LONDON — The golf champions were settled in their chairs at a news conference to promote their new Saudi Arabia-financed tournament when a reporter raised the uncomfortable question of Saudi Arabia’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 effort by a country to use its wealth to redefine its global image in the reputation-cleansing process widely derided as sportswashing.
Instead, Saudi Arabia is seeking to seize control of golf by winning, or in a cynics’ view buying, the loyalty of some of the world’s best players. Its strategy has been bold — nine-figure offers, huge guaranteed paydays at each event — but it has taken direct aim at the structures and organizations that have governed golf for nearly a century. While the Saudi plan’s potential for success is far from clear — the series does not yet have a television rights deal or the array of corporate sponsorships necessary 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 as well as the corporate sponsors and television 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 famed for its decorum, one so deeply committed 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, to seek to rebrand itself and its economy by focusing attention away from everything from human rights abuses to autocratic governance to even the financing of terrorism. 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 Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and its execution of 81 of its citizens 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 acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s “horrible” record on human rights and used an expletive to describe the country’s government as “dangerous.” The project’s main architect, the former player Greg Norman, then made things worse a few weeks later when he dismissed Saudi Arabia’s murder of a Washington Post journalist 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 example, 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 same decision. “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.
Despite the repeated firestorms, many of the players who arrived in London this week for the first event of the series, 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 in the world. But a few also stumbled when asked how those values squared with selling their talents to Saudi Arabia as part of efforts to cleanse its image through its sudden and spectacular embrace of sports.
In one particularly awkward exchange, a lineup featuring three major winners — McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen — demurred about who should tackle a question that included references Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and homosexuals.
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, meanwhile, is three times more than the winner’s share on offer 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 much wider, aggressive focus on sport as a means for the kingdom to achieve 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 form 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 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.