Saudi Arabia’s Influence on Golf Raises Concerns
GOlf, a gentle and quiet game, is not often swept up with the geopolitical flurry of its time. But on the eve of this year’s PGA Championship, which tees off in Tulsa, Okla., on May 19, America’s institutional stronghold over the sport is being threatened by one of the most controversial countries on the globe. The government of Saudi Arabia still dominates the game, even as the world’s eyes turn towards Tulsa.
Saudi Arabia has not been known for its golf prowess. The kingdom now wants to expand the game. LIV Golf Investments, an entity backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the PIF, launched last year, with former world No. 1 Greg Norman—a two-time major champion—as its CEO. In March LIV golf Investments revealed the launch of its LIV gol Invitational Series. The series promises to pay out $255 million for total purse money over eight events. “Shot Just Got Real,” LIV Golf says on its website. “We exist to supercharge the game of golf.”
Each event will be played by 48 players. They will each play three rather than the standard four rounds on the PGA Tour. The winner of each of the seven “regular-season events” receives $4 million; by contrast, the winner of the PGA Championship, a major, gets $2.16 million. Each LIV event has a total prize pool of $25 million. The PGA Championship’s total purse, however, is only $12 million. The best individual performer across the LIV Golf competition earns $18 million; equal to what the champion of the PGA Tour’s season-ending competition, the FedEx Cup, will earn: LIV Golf, however, throws in a team competition in its last event. Four team winners receive a first prize of $16million; total payout for the team final will be $50 million.
Phil Mickelson scandal
These eye-popping figures have attracted the attention of the world’s best golfers. Defending PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson, for example, told author Alan Shipnuck, whose biography of Mickelson was released Tuesday, that he and three other nameless “top players” paid for lawyers to write the LIV Golf operating agreement. Saudi Arabia’s critics have labeled the kingdom’s massive recent investment in sports like golf and Formula 1 as a classic example of “sports washing,” or using the sheen of sports as a way of whitewashing an autocratic nation’s human rights record. For example, the U.S. intelligence reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman actually approved Washington’s assassination claim. PostJamal Khashoggi journalist, U.S resident. Shipnuck claims Mickelson told Shipnuck that he agree with the assessment of sports washing. The Saudis’ wealth is too irresistible to ignore.
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. People are executed over there because they identify as gay. Given all these facts, how can I possibly consider 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. You can’t get much nicer than that. [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 tour]To succeed is not enough. The idea of it allows us to accomplish things with ease. [PGA] Tour.” Mickelson, one of the most popular players in golf, who captivated the country by becoming the oldest player, at 50, to win a major championship, has taken a hiatus after those comments were published in February. He also apologized saying: ” I used words I sincerely regret that do not reflect my true feelings or intentions. It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words.” Mickelson, long a fan-favorite who at last year’s PGA made history by becoming the oldest player, at 50, to win a major, won’t defend his title in Oklahoma; sponsors such as Workday and KPMG have dropped him. Shipnuck reported Mickelson’s loss of $40 million in gambling between 2010 and 2014.
LIV Golf did not announce the player roster prior to its first event. It will be held in London from June 9-11th. However, one other major champion is interested. After becoming upset with a ruling in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship in early May, Sergio Garcia told an official, “I can’t wait to leave this tour. I can’t wait to get out of here. A couple of more weeks and I won’t have to deal with you anymore.” Garcia requested a release from the PGA Tour to participate in the London event.
The PGA Tour has treated LIV Golf as a rogue competitor, particularly because five of the events will be held on the Tour’s home soil, the United States. Two of the LIV Golf events will be held at clubs owned by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who while in office said, “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The July 29-31 event will be held at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., the site that was slated to host this week’s PGA Championship. However, the PGA of America has announced that it will move the major from Bedminster in 2021 to avoid the chaos resulting from the Jan. 6, Capitol riots. The PGA Tour sent a May 10, memo to players saying it would not release a conflicting event for LIV in London. LIV Golf doubled down, announcing a $2 billion investment and an expansion of the invitational events to 10 tournaments in 2023, and 14 tournaments in ’24 and ’25.
LIV Golf, however, didn’t help its cause last week, when Norman appeared to downplay Khashoggi’s murder. “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” Norman said at an event in London.
Norman’s remarks received swift condemnation. “Would you say that if it was your loved one? How can we go forward when those who ordered the murder are still unpunished, and continue to try to buy back their legitimacy?” Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz told the Telegraph. “We should not fall for their wealth and lies, and lose our morals and common humanity. We should all be insisting on the truth and justice; only then can we look forward with hope and dignity.”
“It’s grotesque,” says Sarah Lee Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a non-profit founded by Khashoggi in 2018. “It’s grotesque that Greg is seeking to justify a very lucrative business deal with a very troublesome, disturbing public fund.” Whitson believes Saudi sports washing is still at its nascent stages. “Do you think they’re going to stop at golf?” says Whitson. “They’re not. They have a bottomless pit of money, and every day that fuel prices go up, it gives them billions more to buy up these image-polishing assets.”
Saudi Arabia has marketed its sports spending as a key component of “Vision 2030,” the kingdom’s effort at economic diversification and modernization. Whitson has a message for American fans of sports who might be interested in attending LIV events. They can do so from June 30-July 2. in Portland, Ore. to July 29, 31 in Bedminster. N.J. to Sept. 2 and 3. in Boston. Sept. 16-18 in Chicago. Oct. 27-30 at Trump National Doral. “Take ownership,” Whitson says. “If you go to a Saudi government, Mohammad bin Salman-controlled and operated golf event, he wants you there to normalize him. And when you go there, you normalize him.”
Last month, Tiger Woods played a great first round at the Masters and showed that golf has a chance to make a comeback. This weekend, the sport could use Tiger Woods’ energy at the PGA. Anything—anything—to distract from the geopolitical mess it has on its hands.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME