Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf Series Upends Genteel World of Golf

LONDON – The golf champions were settled in their chairs at a news conference promoting 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, took the obvious relief of the players sitting beside him.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to use golf as a way to get them where they want to,” 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 hosting a major global sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s foray into golf is no branding exercise, just another attempt by a country to redefine its wealth in its global image-reputation. The cleansing process is widely derided as sportswashing.

Instead, Saudi Arabia is seeking to seize control of golf by winning, or buying a cynics’ view of the loyalty of some of the best players in the world. 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. Eventually there are repercussions for the 93-year-old PGA Tour as well as corporate sponsors and television broadcasters who have built professional golf into a multibillion-dollar business.

“It’s a shame it’s going to fracture the game,” said four-time major champion Rory McIlroy this week, adding, “If the general public is confused about who is playing where and what the 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 principally those 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 themselvesGeneral Chat Chat Lounge 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 burn its global image, to seek to rebrand itself and its economy away from focusing attention on everything from human rights abuses to autocratic governance to even the financing of terrorism. General Chat Chat Lounge Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most notably Qatar, which will host soccer’s World Cup later this year, have all invested heavily in international sports over the past two decades.

But Saudi Arabia’s venture into golf may be the most ambitious endeavor yet in a Gulf country under the existing infrastructure 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, making 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 issues, raised Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and its execution of 81 of its citizens in 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 hit 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 it. returning government as “dangerous.” The project’s main architect, the former player Greg Norman, then made things worse a few weeks later when he was dismissed by a Washington Post journalist of Saudi Arabia’s assassination, saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”

Most, but 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 joined up, he made it 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 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 caught a live microphone saying, “This is uncomfortable,” as was 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 to 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 more than double the total prize money he has earned on touring 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 up in the last PGA Tour event. 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 have been LIV Golf’s biggest lure at the moment: two more prominent champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, were said to be 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 two scheduled events at the Donald Trump-owned courses.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is part of a much wider, aggressive focus on sport as a means to achieve the ambitious political and economic goals of its kingdom, 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 past Gulf ambitions have often taken 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 controlling a brazen assault on an entire sport, at any cost. Tiger Woods, for example, reportedly turned down nearly $ 1 billion in the LIV Series, and other top stars have at least had their heads turned.

Arguably the most high-profile, and perhaps most controversial, figure to join the series is Mickelson, a six-time major champion who was one of the PGA Tour’s most popular and marketable players for years. He has made no secret of the fact that his interest was tied to his contemplation for the PGA Tour, which he accused of “obnoxious greed.”

Chastened by his headline-making remarks of vociferous criticism about Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and several of his decisions to sever ties with him, Mickelson re-emerged on Wednesday 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 is reportedly receiving $ 200 million to make.

Any hopes that Mickelson, his new colleagues or his new Saudi financiers may have had the narrative shifting quickly to the course of action, 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 filled with them a week.

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.

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