Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf Series Upends Genteel World of Golf

LONDON — 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 United States 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,” 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 and kicking off on Thursday at an exclusive club outside London, represents nothing less than the proposed hostile takeover 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.

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 like business, education, entertainment and the arts — to alter perceptions of itself, both 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 while 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 finished 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.

Some of the touches at its debut on Thursday might have felt kitschy — red phone boxes, sentries dressed like British palace guards and a fleet of black cabs to deliver the players and their caddies to their opening holes — but there was no hiding what was at play: In its huge payouts and significant investment, the series’ Saudi backers have taken direct aim at the structures and organizations that have governed professional golf for nearly a century.

While 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,” the 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.”

The pros who have committed to play in the first LIV Series event this week have tried (not always successfully) to frame their decisions as principled ones solely about golf, or as decisions that would safeguard the financial future of their families. Yet in accepting Saudi riches in exchange for adding their personal sheen to its project, they have placed themselves at the center of a storm in which fans and human rights groups have questioned their motives; the PGA Tour has threatened them with suspensions; and sponsors and organizations are cutting ties or at least distancing themselves.

All of it has opened rifts in a sport already grappling with its own longstanding image problems related to opportunity, exclusivity and race, but one that reveres decorum, and professes to be so wedded to values like honor and sportsmanship that players are expected to assess penalties on themselves if they violate its rules.

Saudi Arabia is, of course, not the first country to use sports as a platform to burnish its global image. Its wealthy Gulf neighbors, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most notably Qatar, which will host soccer’s World Cup later this year, all have invested heavily in international sports over the past two decades.

But 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 league. 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, the 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.”

Most, but notably not all, of the world’s top players have rejected the new series out of hand: McIlroy, for example, derided the project as a money grab in February. And on Wednesday, while saying he understood the motivations of the players who had joined up, he made clear he would not take part.

“If it’s purely for money,” McIlroy said, “it never seems to go the way you want it to.”

Even the rare chances for LIV Series players to defend their decisions to reporters directly this week have often been tense. At a news conference on Wednesday, a group of players were asked if they would take part in a tournament in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia or apartheid South Africa “if the money was right.” A day earlier, the 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.

Most of the players, though, seem to have concluded that the money was just too good to pass up. The reported $150 million inducement to Johnson, the highest-ranked player to jump to the new series, would be more than double the total prize money he has earned on tour in his career. The prize money on offer to the last-place finisher at Centurion this week is $120,000, which is $120,000 more than coming last in a PGA Tour event is worth. The $4 million check for the winner is about three times the winner’s share at this week’s PGA Tour event, the Canadian Open.

The money, in fact, may be LIV Golf’s biggest lure at the moment: Two more major champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, were said to be close to accepting similarly large paydays to join the series when it shifts to the United States this summer, including a visit to New Jersey for the first of two scheduled events at Donald Trump-owned courses.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is part of a wider focus on sport as a means for the kingdom to achieve the ambitious political and economic goals of the Saudi crown prince. Similar controversies involving Saudi interests have already stalked other sports, including boxing, auto racing and most notably international soccer.

But where previous Gulf ambitions often took the form of an investment in a sport, the sudden push into golf by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth entity, the Public Investment Fund, appeared to be an effort to control the top level of an entire sport, at any cost. Tiger Woods, for example, reportedly turned down nearly $1 billion to participate in the LIV Series, and other top stars have at least had their heads turned.

Arguably the most high-profile, and perhaps the most controversial, figure, to join the series is Mickelson, a six-time major champion who was for years one of the PGA Tour’s most popular and marketable players. He has made no secret of the fact that his interest was tied to his contempt for the PGA Tour, which he accused of “obnoxious greed.”

Chastened by vociferous criticism of his headline-making remarks about Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and the decisions of several of his sponsors to sever ties with him, Mickelson on Wednesday re-emerged on the public stage but declined to provide details of his relationship with LIV or discuss the PGA.

“I feel that contract agreements should be private,” said Mickelson, who reportedly is receiving $200 million to participate.

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, though, 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.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut.

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