Criticism of deal with LIV Tour: How Saudi Arabia is buying into the heart of golf

Status: 07.06.2023 3:47 p.m

The PGA Tour surprises and dismays its merger with LIV Golf as the backroom deal puts Saudi Arabia in a pivotal position.

For more than two years, the PGA Tour presented LIV Golf as a great evil. Because the tournament series that started in 2022, financed with hundreds of billions of euros from Saudi Arabia, competed with the market leader from the USA. Golfers who followed the LIV Tour’s lucrative lure were banned and PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan blamed them for human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

That same Monahan now justifies his PGA Tour merging with LIV Golf. “I know what I have said in the past and what positions I have taken before. I am aware that people will call me a hypocrite,” said Monahan. “I accept this criticism, but circumstances are changing.”

Wesley Bryan: “I feel betrayed”

The word “hypocrite” is said to be used on Tuesday (06/06/2023) at a meeting with players on the edge of the Canadian Open in Toronto, the mood is described as heated. Many pros had remained loyal to the PGA Tour, had vehemently defended it and thus forgone the lavish prize money pots of the LIV Tour. The cooperation that has now been announced apparently caught them unprepared.

“I feel betrayed and will (…) not be able to trust anyone on the corporate side of the PGA for a very long time,” tweeted Wesley Bryan. And Michael Kim wrote sarcastically: “Very curious how many people knew this deal was going through. About 5-7 people? It’s a player run organization right?”

PGA boss Monahan will become CEO of the new organization

Monahan defended the deal as a redemption after two years of unrest and confusion. “This will usher in a new era in global golf – for the better.” Monahan plays a central role in this era, as he becomes CEO and thus a central figure of the new, as yet nameless organization.

Jay Monahan, Commissioner of the PGA Tour

The PGA Tour is said to retain the majority of votes and therefore control over what is happening, but the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund PIF (Public Investment Fund) receives extensive rights and great influence as a major donor. The governor of the sovereign wealth fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, will chair the new organization. This is how Saudi Arabia rises from being an unpopular disruptive factor to becoming a co-decision-maker in the control center of golf.

The 2023 season will probably go ahead as planned, but golf will certainly change in 2024. LIV Golf is increasingly focusing on team formats and only plays three rounds instead of four on the courses. The name LIV stands for the Roman number 54, the total number of holes.

Saudi Arabia invests heavily in sport

The state of Saudi Arabia is currently investing heavily in the sport, for example with its Formula 1 race, the takeover of the Premier League-clubs Newcastle United and the signing of football superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. In recent years, the significantly smaller neighboring countries Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have presented with major sporting events.

Now Saudi Arabia is following suit, hosting the FIFA Club World Cup in 2023 and even winning the Asian Winter Games in 2029. A luxurious ski resort called Trojena is to be built in the middle of a cold but dry and barren mountain landscape. Another major goal is to host the 2030 World Cup.

Soft power and sports washing

The super-rich oil states gain respect and influence through major international events, this strategy is also known as soft power. In addition, the term sportswashing has established itself, it stands for image cultivation through sport, with which autocracies want to distract from human rights violations. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no freedom of the press or freedom of expression, and women and minorities are oppressed. The dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

Many in the United States have also not forgotten that 15 of the 19 attackers of September 11 came from Saudi Arabia. Terry Strada, chair of 9/11 Families United, has repeatedly criticized Saudi investment in golf. After the agreement that has now been announced, she said that Monahan and the tour are “just more paid Saudi decoys taking billions of dollars to clean Saudi reputation”.

Profiteers: Martin Kaymer, Phil Mickelson and Donald Trump

Among the beneficiaries of the merger are the pros who joined LIV Golf despite criticism and uncertainty, including Germany’s Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson. “I’ve never been a fan of making peace with money“said Kaymer on Wednesday: “In that case, it’s a good story because golf isn’t suffering anymore.”. He’s been playing on the LIV tour so far.

And Donald Trump will probably also benefit, because the former US President and current Republican presidential candidate maintains close contacts with Saudi Arabia.

Three of the 14 tournaments on the 2023 LIV Tour will be held on Trump Empire golf courses, including the $80 million grand final from November 3-5. The venue is the Trump National Doral in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. It is foreseeable that Trump resorts will continue to play a major role in the future unified calendar.