The Saudis have upended the genteel world of golf by luring famous names away from the PGA Tour with the promise of enormous appearance fees.
Phil Mickelson led the charge when he accepted a $200 million fee to sign up for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series. Former world number one Dustin Johnson has also joined the party, while major winners Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed will appear in the next tournament, and they are among the favourites in the spread betting.
Is this the end of golf as we know it? Or does the PGA Tour have the power to fight back against the Saudi blood money? Let’s explore the controversy that has
Why is the LIV Golf Series So Controversial?
The LIV Golf Series has been set up as a direct rival to the PGA Tour. It is wooing golf’s best players with huge wads of cash and convincing them to skip PGA Tour events in favour of a rival promotion.
That alone is reasonably controversial, but it is by no means the main reason behind the uproar over the LIV Golf Series. The real controversy lies in allegations of Saudi “sportwashing”.
The country has a dire human rights record, while a Saudi hit squad assassinated journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
In the words of former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly: “These players know the Saudis kill journalists, jail dissenters, ‘disappear’ gays, oppress women. And these players have said loud and clear: ‘We Don’t Care. We Want Bigger Jets.’”
Saudi sportwashing is not a new phenomenon. The country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund bought Premier League club Newcastle last year, Anthony Joshua has fought in a heavyweight title bout there and it has hosted the world’s richest horse race, but this is the first time it has really engulfed American sports stars.
Who Has Joined the LIV Golf Series?
Former golfer Greg Norman is the frontman for the series, but Mickelson was the first big name to defect. He was turned into a pariah and skipped the PGA Championship, but many other famous names have now joined him.
Johnson was paid between $125 million and $180 million to take part, depending on who you listen to. Tiger Woods reportedly turned down $500 million to play, but British veterans Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter were happy to take the Saudi cash – leading to an excruciating press conference in which they squirmed when asked if they would play in a Vladimir Putin-funded event.
Charl Schwartzel, a former Masters champion, won the inaugural LIV Golf Series tournament last week. DeChambeau and Reed will take part in the next event. Multiple reports suggest that Rickie Fowler, Matt Wolff, Pat Perez, Bubba Watson and Jason Kokrak are on the cusp of signing up too, while the Saudis are wooing Viktor Hovland and Harold Varner III too.
How Has the PGA Tour Responded?
The PGA Tour has suspended every player that defected to the LIV Golf Series. The LIV organisers branded the decision “vindictive” and said it “deepens the divide between the Tour and its members”.
It’s troubling that the Tour, an organisation dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play the game, is the entity blocking golfers from playing,” the statement read. “This certainly is not the last word on this topic. The era of free agency is beginning as we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London [the venue of the first LIV event] and beyond.”
Can the Saudi Rebels Play in the Majors?
The USGA ruled that the LIV defectors will be permitted to play in the upcoming US Open.
“We pride ourselves in being the most open championship in the world and the players who have earned the right to compete in this year’s championship, both via exemption and qualifying, will have the opportunity to do so,” it said in a statement.
“We simply asked ourselves this question – should a player who had earned his way into the 2022 US Open, via our published field criteria, be pulled out of the field as a result of his decision to play in another event? And ultimately we decided that they should not.”
They are likely to be barred from the PGA Championship, which is run by the PGA of America, but they may be permitted to compete in the Open Championship and the Masters.
Will Public Outcry Convince Golfers to Abandon to LIV Golf Series?
Terry Strada, the widow of a 9/11 victim, accused the US players of “betrayal” following their decision to join the LIV Series.
“Please rethink your membership in this Saudi enterprise,” Strada, who chairs a victims group, wrote. “We urge you to reconsider so that you can stand with us and send a message to the Kingdom: you cannot buy respect, you must earn it.”
Her group has sued Saudi Arabia for complicity in the 9/11 attacks, something the Saudi government has denied.
In another tense press conference, Mickelson said he has the “deepest sympathy” for the victims’ families, but Strada was unimpressed.
“Phil knows exactly what he’s doing, and he and his fellow LIV golfers should be ashamed, she said. “They are helping the Saudi regime sportswash their reputation in return for tens of millions of dollars, at the very same time our government is rolling out more damning evidence of Saudi culpability in the 9/11 attacks.”
Public pressure is mounting, but the LIV rebels are currently undeterred by the backlash,
What Does the Future of Golf Look Like Now?
There is no sign of either side climbing down. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan was asked why players could not compete in both the LIV Golf Series and the PGA Tour on TV during the Canadian Open at the weekend.
“I guess I would answer the question by asking a question: why do they need us so badly?” he said.
“Those players have chosen to sign multi-year lucrative contracts in a series of exhibition matches against the same players over and over again.
It’s not an issue for me because I don’t work for the Saudi Arabian government. It probably is an issue for those players that chose to take that money.
“I think you’d have to be living under a rock to not know there are significant implications. Two families close to me lost loved ones. I would ask any player who has left or any player who would ever consider leaving: ‘Have you ever had to apologise for being a member of the PGA Tour?’”
The players will remain suspended indefinitely, but it remains to be seen if the LIV Series can emerge as a credible, long-term rival to the PGA Tour. If so, it could spark an arms race between them, while additional leagues could also muscle their way in. If not, the players may end up returning with their tails between their legs.