Golf shoes: $100. Golf clubs: $300. Selling the PGA Tour? Well, it’s not “priceless”, but it’s very lucrative. We don’t know exactly how much money the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is coughing up to “partner” with the PGA Tour, but we can infer that it must be a staggering amount. Consider the following: The PIF is said to have offered nearly $1 billion to one golfer – Tiger Woods – to join its upstart league. (Woods spurned the offer, which apparently included an equity stake and sponsorship deals.)
Confused? Let’s rewind. Saudi Arabia’s PIF is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. The oil-rich nation claims that it wants to diversify its economy given that fossil fuels are a finite resource. PIF, which is worth several hundred billion dollars, is seeking investment opportunities. That’s likely true. It’s also likely true that the regressive kingdom is attempting to sanitize its global reputation.
In short, the Saudi government is “sportswashing” its atrocious human rights record, including its suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And, of course, Americans know that 15 of the 19 hijackers from 9/11 were Saudis. Thus, the idea is that spending ungodly amounts of money on “benign” activities, including sports, eventually will engender more favorable views of the repressive nation. We’ll see.
The Saudi’s named their golf league LIV. (It is pronounced like “give” and is also the Roman numeral for 54, which is the number of holes its golfers play.) Created in 2021, LIV sought to rival the PGA Tour – golf’s gold standard. (The PGA Tour, which is often simply known as “the Tour”, should not be confused with the PGA, from which it split in 1968.) Founded in 1929, the Tour has a problematic history of its own, including well-documented racism and sexism. In fact, the Tour was “whites only” for a long period. It also barred women until 1978.
The organization still has a long way to go before it can be considered genuinely inclusive. However, it is important to note that the Tour strongly resisted entreaties from LI, at least at first. Moreover, several Tour stars, most notably Woods and Rory McIlroy, have been very vocal in their opposition to LIV. In fact, aversion to LIV was so intense that the organization (and several of its golfers) filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour last year after it sought to suspend players who joined the Saudi group. The Tour countersued.
Of course, this saga would not be complete without a political angle. Former President Donald Trump may have mentioned, once or twice, that he owns multiple golf courses. LIV needed to use them if it was going to truly rival the Tour. Having been shunned by the Tour due to January 6th, Trump was all too happy to accommodate LIV. (Not coincidentally, the Saudis also gave Trump’s son-in-law $2 billion for… well, nobody really seems to know why.)
Trump’s involvement has led to accusations that a foreign government is attempting to peddle its influence with a former president – who is also a frontrunner for 2024. Now the DOJ and Congress are looking into anti-trust implications with the PGA Tour/Saudi partnership – not to mention potential national security issues.
None of this deterred LIV from launching its own tournament last year after luring a few Tour stars – most notably Phil Mickelson, who is said to have received a $200 million signing bonus. If money talks, the PIF is exceedingly verbose.
As it turns out, the Tour stunned the public in June by announcing a deal to create a new entity with the PIF. Tour board member James “Jimmy” Dunne, an influential investment banker and golf fanatic, engaged in highly secretive meetings with the Saudis. Even several of the Tour’s own board members, including McIlroy, only learned about the deal after the fact. The Tour will control a majority of board seats and will be in charge of the rules, but the head of the PIF will chair the new organization. To be sure, this is not a “merger of equals”.
The famous aphorism that golf is “a good walk spoiled” has taken on a new meaning. While nearly anything can be bought at a certain price, the question becomes how much is integrity worth? There is also the practical question of whether golf fans, especially Americans, will actually support this new venture in sufficient numbers. In short, will this attempt at “sportswashing” pay dividends? No one knows.
In the end, Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, as well as its presumed attempt to affect American politics, should give us all pause. My view is that LIV should die, even if it has another name.