After months of insisting that the infusion of billions of dollars from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund would jeopardize the integrity of golf, the venerable PGA Tour has reversed course and decided that nonetheless, their ethics come at a price.
As first reported by CNBC, LIV Golf, the fledgling golf tour powered by an infusion of seemingly untold petrodollars used to lure a group of high-profile golfers, has merged with the PGA tour, ending months of legal bickering.
Now that everyone has decided to play well, the PGA can add its name to the many leagues and sports federations that have rubber-stamped the Saudi Kingdom’s ongoing sports wash efforts: attempting to hide or at least distract from decades of human history. Violations by putting athletes front and center and hoping it will be fans who associate them with Saudi Arabia and not all of their documented atrocities.
So, although today’s announcement came as a shock, it was always the end of the game. Whatever high-minded concerns the PGA raised, they had no chance when faced, as Tiger Woods put it, an “endless money pit.”
The Saudi royal family was seizing opportunities to enter golf. A rival league that emerged in 2019 has had the backing of the Public Investment Fund, even though they eventually shifted their dollars to LIV. The goal was to model it after a proposed “Super League” in football, using their overwhelming financial advantage and events with multi-million dollar wallets to snatch the stars. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed its effects, but in the winter of 2022, its plans began to become clear, and it promised to announce that 20 stars would join soon.
One of them was Phil Mickelson. The winner of the six major golf championships who’ve been making noises about the “heinous greed” of the PGA has had a hard time explaining why it’s okay to get blood money.
“It’s horrible to meet you sons of bitches. We know they killed. [Washington Post reporter Jamal] He has a terrible record on Khashoggi and human rights,” Mickelson said. “They execute people there because they are gay. Knowing all this, why should I think about it?”
Answering his own question, Mickelson, who had a net worth of more than $400 million at the time, added: “Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour works.” (Mickelson later apologized for his “recklessness” comments.)
Mickelson’s mistakenly telling the truth has reportedly caused other golfers to slowly back off. In short, it looked like the incipient tour would never get off the ground. In the spring money had won. Dazzling contracts have been handed out to Mickelson, plus Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and more. The PGA has responded to losing full control over golf’s biggest names by insisting that they are still under contracts with the PGA and making it clear that they can’t make money off of something north of generational wealth.
That hasn’t stopped LIV employees from waving their involvement in the indefensible.
“Talk about Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi and anything about human rights, talk about it, but also talk about the good he’s done to change the country’s culture,” said Greg Norman, CEO of LIV Golf, who is also a former golf star. After all, mistakes were made, right?
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and learn how to fix them in the future.” (A few days later, a reporter was kicked out of an LIV press conference for trying to trap Norman again.)
Before the newly signed Saudi brand ambassadors kicked off the first LIV event, the PGA banned 17 pros. By August, a federal lawsuit was filed accusing the PGA of antitrust violations. (Today’s news puts an end to all that, of course. Mickelson tweeted, “It’s a great day today,” and he ended his post with a smiley emoji.) Norman’s snappy comment, however, touched the heart of what the Saudi royal family wanted in exchange for their money. And LIV is far from their only attempt to lure athletes into a PR campaign.
The Public Investment Fund now owns a majority stake in English Premier League team Newcastle United and control of the country’s major football clubs, which have enough money to suddenly offer Christiano Ronaldo and possibly Lionel Messi hundreds of millions of dollars in annual contracts. $2.3 billion football sponsorship as of fall 2022; Even when the LIV was just a glimmer in the eyes of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, they hosted major golf tournaments in Europe; The 2023 Women’s World Cup will be supported by Saudi Arabia regardless of the reaction of human rights organizations; and somewhere nearby they pay WWE $50 million for every event held in the country as part of a ten-year deal. Naturally, former President Donald Trump has also been locked into LIV, hosting events at his club in Bedminster and angrily posting about the tour on Truth Social.
All of this spending is part of “Vision 2030,” a brazen, multibillion-dollar public relations campaign that portrays Saudi Arabia, and of course Mohammed bin Salman himself, as the leader of a commercialized, modernized nation. Ignore all the indecent talk about spousal rape not being illegal, mass executions and oppression of dissidents, persecution and subjugation of LGBTQs, or millions living in abject poverty while the ruling class feeds itself. on such riches that would put even the most voracious oligarchs to shame.
At least one PGA Tour golfer wasn’t interested in playing ball: Rory McElroy. While not directly condemning the Saudi government, he has repeatedly spoken about the importance of the game and called LIV “a waste of money”. McElroy softened his stance until May, but now works for LIV whether you want it or not. So do all the other top professionals, some of whom only learned of the merger on Twitter, according to ESPN.
That’s the lesson the PGA is laying out today: If you keep throwing buckets of money around, eventually all the worries the sports world might have will be gone, or at least the checks will be too big for those in charge to care. A murderous and ruthless—and yes, incredibly wealthy—nation could actually take full ownership of golf.