The LIV Golf Series in Saudi Arabia is turning against the world of stylish golf

LONDON – Golf champions took their seats at a press conference to promote their new Saudi-funded tournament when a reporter raised the uncomfortable question about the human rights record in the oil-rich kingdom. 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell took the obvious comfort of the players seated next to him.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to use golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be,” McDowell said“I think we are proud to have helped them on that journey.”

However, that trip is the key point: the Saudi-funded project called the LIV Golf Invitational Series that kicks off Thursday at a private club outside London represents nothing less than the proposed hostile takeover of an entire sport, which is in fact happening. time, with the best golfers as the prize in the billion-dollar tug of war.

Unlike the vanity buying of a European football team or hosting a major global sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s entry into golf is not just an exercise in branding, and not just another attempt by a country to use its wealth to redefine its global image in reputation – a purge. Widely used as a sports wash.

Instead, Saudi Arabia seeks to dominate the game of golf by winning, or in the view of the pessimists, buying the loyalty of some of the world’s best players. Its strategy has been bold—nine-figure bids, guaranteed mega paydays at every event—but it has squarely targeted the structures and organizations that have ruled golf for nearly a century.

While the prospect of the Saudi plan’s success is far from clear — the series doesn’t yet have a TV rights deal or the raft of corporate sponsorship needed to cut exorbitant start-up costs — its direct appeal to players and its seemingly limitless financial resources could make it possible. The ending would have repercussions for the 93-year-old PGA Tour as well as the corporate sponsors and television broadcasters who have built professional golf into a multibillion-dollar business.

“It’s such a shame that it breaks the game,” four-time main champ Rory McIlroy said this week, adding, “If the public is so confused about who plays where and in what tournament this week and, ‘Oh, he’s playing there and not participating in the These events, “it becomes very confusing.”

The pros who have committed to playing in the first LIV Series event this week have tried (Not always successful) to frame their decisions as tentative decisions only related to golf, or as decisions that will protect their family’s financial future. But by accepting Saudi Arabia’s riches in return for adding their personal luster to its project, they have placed themselves at the center of a storm in which fans and human rights groups have questioned their motives; The PGA Tour threatened them with suspension; Sponsors and organizations are severing ties or at least away from themselves.

All of this has led to divisions in a well-known fitness sport, one so committed to values ​​like honor and sportsmanship that players are expected to assess penalties for themselves if they break its rules.

Saudi Arabia, of course, is not the first country to use sport as a platform to polish its global image, to seek to rebrand itself and its economy by focusing attention away from everything from human rights abuses to authoritarian rule and even terrorist financing. . Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most notably Qatar, which will host the FIFA World Cup later this year, have invested heavily in international sports over the past two decades.

But Saudi Arabia’s golf venture may be the most ambitious effort yet by a Gulf country to undermine the sport’s current structures: in effect, it is trying to use its wealth to lure players away from the most prestigious and high-quality tournaments. She established a circuit in golf, the PGA Tour, by creating an entirely new league. Not that many of the players participating this week were excited to talk about those motivations.

McDowell acknowledged this in his rambling answer to a question that, among other topics, raised Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and its execution of 81 of its own citizens in a single day in March. “We’re just here to focus on golf,” he said.

It was, after all, a rough start. Even before the first ball is hit this week at the Centurion Club outside London, the cash-packed LIV series – funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – has become a contentious source. One of the team’s biggest signings, Phil Mickelson, sparked outrage in February when he praised the series as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” even as he acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s “terrible” human rights record, and used an expletive to describe the country’s government as “dangerous”. . Then the project’s lead architect, former player Greg Norman, made matters worse a few weeks later when he rejected the Saudi killing of dissident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”

Most, but not all, of the world’s top players have dismissed the concept outright: McIlroy, for example, derided the project as a takeover of the money in February. On Wednesday, while he said he understood the motives of the players who joined, he made it clear that he would never make the same decision. If only for money McIlroy saidIt doesn’t seem to be going the way you want it to.

Even the rare opportunities for LIV Series players to defend their decisions live with reporters this week have often been strained. At a press conference on Wednesday, a group of players were asked if they would take part in a tournament in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or apartheid South Africa.If the money is right. The day before, Korean-American player Kevin Na was caught on a live microphone saying, “This is inconvenient,” Press Conference It ended with a British reporter yelling at the moderator.

Despite the frequent firestorms, many of the players who arrived in London this week for the first event of the series, the most lucrative golf tournament in history, seemed unprepared for the tough questioning. Many tried to dismiss the questions by saying they were just golfers, or by speculating optimistically about golf being a force for good in the world. But a few also faltered when asked how these values ​​held together as their talents were sold to Saudi Arabia as part of efforts to cleanse its image through its surprising and dizzying embrace of the sport.

In one particularly awkward exchange, a lineup with three major winners — McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oustoizen — objected over who should tackle a question that includes references to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and homosexuals.

However, most players seem to have concluded that the money was too good to be missed. The $150 million incentive for Johnson, the highest-rated player to jump into the new series, would be more than double the total prize money he took on a tour of his career. The prize money offered to last place on Centurion this week is $120,000, which is $120,000 more than the last event on the PGA Tour. Meanwhile, the winner’s $4 million check is three times more than the winner’s stake shown at this week’s PGA Tour event, the Canadian Open.

Money may, in fact, be LIV Golf’s biggest lure at the moment: two other big champions, Bryson Dechambeau and Patrick Reed, were said to be on the verge of accepting similarly big salaries to join the series when it moves to the US this summer, including That’s a visit to New Jersey for the first of two scheduled events in the Donald Trump-owned training courses.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is part of a broader and more robust focus on sport as a way for the kingdom to achieve the ambitious political and economic goals of its de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Similar controversies involving Saudi interests have already haunted other sports, including boxing, auto racing and international football in particular.

But when previous Gulf ambitions took the form of an investment in a sport, the sudden rush into golf by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth entity, the Public Investment Fund, looks like a brazen attack aimed at taking over an entire sport, at any time. cost. For example, Tiger Woods reportedly turned down nearly a billion dollars to participate in the LIV series, and at least other top stars have turned their heads.

Arguably the most famous, and perhaps the most controversial, character to join the series is Mickelson, a six-time major champion who for years was one of the PGA Tour’s most popular and marketable players. He made no secret of the fact that his interest was linked to his disdain for the PGA Tour, which he accused of “hateful greed”.

Influenced by heavy criticism of his statements that made headlines about Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and the decisions of several of his patrons to sever ties with him, Mickelson on Wednesday re-emerged on the public scene but declined to provide details of his relationship with him. LIV or PGA discussion. “I feel the contract agreements should be private,” said Mickelson, who is reported to be receiving $200 million to participate.

However, any hopes Mickelson, his new colleagues or their new Saudi financiers about quickly turning the narrative into action on the track are unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon.

“I don’t condone human rights abuses at all,” Mickelson said in one of the most disturbing moments of the press conference during a busy week.

Shortly thereafter, dressed in shorts and a windbreaker, he stepped into the first jersey, where he and PIF board member Yasir Al-Rumayyan headed the opening group in the first LIV Series Pro-Am.

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