After spending months insisting that the infusion of billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund would compromise the integrity of golf itself, the venerable PGA Tour reversed course and decided their ethics had a price tag after all.
As first reported by CNBC, LIV Golf, the upstart golf tour backed by an infusion of seemingly untold petrodollars used to lure away a slew of high-profile golfers, has merged with the PGA tour, thus putting an end to months of legal squabbling.
Now that everyone’s decided to play nice, the PGA can add its name to many of the leagues and sports federations that have rubber-stamped the Saudi Kingdom’s ongoing sports washing efforts: trying to obscure or at least distract from their decades-long history of human rights violations by putting athletes front and center and hoping they’ll be who fans associate with Saudi Arabia, and not all their documented atrocities.
So while today’s announcement came as a shock, this was always the endgame. Whatever high-minded concerns the PGA evinced, they didn’t stand a chance when confronted with, as Tiger Woods put it, “an endless pit of money.”
The Saudi royal family had been eyeballing opportunities to chisel their way into golf. A rival league that’d cropped up in 2019 got the Public Investment Fund’s backing, though they eventually shifted their dollars to LIV. The goal was to model it after a proposed “Super League” in soccer, using their overwhelming financial advantage and events with multi-million dollar purses to poach stars. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed their roll, but by the winter of 2022, their plans began to come into focus, promising that 20 stars would soon announce they’d joined up.
One of them was Phil Mickelson. The winner of six major golf championships, who’d been making noises about the PGA’s “obnoxious greed,” struggled to explain why he was OK with taking blood money.
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed [Washington Post reporter Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson said. “They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?”
Answering his own question, Mickelson—whose net worth exceeded $400 million at the time—added: “Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates." (Mickelson later apologized for his “reckless” comments.)
Mickelson’s accidental truth-telling reportedly caused other golfers to slowly back away. Briefly, it seemed as if the fledgling tour would never get off the ground. But by the spring, the money had won out. Eye-popping contracts were doled out to Mickelson, plus Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and more. The PGA responded to losing full control over golf’s biggest names by insisting they were still under contract to the PGA and making it clear they couldn’t cash in on something north of generational wealth.
That didn’t stop LIV employees from hand-waving away their participation in the indefensible.
“This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights, talk about it, but also talk about the good that the country is doing in changing its culture,” LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, himself a former golf star, said. After all, mistakes were made, right?
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.” (A few days later, a reporter was booted from a LIV press conference for trying to pin Norman down again.)
Before the newly signed Saudi brand ambassadors could tee off in the first LIV event, the PGA barred 17 pros. By August, a federal lawsuit had been filed, charging the PGA with antitrust violations. (Today’s news puts an end to all that, of course. Mickelson tweeted, "Awesome day today," and punctuated his post with a smiling emoji.) But Norman’s foot-in-mouth comment got to the heart of what the Saudi royal family wants in return for their money. And LIV is far from their only attempt to dragoon athletes into a PR campaign.
The Public Investment Fund now owns a majority stake in the English Premier League team Newcastle United plus control of the country’s major soccer clubs, which suddenly have enough money on hand to offer hundreds of millions in annual contracts to Christiano Ronaldo and possibly Lionel Messi, plus the $2.3 billion in soccer sponsorships as of fall 2022. Even while LIV was still a glimmer in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s eye, they hosted major golf tournaments in Europe. The 2023 Women’s World Cup will be sponsored by Saudi Arabia, regardless of the outcry by human rights organizations. And they’re paying WWE somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million for each event hosted in the country as part of a ten-year deal. Naturally, former President Donald Trump has latched onto LIV, too, hosting events at his club in Bedminster and furiously posting about the tour on Truth Social.
All of these expenditures are part of “Vision 2030,” a brazen multi-billion dollar PR campaign to portray Saudi Arabia, and of course, Mohammed bin Salman himself, as leading a modernized nation that’s open for business. Pay no attention to all that unseemly talk about spousal rape not being against the law, or the mass executions and the cracking down on dissidents, or the persecution and subjugation of LGBTQ people, or the millions living in abject poverty while the ruling class gorges itself on the kind of riches that would make even the most gluttonous, ravenous oligarchs blush.
At least one PGA Tour golfer wasn’t interested in playing ball: Rory McElroy. While he didn’t outright condemn the Saudi government, he’s repeatedly spoken about the importance of the game, and called LIV a “money grab.” McElroy softened his stance by May, but he works for LIV now, too, like it or not. So does every other top-level pro, some of whom, according to ESPN, only learned of the merger on Twitter.
That’s the lesson the PGA put forward today: If you keep sloshing around buckets of cash, eventually whatever qualms the sports world might have will fade, to the point where they’ve memory-holed their invocations of 9/11 as a reason to reject LIV outright. When the checks have enough zeros, the men in charge won’t care. And a murderous and brutal—and yes, fabulously rich—nation can de facto take full ownership of golf.