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Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf Series shakes up the world of distinguished golf

LONDON – The golfing champions have been settled into their seats at a press conference to promote their new Saudi-funded tournament when a reporter raised the uncomfortable question of the wealthy kingdom’s human rights record in oil. 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell, much to the relief of the players seated next to him, did it.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to use the game of golf as a way for them to get where they want to be,” McDowell said“I think we are proud to help them on this journey.”

That trip, however, is the goal: The Saudi-funded project, called LIV Golf Invitational Series and launched Thursday at an exclusive club outside London, represents nothing less than the proposed hostile takeover of an entire sport, set in real time, with golf’s best players as prizes in a high-stakes, billion-dollar showdown.

Unlike buying a vanity European soccer team or hosting a major global sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s foray into golf is not just a branding exercise, not just another example of what critics say is a cleansing process of the reputation that some describe as “sportswashing” of its global image.

Instead, Saudi Arabia’s sudden entry into golf is part of a multi-tiered approach by the kingdom – not only through investment in sport, but also in areas such as business. , education, entertainment and the arts – to alter the perception of itself, both externally and internally, as more than a wealthy and conservative Muslim monarchy.

These investments have accelerated rapidly since 2015, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began his rise to become the de facto ruler and led a massive overhaul aimed at opening up the kingdom’s economy and culture. And while it’s unclear how financially profitable they will be – the new Golf Series has no obvious path to recoup its investment – they do offer a number of other benefits. On the one hand, high-profile efforts, in sports in particular, have put Saudi Arabia’s name in the news in ways unrelated to its dismal human rights record. man, to his military intervention in the stalemate in Yemen or to the killing by Saudi agents of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. .

“It’s consistent with how Saudis have used sport over the past five years, to try to project an image of the new Saudi Arabia, to change the narrative away from Khashoggi and Yemen and to talk about the Saudi Arabia in a more positive light, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who studies Gulf politics at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

But by staging some of the most lucrative tournaments in golf history – the winner’s share this week is $4 million, and the last place finish in each event is guaranteed $120,000 – Saudi Arabia has also relies on a proven strategy of using its wealth to open doors and enlist, or cynically buy, some of the best players in the world as partners.

Some of the touches of its Thursday debut might have looked kitsch – red phone boxes, sentries dressed as British palace guards and a fleet of black taxis to deliver players and their caddies to their opening holes – but it there was no hiding what was at stake: In its huge payouts and major investments, the series’ Saudi backers took direct aim at the structures and organizations that have governed professional golf for nearly a century.

While the Saudi plan’s potential for success is far from clear – the series has yet to have a major TV rights deal, nor the array of corporate sponsors that typically line up to fund the shows. PGA Tour events – its direct appeal to players and its seemingly bottomless funding. resources could eventually impact the 93-year-old PGA Tour, as well as the companies and broadcasters that have made professional golf a multi-billion dollar business.

“It’s a shame it’s going to fracture the game,” said four-time major champion Rory McIlroy said this weekadding: “If the general public doesn’t know who’s playing where and what tournament is going on this week and, ‘Oh, he’s playing there and he’s not at those events’, it gets so confusing.”

The pros who signed up to play in the first LIV Series event this week tried (not always successful) frame their decisions as policy decisions that relate solely to golf or as decisions that would protect their family’s financial future. Yet by accepting Saudi riches in exchange for bringing their personal brilliance to his project, they placed themselves at the center of a storm in which fans and human rights groups questioned their motives; the PGA Tour threatened them with suspensions; and sponsors and organizations are cut ties or at least take this distance.

All of this has opened rifts in a sport that already grapples with its own longstanding image issues related to expediency, exclusivity and race, but which worships decorum and pretends to be so attached to values like honor and sportsmanship that players are supposed to inflict penalties. on themselves if they break its rules.

Saudi Arabia is of course not the first country to use sport as a platform to boost its global image. Its wealthy Gulf neighbors Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most notably Qatar, which will host the FIFA World Cup later this year, have all invested heavily in international sport over the past two decades.

But Saudi Arabia’s golf adventure is perhaps the most ambitious effort ever by a Gulf country to undermine the existing structures of a sport: indeed, it is trying to use its wealth to draw players away from the biggest and most well-established tournaments in golf, the PGA Tour, by creating what is a whole new league. Few of the players participating this week were eager to talk about those motives.

McDowell admitted it in his meandering answer to a question that, among other topics, raised the Saudi-led war in Yemen and its execution of 81 people in a single day in March. “We’re just here,” he said, “to focus on golf.”

It was, after all, a difficult start. Even before the first pitch was hit this week at the Centurion Club just outside London, the money-soaked LIV series – funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – had become a lightning rod for controversy. One of his biggest signings, Phil Mickelson, caused outrage in February when he hailed the series as a ‘unique opportunity’ even as he called Saudi Arabia’s record ‘horrendous’ on human rights and used an expletive to describe the country’s leaders as “frightening”.

The project’s lead architect, former player Greg Norman, made matters worse a few weeks later when he dismissed Saudi Arabia’s murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi, saying: “Look, we’ve all done errors.

Most, but not all, of the world’s top players rejected the new series out of hand: McIlroy, for example, derided the project, calling it seize money in February. And on Wednesday, while saying he understood the motivations of the players who had signed up, he said he would not participate.

“If it’s only for the money” McIlroy said“it never seems to go the way you want it to.”

Even the rare opportunities for LIV Series players to directly defend their decisions to reporters this week have often been strained. At a press conference on Wednesday, a group of players were asked if they would play a tournament in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia or apartheid South Africa”if the money was good.” A day earlier, Korean American player Kevin Na was caught in a live microphone saying, “That’s uncomfortable,” as his press conference ended with a British reporter yelling at the moderator.

Most players, however, seem to have concluded that the money was just too good to pass up. The $150 million incentive reported to Johnson, the highest-ranked player to upgrade to the new series, would be more than double the total prize money he’s earned on tour over his career. The prize money offered to the final Centurion runner-up this week is $120,000, which is $120,000 more than last place in a PGA Tour event is worth. The $4 million winner’s check is about three times the winner’s share from this week’s PGA Tour event, the Canadian Open.

The money, in fact, is perhaps LIV Golf’s biggest draw at the moment: two other great champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, are reportedly set to accept equally large paydays to join the series when it hits the US this summer. , including a visit to New Jersey for the first of two events scheduled at courses owned by Donald Trump.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is part of a broader vision of the sport as a means for the kingdom to achieve the Saudi Crown Prince’s ambitious political and economic goals. Similar controversies involving Saudi interests have stalked other sports before, including boxingmotor racing and especially international football.

But where previous Gulf ambitions often took the form of investing in a sport, the sudden push into golf by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign entity, the Public Investment Fund, seemed like an effort to control the highest level of any sport, at any time. Cost. Tiger Woods, for example, reportedly turned down nearly $1 billion to star in the LIV series, and other high-profile stars at least got 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 for years was one of the PGA’s most popular and marketable players. Round. He made no secret of the fact that his interest was tied to his contempt for the PGA Tour, which he accused of “abhorrent greed”.

Chastised by fierce criticism of his headline-grabbing remarks on Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and the decisions of several of his sponsors to sever ties with him, Mickelson reappeared in public on Wednesday but declined to provide details of his relationship with LIV or discuss the PGA.

“I think contractual arrangements should be private,” said Mickelson, who reportedly received $200 million to participate.

However, any hopes that Mickelson, his new colleagues, or their new Saudi financiers may have had about quickly moving from story to action on the course are unlikely to materialize any time soon.

“I don’t condone human rights violations at all,” Mickelson said in one of the most uncomfortable moments of the week-long press conference filled with such violations.

Shortly after, dressed in shorts and a windbreaker, he made his way to the first tee, where he and a member of the Public Investment Fund board, Yasir al-Rumayyan, headlined the opening group of the inaugural LIV Series Pro-Am.

Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut.