‘This is uncomfortable’: Saudi Arabia upends genteel world of pro golf
By Tariq Panja
The golf champions were settled in their chairs at a news conference to promote their new Saudi-financed tournament when a reporter raised the uncomfortable question of the oil-rich kingdom’s human rights record. The 2010 U.S. Open champion, Graeme McDowell, to the obvious relief of the players sitting alongside him, took it on.
“If Saudi Arabia want to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be, and they have the resources to accelerate that experience,” McDowell said, “I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.”
That journey, though, is the point: The Saudi-funded project, called the LIV Golf Invitational Series, which kicked off Thursday at an exclusive club outside London, represents nothing less than an attempt to supplant the elite level of an entire sport, taking place in real time, with golf’s best players cast as the prize in a high-stakes, billion-dollar tug of war.
On Thursday, the PGA Tour answered that threat by suspending every player who is taking part in the London event and, in a move surely aimed at dissuading further defections, by vowing to do the same for any pro who joins later. In a letter to tour players laced with contempt for the renegade pros, the PGA Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, said they were “no longer eligible to participate” in events on the tour or any of its affiliates.
Unlike the vanity purchase of a European soccer team or the hosting of a major global sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s foray into golf is no mere branding exercise, not just another example of what critics say is a reputation-cleansing process that some deride as the “sportswashing” of its global image.
Instead, Saudi Arabia’s sudden entry into golf is part of a layered approach by the kingdom — not just through investments in sports but also in spheres such as business, entertainment and the arts — to alter perceptions of itself, externally and internally, as more than just a wealthy, conservative Muslim monarchy.
Those investments have accelerated rapidly since 2015, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his ascent to become the de facto ruler and spearheaded a massive overhaul aimed at opening up the kingdom’s economy and culture. And although it remains unclear to what extent they will be financially profitable — the new golf series has no obvious pathway to recovering its investment — they provide a number of other benefits. For one, high-profile endeavors, in sports especially, put Saudi Arabia’s name in the news in ways not connected to its dismal human rights record, its stalemated military intervention in Yemen or the murder by Saudi agents of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
“It is consistent with the way the Saudis have been using sport over the past five years, to try to project an image of the new Saudi Arabia, to change the narrative away from Khashoggi and Yemen and to talk about Saudi Arabia in a more positive light,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who studies Gulf politics at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
But in staging some of the most lucrative tournaments in golf history — the winner’s share this week is $4 million, and the last place finisher in each event is guaranteed $120,000 — Saudi Arabia is also relying on a proven strategy of using its wealth to open doors and to enlist, or in a cynic’s view, buy, some of the world’s best players as its partners.
Although the Saudi plan’s potential for success is far from clear — the series does not yet have a major television rights deal, nor the array of corporate sponsors who typically line up to bankroll PGA Tour events — its direct appeal to players and its seemingly bottomless financial resources could eventually have repercussions for the 93-year-old PGA Tour, as well as the corporations and broadcasters who have built professional golf into a multibillion-dollar business.
“It’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the game,” four-time major champion Rory McIlroy said this week, adding, “If the general public are confused about who is playing where and what tournament’s on this week and, ‘Oh, he plays there and he doesn’t get into these events,’ it just becomes so confusing.”
Saudi Arabia’s venture into golf may be the most ambitious effort yet by a Gulf country to undermine the existing structures of a sport: In effect, it is trying to use its wealth to lure players away from the most prominent tournaments and the most well-established circuit in golf, the PGA Tour, by creating what is an entirely new tour. Not that many of the players taking part this week were eager to talk about those motives.
McDowell admitted as much in his meandering answer to a question that, among other topics, raised the Saudi-led war in Yemen and its execution of 81 people on a single day in March. “We’re just here,” he said, “to focus on the golf.”
It has been, after all, a rocky start. Even before the first ball was struck this week at the Centurion Club just outside London, the cash-soaked LIV Series — financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — had become a lightning rod for controversy. One of its biggest signings, Phil Mickelson, provoked outrage in February when he praised the series as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” even as he called Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights “horrible” and used an expletive to describe the country’s leaders as “scary.”
The project’s main architect, former player Greg Norman, made things worse a few weeks later when he dismissed Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi by saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”
The rare chances for LIV Series players to defend their decisions to reporters directly this week have often been tense. At a news conference Wednesday, a group of players were asked if they would take part in a tournament in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or apartheid South Africa “if the money was right.” A day earlier, Korean American player Kevin Na was caught on a live microphone saying, “This is uncomfortable,” as his news conference ended with a British reporter shouting over the moderator.
Any hopes that Mickelson, his new colleagues or their new Saudi financiers may have had of the narrative shifting quickly to action on the course are unlikely to be realized anytime soon.
“I don’t condone human rights violations at all,” Mickelson said in one of the more uncomfortable news conference moments in a week filled with them.
Soon afterward, dressed in shorts and a windbreaker, he was off to the first tee, where he and a board member of the Public Investment Fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, headlined the opening group in the first LIV Series Pro-Am.