Saudi Arabia’s Impact on Golf May Be Here Beyond U.S. Open

IGolf journalist Alan Shipnuck was driving north on I-5 in November when he received the unexpected phone call. It would be the one that will shake up the sport of golf in 2022. Phil Mickelson, the six-time major champion who, a year ago, charmed sports fans worldwide in becoming the oldest person, at 50, to win a major title—at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C.—was on the line. Shipnuck was writing a biography of Mickelson, and had been itching for an interview; Mickelson’s reps, however, had run interference. Until now.

Mickelson was in discussions about joining a Saudi Arabian-backed golf organization that could rival the PGA Tour. This topic was brought up naturally during their conversation. Mickelson told Shipnuck that he knew that the Saudis were engaging in “sportswashing,” or using athletics to change the narrative about the country’s human rights violations. “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal]Khashoggi is a notorious violator of human rights. There are people executed for homosexuality. It is hard to believe that I would even think about it after all this. This is a unique opportunity to reshape the PGA Tour’s operations. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. He’s as nice as he gets. [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. The Saudi money finally gave us this leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the Saudi Golf organization]It is possible to be successful, but the mere idea of it will allow us to do the right thing. [PGA] Tour.”

Shipnuck was aware Mickelson said the silent part loud. That was how the game of golf might change forever.

In February, Shipnuck published Mickelson’s comments on the website of his new media company, the Fire Pit Collective. His book Phil: Rip-Roaring! (And Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful SuperstarThe release was made public in May. It was a dramatic fallout. His words drew the battle lines between the Saudi startup, called LIV Golf, and the PGA’s existing monopoly over the sport. This brought attention to LIV Golf and the fantastic prize money offered by the Saudi startup. Mickelson was granted an extended absence from golf. He joined LIV Golf along with other winners of major titles like Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson last week. The PGA Tour also announced that these players and others who had signed up for the tour would be removed.

Last week saw the first LIV Golf tournament outside of London. Shipnuck was again involved in what was probably the most important news event, being ejected at a Mickelson press conference. (Shipnuck shared a text message from LIV chief Greg Norman feigning ignorance about Shipnuck’s ejection; meanwhile, a photoShowed a Norman supporting Shipnuck as security harassed him. Now, Mickelson—long a fan favorite on tour— is playing in the U.S. Open in Brookline, Mass., with his legacy tainted. He had to go through a painful press conference at the start of the week. Mickelson was criticized by 9/11 families.

TIME caught up with Shipnuck, who’s in Brookline, Mass. The U.S. Open was covered by Shipnuck, who discussed this bizarre situation in golf.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Was Mickelson calling you to discuss Saudi Arabia and the PGA Tour, what was your response?

In the final analysis, Phil just couldn’t help himself. His people had told him not to speak to me. But he wanted to explain to me how he had won all these political battles and that he was smarter than Jay Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner, and he was smarter than Greg Norman, the Saudi frontman, and he had gamed the system and he was getting everything he’d always wanted. And he just couldn’t stand the idea of me not knowing this for this book. It’s been clear that Phil has some issues with impulse control. It’s obvious on the course. He’s recently admitted to a gambling addiction. And I think that there was a thrill in it for him to call the one person he probably shouldn’t have shared this with, the one person on the planet who was writing this book about him. This book turned my world and his life upside down.

Which of these comments did you find most influential on golf?

It has been brewing for almost a whole year now, the Saudi seduction. However, it all took place in shadows. These secret negotiations were the key. This brought the story to the forefront and made it the most talked about in golf. Phil spoke out about it and put the spotlight on it. The PGA Tour faced a Saudi threat. Sportswashing was real. It was obvious to the players. They were aware that they were playing pawns in a bigger game. The money seemed so incredible. They weren’t going to be able to say no. But it also highlighted that, for a lot of players, it’s just about the money. For Phil, there’s more at work here. He’s been battling the PGA Tour his whole career, sometimes publicly, sometimes in private. And he’s always been stymied because he had no leverage. The Tour must cater to 150 of these journeymen, as there are more than a dozen golf stars. Phil is outvoted often by other players with very different concerns. They’re just trying to keep their job. So he’s always been frustrated that he didn’t have more traction. Nobody gets in bed with the Saudis unless there’s a huge payday. We know that that’s obvious. For Phil, however, it was also an opportunity to remake the sport to his liking and be the agent for change. He’s always craved that role, but he never had the juice. The leverage was never his. He was granted that by the Saudis.

So he worked both sides of street for as long as possible. He was in negotiations with Saudis, and with Tour. He had finally pledged allegiance one way or another. The PGA Tour was his last resort. However, his goal of achieving a lot had been achieved before this. The Tour funneled a lot of money to the players in an effort to stop his Saudi threat. Law. They established this NFT platform that was an obsession of Phil’s. I’m not saying he gets all the credit for these things. He does get some. And I’m sure they’re going to reexamine how they treat the players and their media rights. So that’s one of the ironies in this. He won some of the battles and had the support of many players. He was a bit too generous with his time.

Phil’s always been one of the most popular players with fans. Is Phil hurt by the LIV controversy?

Phil is a consummate performer. Phil thrives on the enthusiasm and love of his crowd. It’s painful for him to know that some fans are outraged and some will never forgive him. It hurts Phil almost on a spiritual level. Phil was convicted of his crime. His exile lasted four months. We’ve already seen it in the gallery here at Brookline, in the practice rounds, he’s getting a lot of love from the fans. They’re just happy he’s back. They love watching him play. They certainly don’t seem overly bothered by the geopolitics of it all.

He’s still going to play in the most important tournaments there are, which are the major championships. The suspensions of these PGA Tour members who’ve thrown in with LIV Tour, that’s written in pencil, not blood. It is possible to negotiate this. Someday, there will be a compromise. It’s hard to believe Phil will never play Pebble Beach, where he’s won five times, again. That doesn’t serve the PGA Tour. It doesn’t serve the tournament. It doesn’t serve the sponsors and the fans. They want Phil there. Even though some are mad at Phil right now.

At the first LIV event last week, you were pushed around by security guards when trying to attend a press gaggle after Phil’s round. How was it?

It was all absurd. Because it reminded me of the Keystone Cops, I mostly laughed and shook my head. Initially, they hadn’t responded to my request to be credentialed. Fairness to tournament organizers: I came in the last minute. So, I went to the site and purchased tickets for myself. I just wanted to go along and look at the event with my eyes. The day after I arrived they gave me a media credential. But when it was handed to me, the tournament official said, you know, Phil’s has made it clear to us that he doesn’t want to speak to you this week. And I was like, Yeah, I can’t really commit to that. It’s been 6,000 miles since I last traveled. He’s the biggest newsmaker in a very important moment for the sport. I’m not really inclined to be censored by Phil Mickelson.

However, we kinda left it at that. It wasn’t a formal sit-down press conference, it was kind of like this outdoor flash area. The reporters were standing while I was at the back. I’m not sure he even really saw me. This was just the beginning. These guys took me by my arms and it was an incredible overreaction. It’s a tournament of golf. I’m just a lowly golf reporter. I didn’t intend to ask any gotcha questions. He needs to tell me about his experiences while he was away. This was the question I asked. You could call it a softball, but that’s really what I wanted to know. But I didn’t get that chance. These people really had me pushed to the curb. The days following were difficult for me to comprehend what had happened. It’s more clear to me now that it actually wasn’t Norman who sent those guys who asked me to leave. It was Phil’s people. And that’s actually more troubling. The tournament organizers have full control over the credential and can revoke any credential they choose. But for a player to try to get a reporter removed, that’s a very troubling precedent.

This speaks volumes to Saudi-stylecensorship. Norman could certainly have intervened to stop it happening. So he’s culpable as well. I mean, it’s his party. He’s the Supreme Leader of LIV Golf. He could have done right. He didn’t. It speaks to how under siege they feel and this sense that you know, everyone’s out to get them when in reality, this is all Phil’s doing. There was no one who forced him to collude with Saudis. He was not forced to take any of the cash. He could have walked out and returned to the PGA Tour. He could have been embraced by the PGA Tour as the savior, or the man who would have sunk the Saudi threat. But that wasn’t his choice. You can’t have the money without the accountability. You can’t have the glory without the scrutiny. It’s just not how it works in this world.

Are you convinced that the LIV Tour is a viable option?

Because the Saudis are able to flot this thing with unlimited resources, it’s true. This is not a traditional business venture where there’s a mandate to make a profit. This is about protecting their image on the international stage. That has some value for them. They’re willing to pay for it. Saudis desire to buy legitimacy. Yasir Ottman Al-Rumayyan (a high ranking Saudi official) is receiving hugs from top golfers all over the country and being thanked. The adulation, that’s what they’re trying to buy. And you can’t put a price tag on how much that week meant to this guy and his people. And so I think they’re in it for the long haul.

Charl Schwartzel was a non-factor and won $4.75million in just three days. There were also other guys who beat him every week. [on the PGA Tour]They only make a small fraction of this. So of course they’re going to look around and be like, well, I want a slice of that pie. The PGA Tour is trying make this a moral argument. They’ve already lost that debate. Professional golf has been enjoyed for many years in China, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. The golfers vote with their feet, and their wallets. They don’t mind taking money from oppressive governments. That’s just a fact. It’s indisputable. And so they’re not worried about where the money’s coming from. They simply want the money. There are also players such as Roy McIlroy who have made the sport a global phenomenon. He’s said no. But it appears he’s going to be in the minority. Saudi Arabia will keep buying more players. LIV tours will be an integral part of the game.

Guess this isn’t a bad time to start a golf media company.

It’s a gift from the content gods. It has spread beyond the realm of golf to the wider sports community and general news. There’s a lot of personality. You’ve got Saudi Arabia, which is a huge part of our life. Joe Biden’s flying over there any day now. Saudi Arabia has never been more prominent on the world stage. Former President Trump, he’s hosting two of their events. This is where you’ll find the Crown Prince Saudi Arabia. You’ve got Donald Trump. Greg Norman is yours. He’s long been kind of a pariah in the game and a polarizing figure. It’s full of energy and enthusiasm from Norman. Phil was one of football’s most beloved stars for the last thirty years. And even the players they’ve signed up are not wallflowers. These are the controversial players, like Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed. They make the game interesting. They’re not the best players. They don’t have the loftiest world-ranking positions. However, they are some of the greatest personalities. They encourage conversation. You may want to, but you can’t really ignore the LIV Tour anymore.

What is the future of golf?

The Saudis figured out very quickly that marketing has some efficiencies. There has been no competition for the PGA Tour. Its product has become very stagnant. There’s no innovation in the format. Television streaming is horrible. It’s a very lumbering organization. That’s being exposed. It’s a good thing that there is competition. I mean, the Tour is going to have to evolve, it’s going to have to improve. For the golf fan, that’s going to be a win. Each organization will have to become more agile and dynamic, and think about how to reach their fans. This could be great for golfers. But it’s messy. It’s all gone.

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