racing and, most importantly, international football.
But where previous ambitions in the Gulf often took the form of an investment in a sport, the sudden foray into golf by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, seems tantamount to a brazen attack aimed at controlling an entire sport at a cost. Tiger Woods, for example, reportedly turned down almost $1 billion to take part in the LIV series, and other top stars at least got their heads turned.
Arguably the most well-known and perhaps most controversial character to join the series is Mickelson, a six-time major champion who has been one of the most popular and marketable players on the PGA Tour for years. He has made it clear that his interest was coupled with his disdain for the PGA Tour, which he accused of “insufferable greed.”
Chastised by vocal criticism of his headline-grabbing comments about Saudi Arabia earlier this year and the decisions of several of his sponsors to cut ties with him, Mickelson reappeared on the public stage on Wednesday but declined to give details about his relationship disclose LIV or discuss the PGA. “I believe contract arrangements should be private,” said Mickelson, who is reportedly getting $200 million for attending.
However, any hopes that Mickelson, his new colleagues, or their new Saudi financiers might have had that the narrative would quickly materialize on the course are unlikely to materialize any time soon.
“I do not condone human rights abuses at all,” Mickelson said at one of the more uncomfortable moments of a press conference in a week of human rights abuses.
Shortly after, in shorts and a windbreaker, he walked to the first tee, where he and Public Investment Fund board member Yasir al-Rumayyan led the opening group of the inaugural LIV Series Pro-Am.