LONDON — The golf champions were settled of their chairs at a news conference to advertise their latest Saudi-financed tournament when a reporter raised the uncomfortable query of the oil-rich kingdom’s human rights record. The 2010 United States Open champion, Graeme McDowell, to the apparent relief of the players sitting alongside him, took it on.
“If Saudi Arabia wish to use the sport of golf as a way for them to get to where they wish to be,” McDowell said, “I believe we’re proud to assist them on that journey.”
That journey, though, is the purpose: The Saudi-funded project, called the LIV Golf Invitational Series and kicking off on Thursday at an exclusive club outside London, represents nothing lower than the proposed hostile takeover of a complete sport, happening in real time, with golf’s best players solid because 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 significant global sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s foray into golf isn’t any mere branding exercise, not only one other effort by a rustic to make use of its wealth to redefine its global image within the reputation-cleansing process widely derided as sportswashing.
As a substitute, Saudi Arabia is looking for to seize control of golf by winning, or in a cynics’ view buying, the loyalty of a few of the world’s best players. Its strategy has been daring — nine-figure offers, huge guaranteed paydays at each event — however it has taken direct aim on the structures and organizations which have governed golf for nearly a century.
While the Saudi plan’s potential for achievement is removed from clear — the series doesn’t yet have a television rights deal or the array of corporate sponsorships vital to blunt its extravagant start-up costs — its direct appeal to players and its seemingly bottomless financial resources could eventually have repercussions for the 93-year-old PGA Tour in addition to the company sponsors and tv broadcasters who’ve built skilled golf right into a multibillion-dollar business.
“It’s a shame that it’s going to fracture the sport,” the four-time major champion Rory McIlroy said this week, adding, “If most people are confused about who’s 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 professionals who’ve committed to play in the primary LIV Series event this week have tried (not at all times successfully) to border their decisions as principled ones solely about golf, or as decisions that will safeguard the financial way forward for their families. Yet in accepting Saudi riches in exchange for adding their personal sheen to its project, they’ve placed themselves at the middle of a storm through 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 no less than distancing themselves.
All of it has opened rifts in a sport famed for its decorum, one so deeply committed to values like honor and sportsmanship that players are expected to evaluate penalties on themselves in the event that they violate its rules.
Saudi Arabia is, after all, not the primary country to make use of sports as a platform to burnish its global image, to hunt to rebrand itself and its economy by focusing attention away from all the things from human rights abuses to autocratic governance to even the financing of terrorism. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most notably Qatar, which is able to host soccer’s World Cup later this 12 months, all have invested heavily in international sports over the past twenty years.
But Saudi Arabia’s enterprise into golf stands out as the most ambitious effort yet by a Gulf country to undermine the prevailing structures of a sport: In effect, it’s attempting to use its wealth to lure players away from essentially the most distinguished tournaments and essentially the most well-established circuit in golf, the PGA Tour, by creating what’s a completely latest league. Not that most of the players collaborating this week were desperate to discuss those motives.
McDowell admitted as much in his meandering answer to an issue that, amongst other topics, raised Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and its execution of 81 of its residents on a single day in March. “We’re just here,” he said, “to deal with the golf.”
It has been, in any case, a rocky start. Even before the primary ball was struck this week on the Centurion Club just outside London, the cash-soaked LIV Series — financed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — had turn into a lightning rod for controversy. Certainly one of its biggest signings, Phil Mickelson, provoked outrage in February when he praised the series as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” whilst he acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s “horrible” record on human rights and used an expletive to explain the country’s government as “dangerous.” The project’s primary architect, the previous player Greg Norman, then made things worse a number of weeks later when he dismissed Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”
Most, but notably not all, of the world’s top players have rejected the concept out of hand: McIlroy, for instance, derided the project as a money grab in February. On Wednesday, while saying he understood the motivations of the players who had joined up, he made clear he would never make the identical decision. “If it’s purely for money,” McIlroy said, “it never seems to go the way in which you would like it to.”
Even the rare probabilities for LIV Series players to defend their decisions to reporters directly this week have often been tense. At a news conference on Wednesday, a bunch of players were asked in the event that they would participate in a tournament in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia or apartheid South Africa “if the cash was right.” A day earlier, the Korean American player Kevin Na was caught on a live microphone saying, “That is uncomfortable,” as his news conference ended with a British reporter shouting over the moderator.
Despite the repeated firestorms, most of the players who arrived in London this week for the primary event of the series, essentially the most lucrative golf tournament in history, seemed unprepared for tough questioning. Several tried to deflect questions by saying they were just golfers, or by optimistically speculating about golf being a force for good on the planet. But a number of also stumbled when asked how those values squared with selling their talents to Saudi Arabia as a part of efforts to cleanse its image through its sudden and spectacular embrace of sports.
In a single particularly awkward exchange, a lineup featuring three major winners — McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen — demurred about who should tackle an issue that included references Saudi Arabia’s treatment of girls and gay people.
A lot of the players, though, appear to have concluded that the cash was just too good to pass up. The reported $150 million inducement to Johnson, the highest-ranked player to leap to the brand new series, could be greater than double the overall prize money he has earned on tour in his profession. The prize money on offer to the last-place finisher at Centurion this week is $120,000, which is $120,000 greater than coming last in a PGA Tour event is value. The $4 million check for the winner, meanwhile, is thrice greater than the winner’s share on offer at this week’s PGA Tour event, the Canadian Open.
The cash, in reality, could also be LIV Golf’s biggest lure for the time being: Two more major champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, were said to be near accepting similarly large paydays to affix the series when it shifts to america this summer, including a visit to Latest Jersey for the primary of two scheduled events at Donald Trump-owned courses.
Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is an element of a much wider, aggressive deal with sport as a method for the dominion to attain the ambitious political and economic goals of its de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 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 shape of an investment in a sport, the sudden push into golf by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth entity, the Public Investment Fund, appears to be akin to a brazen assault intent on controlling a complete sport, at any cost. Tiger Woods, for instance, reportedly turned down nearly $1 billion to take part in the LIV Series, and other top stars have no less than had their heads turned.
Arguably essentially the most high-profile, and maybe essentially the most controversial, figure to affix the series is Mickelson, a six-time major champion who was for years one in every of the PGA Tour’s hottest and marketable players. He has made no secret of the undeniable 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 12 months, and the selections of several of his sponsors to sever ties with him, Mickelson on Wednesday re-emerged on the general public stage but declined to offer details of his relationship with LIV or discuss the PGA. “I feel that contract agreements must be private,” said Mickelson, who reportedly is receiving $200 million to participate.
Any hopes that Mickelson, his latest colleagues or their latest Saudi financiers could have had of the narrative shifting quickly to motion on the course, though, are unlikely to be realized anytime soon.
“I don’t condone human rights violations in any respect,” Mickelson said in one in every of the more uncomfortable news conference moments in per week stuffed with them.
Soon afterward, wearing shorts and a windbreaker, he was off to the primary tee, where he and a board member of the Public Investment Fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, headlined the opening group in the primary LIV Series Pro-Am.