Golf’s new Saudi deal presents questionable political, business and sporting realities

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The PGA Tour once advertised its brightest stars with the catch phrase “These guys are good.” A better slogan might now be “These guys are even richer.”

In a bombshell announcement so staggering that many golf fans thought it was fake at first, the venerable PGA Tour unveiled a partnership Tuesday with Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund, the financier of its sworn rival LIV Golf – a breakaway circuit that split the sport and seeded feuds among its top players.

The deal means that the PGA Tour – built on the image of quintessentially American Arnold Palmer, who epitomized post World War II US values – will now rest atop a pile of money put up by the regime that the US blamed for the murdering and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, that was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers of September 11, 2001, attack, and that has frequently been condemned by Washington for infringing women’s rights.

It is beyond doubt that the new reality of pro-golf will mean a better spectacle for fans since it will end the split between the two rival tours and will also fold in the DP World Tour (formerly known as the European tour) and mean the brightest stars will play one another more often.

For many sports fans in the US and elsewhere, that’s just fine. They like to plop down on the couch and watch their favorite golfer on the back nine on Sunday or their Gulf-owned Premier League team on TV. Who can begrudge them one oasis free from bitter, tribal modern politics?

And the deal is also undeniably a great piece of business, assuming PGA Tour players accept it. Global golfers stand to win a lot more money, various tours will be invigorated and Saudi Arabia’s government and its ruthless leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), get to be associated with one of the planet’s most prestigious year-round sporting properties. And all pending litigation between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour was also mutually ended under the new agreement.

But for others, Tuesday’s peace deal on the links raises painful moral issues. It also exposes top PGA leaders – who had blasted golfers who defected to LIV – to accusations of hypocrisy and reflects the way modern professional sports are hostage to the highest bidders. This can only pose uncomfortable questions to fans whose values and history clash with those of distant and sometimes politically dicey entities who effectively own their teams and top stars.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, for instance, had some explaining to do – not least to the tour’s players gathered at the Canadian Open this week after many tweeted that they had no advance notice of the deal. Monahan had played the 9/11 card last year at the same event, saying that two families that were close to him had lost loved ones in the worst terror attack on American soil, adding, “I would ask any player that has left, or any player that would ever consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

Now Monahan stands to be the effective supremo of global golf, save for the four majors – the sport’s most prestigious tournaments – aided by a gusher of Saudi cash.

9/11 Families United effectively accused Monahan of using the tragedy as leverage in a business deal to reunite golf. He “co-opted the 9/11 community last year in the PGA’s unequivocal agreement that the Saudi LIV project was nothing more than sports washing of Saudi Arabia’s reputation,” the group said in a statement. “But now the PGA and Monahan appear to have become just more paid Saudi shills, taking billions of dollars to cleanse the Saudi reputation so that Americans and the world will forget how the Kingdom spent their billions of dollars before 9/11 to fund terrorism, spread their vitriolic hatred of Americans, and finance al Qaeda and the murder of our loved ones.”

Monahan was asked about his reversal after what he said was a “heated” meeting with PGA Tour players on Tuesday.

“I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite,” he said. “Anytime I said anything, I said it with the information that I had at that moment, and I said it based on someone that’s trying to compete for the PGA TOUR and our players.”

Major champions who jumped to the rival circuit last year like Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Cam Smith might also now wonder whether their PGA tour brethren will face the same grilling over human rights that they had to endure at the time.

One very famous golfer was delighted by the deal and seemed keen to claim some reflected credit – former President Donald Trump. The current front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination associated himself with LIV after the PGA Tour and other golf governing bodies distanced themselves from him over his radioactive political reputation. Trump has hosted several tournaments at his courses for LIV – a circuit that sits well with his record of refusing to sever links with the Saudis over the murder of Khashoggi in 2018, reasoning that the Saudis were great customers of the US.

“A big, beautiful, and glamorous deal for the wonderful world of golf. Congrats to all!!!” Trump wrote in block capital letters on his Truth Social platform.

Some defenders of LIV golfers have pointed out that the players were only making a choice to prioritize personal interests over moral ones in partnering with the Saudis – a calculus that mirrored decades of US foreign policy. Indeed, President Joe Biden had called on the 2020 campaign trail for the kingdom to be treated as a “pariah” because of Khashoggi’s murder only to travel to the kingdom as president to fist-bump MBS when he needed a spike in oil price production to bring down American gas prices.

On Tuesday, after the LIV/PGA partnership was announced, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat down for talks with the Crown Prince in Riyadh.

Troubling moral questions

The idea that politics and sport shouldn’t mix has always been quaint. The Olympics and the World Cup are two of the planet’s most political spectacles after all. And modern sport has long run on money as monster TV rights contracts translate into huge salaries for top soccer players, Formula One Drivers, NBA stars and the top names in other sports.

But Tuesday’s LIV/PGA Tour agreement lays bare questions of morality so starkly precisely because of the way golf has sold itself. In a sport where players call penalties on themselves, and commentators idolize top players in whispered tones as paragons of gentlemanly conduct, patriotism and family values, the origin of the sport’s new financial lifeline is glaring.

The PGA Tour and Saudi partnership may be the most prominent example yet of the phenomenon known as sports washing, whereby an authoritarian nation seeking to buff up its image – despite serious criticism over its political system and human rights performance – woos the world’s top sporting stars. China was accused of such an agenda with its 2008 and 2022 Summer and Winter Olympics, where attempts at political activism largely fizzled under its repressive rule. The Qatar World Cup last year was another example of a nation that used its financial muscle to present a new image to the world. Various controversies during the tournament over LGBTQ rights and the plight of workers who built the stadiums undercut global governing body FIFA’s pretensions to inclusion.

The Saudis, Qataris and others are using their oil wealth to buy themselves a foothold among the world’s most powerful nations and to create tourism, entertainment and sporting legacies to sustain them when their reserves of carbon energy are depleted.

This mirrors a global shift in power and especially financial muscle – from the capitals of Western Europe to new epicenters in the emerging economies of the Middle East, India and China. Soccer, like golf, is taking its share of the cash. Traditional working class football clubs knitted into their communities for decades in the UK, for example, now suddenly find themselves owned by foreign energy magnates. Premier League giant Manchester City was bought by a United Arab Emirates-led group. And Newcastle United is owned by a Saudi Arabia-led consortium, forcing fans to consider (or not) the ethical dimensions of their support for their hometown clubs. And global cricket has been transformed by the Indian Premier League, which pays lavish salaries in a shortened form of the game.

One of the top names in soccer, Cristiano Ronaldo, is playing out the twilight of a glorious career spent at Europe’s top clubs in the up-and-coming Saudi league for a massive salary. And on Tuesday, Saudi team Al-Ittihad announced the signing of Real Madrid and French forward Karim Benzema, completing a sporting double whammy for the kingdom.

Unresolved sporting conundrums

There are as many sporting questions about the PGA Tour/LIV Golf partnership that remain unanswered. The partnership combines the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s golf-related commercial businesses and rights (including LIV Golf) with the commercial businesses and rights of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour into a new, collectively owned, for-profit entity. A spokesman for the PGA tour told CNN that the deal is not a merger.

“After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love,” Monahan said, describing a “transformational partnership” that would “benefit golf’s players, commercial and charitable partners and fans.”

Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, told CNBC he expected the partnership to be finalized within weeks and revealed, in a stunning move, that he had told LIV figurehead and Hall of Famer Greg Norman about the deal only moments before going on air.

LIV lured some of the PGA Tour’s top stars with massive signing bonuses and huge purses at substantially fewer events than the PGA tour, prompting the premier US circuit to unveil its own select “designated events” with upped prize money. The two sides were locked in bitter legal battles that have now been resolved.

It remains unclear, however, what steps LIV stars will have to take to potentially be able to return to events like The Players Championship, currently hosted on the PGA tour from which they were banned.

Then there is the question of how current PGA Tour members will respond.

Former British Open Champion Collin Morikawa tweeted, “I love finding out morning news on Twitter.”

The sudden announcement also did not specify what would happen to LIV tour events, which have struggled to draw a strong TV audience, beyond this season. Monahan’s announcement did hint that the new entity was committed to the new format of team events that has been introduced by LIV, to compliment golf’s traditional reliance on individual tournaments.

The golfer with the widest smile on Tuesday was probably Mickelson. The three-time Masters champion took the most heat for deserting the PGA tour for a reported massive payday, and was one of the most outspoken supporters of LIV – a breakaway he argued was a way to revolutionize the structure of professional golf and to secure more rewards for players.

Mickelson was also open about the reality of partnering with the Saudis, calling them “scary m*therf**kers to get involved with,” in an interview with golf journalist Alan Shipnuck that he later claimed was off the record. Shipnuck has written that he offered Mickelson no such agreement.

On Tuesday, Mickelson simply tweeted: “Awesome day today,” with a smiley sunshine emoji.

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