For those unacquainted or unconcerned about the $84 billion industry of hitting a miniature sphere into a 4-and-a-quarter-inch hole with a flag sticking out of it, be a sport and spare a moment.
Consider the significance P.G. Wodehouse presciently attached to a multimillionaire squadron of skilled country club icons this week abandoning America’s lucrative PGA Tour for a fatter payday on Saudi Arabia’s breakaway series of golf tournaments called the LIV Tour. “To find a man’s true character,” said the beloved British author, “play golf with him.”
Now we have a much better idea of some of these golfers’ true characters.
As the oil-price shock summer comes to the U.S., Saudi Arabia is taking its first swing at using the kingdom’s petroleum profits to fund a hostile takeover of one of America’s favorite pastimes.
For the uninitiated, the most recognizable fixture at the tee box is the Par Aide Master Ball Washer. The hand-operated contraption is necessary because a golfer’s balls get dirty, as has the reputation of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s cleansing solution is the age-old practice of sportswashing, the burlesque application of vast sums of money to a sports team or event designed to scrub away the filth.
Tiger Woods reportedly turned down $1 billion to join the Desert Rats, and the PGA has banned the mischief-makers from its locker rooms.
“Those who have decided to turn their backs on the PGA Tour by willfully violating a regulation (are) being notified that they are suspended or otherwise no longer eligible to participate in PGA Tour Play,” the PGA said in a statement Thursday,
Still, it’s easy to take Saudi money, harder to justify it in public.
Yet the crown prince remains intent on reshaping the global golf industry after a first venture into sportswashing last year when the Saudis took a controlling stake in the Premier League soccer club Newcastle United and plowed $900 million into staging an annual Formula One race in Jeddah through 2032. Britain’s seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton cried foul and publicly criticized the Saudi regime’s 2017 arrest of 14-year-old Abdullah al-Howatti, who was sentenced to death two years later.
“It’s mind-blowing to hear the stories,” Hamilton said. “When you’re 14 you don’t know what the hell you’re doing in life.”
The 36-year-old Salman knows precisely what he’s doing.
Early this year, for instance, Salman’s $600 billion Saudi Public Investment Fund paid more than $1 billion in cash to purchase the Sweden-based e-Sports company Modern Times Group, and a further $500 million to buy e-Sports tournament organizer ESL FACEIT Group. Salman’s other sports-cleansing agents include a long-term partnership with WWE and hiring the Boston Consulting Group to kick-start a lobbying campaign with the end goal of FIFA awarding the kingdom the rights to host a World Cup.
“Fans and viewers need to look past the glamor of these events,” says Human Rights Watch Director of Global Initiatives Minky Worden. “Instead of using sports to rehabilitate its global image, it would be cheaper and easier for Saudi Arabia to simply undertake fundamental human rights reforms and respect the basic rights of its citizens in order to improve its image and standing in the world.”
The new eight-tournament golf series—cooked up by two-time British Open champion Greg Norman and the kingdom’s General Sports Authority—teed off at the Centurion Club outside London Thursday and ends at Trump National Doral Miami. Pay no attention to the fact that the PGA in 2016 ended its longtime relationship with twice-impeached U.S. President Donald Trump’s Blue Monster course after he made disparaging remarks about Mexicans.
“The PGA Tour is taking their tournament out of Miami and moving it to Mexico,” Trump raged when told the World Golf Championship was no longer his to market. “They’re moving it to Mexico City which, by the way, I hope they have kidnapping insurance.”
The PGA responded by pulling its crown jewel 2022 PGA Championship out of Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey and shipping the tournament to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But Trump and his golfing partner Norman, a.k.a. the Great White Shark, also had an insurance policy of sorts underwritten by their mutual chum Salman, who has been widely criticized for human rights violations and stands accused of sanctioning the 2018 Istanbul assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Trump vocally poo-pooed the CIA assessment that Salman ordered the murder, refused to release the report as mandated by the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, and sided with the kingdom’s assessment that Khashoggi was an enemy of the state. The whitewash continued after Trump. The Biden Administration made the report public, confirming Salman’s leading role in the intrigue, but shortly after publication, the government issued an updated version that no longer included Salman’s name, officially absolving the Saudi heir apparent of all responsibility.
Golfers call that a mulligan, the chance to take a second tee-shot after the first one went wrong through bad luck or a blunder. The re-do is illegal under the rules of both the USGA and the Royal & Ancient, the sport’s two governing bodies. Any golfer who tries that in a tournament is disqualified, banned from the course and shunned by fellow competitors.
Yet a mulligan is hard for amateur golfers to resist and Norman admits some of his fellow professionals have been lured by another easy way out. Saudi money is “a carrot too hard to resist,” he said, specifically, a total purse of $25 million, fertilized with $20 million in individual payouts and $5 million for the top three teams. LIV’s first seven events will award the winner $4 million and the golfer who comes in last going home with $120,000.
The amounts dwarf any winnings the PGA Tour has on tap. Indeed, LIV at the end of the season will drain a $30 million bonus pool on the top-three finishers. Trump’s Bedminster course hosts a LIV tournament at the end of July. The final Saudi shootout at Trump National Doral is scheduled to be a team championship with a $50 million prize fund.
Trump is bullish on the LIV Tour. The PGA and the PGA Tour, Trump said on his Truth Social media platform, “have been taking advantage of the players for many years. The ‘PGA’ has a Maximum Tax Exempt Status, makes a fortune and pays executive salaries higher than virtually any of the (sic) very talented players can make in a good year. LIV can change that!”
Is it any wonder that 36 of the world’s top 150 professional golfers, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Lee Westwood, have so far deserted the PGA?
“It’s a bummer,” is two-time major champion Justin Thomas’ interpretation of Saudi Arabia’s golf circus. “The day and age that we live in now is so negative, you see it in sport and politics.” Cautions the celebrated pro Rory McIlroy: “Any decision that you make in your life purely for money usually doesn’t end up going the right way.”
“The Saudis are scary motherfuckers to be involved with,” LIV poster boy Phil Mickelson told his biographer in February. As for how much the Saudis are compensating the three-time Masters champion to conquer his fear, “I believe contract figures should be private,” he said. “Doesn’t seem to be the case, but it should be.” It’s likely safe to assume that $200 million dilutes the moral stench.