Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf Series updates the Genteel World of Golf

LONDON – Golf champions sat in their seats at a press conference to promote the new Saudi-funded tournament when a journalist raised an uncomfortable question about Saudi Arabia’s human rights history. 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell took over in front of the relief of the players sitting next to him.

“If Saudi Arabia wants to use the game of golf as a way to get where it wants to go.” said McDowell“I think we’re proud to be a part of this journey.”

That trip, however, is a matter of fact: the Saudi-funded project, called the LIV Golf Invitational Series and launched at an exclusive club outside London on Thursday, is only a proposal to take on the enemy of an entire sport, what is happening in reality. the team, the best golfers as prizes in a high-stakes, multi-million dollar tug of war.

Unlike the hostile purchase of a European football team or a major world sporting event, Saudi Arabia’s entry into the golf course is not a mere exercise in branding, it is not an effort by a country to redefine its global image to use its wealth. the cleansing process derived from sports cleansing.

Instead, Saudi Arabia wants to take control of golf by gaining the loyalty of some of the best players in the world or buying it in the opinion of cynics. He has been brave – with nine-figure offers, high guaranteed salaries for each year – but has turned to the structures and institutions that have governed golf for nearly a century. While the potential for a successful Saudi plan is unclear – the TV series does not yet have a TV rights agreement or the range of companies needed to reduce its initial start-up costs – it could have a direct appeal to players and seemingly bottomless financial resources. Eventually, there will be the effects of the 93-year-old PGA Tour, as well as the sponsors and TV stakes of companies that have built professional golf into a multi-million dollar business.

“It’s a pity to break the game,” said four-time main champion Rory McIlroy, adding: it becomes confusing. ‘

Professionals who have committed to play in the first event of the LIV Series this week have tried (not always successfully) to consider their decisions as a principle of golf, or decisions that would guarantee the financial future of their families. However, in accepting Saudi wealth in exchange for adding personal splendor to its project, fans and human rights groups have been placed in the middle of a storm that has questioned their motives; The PGA Tour has threatened them with interruptions; and sponsors and organizations are severing ties or at least moving away. All of this has opened up cracks in a sport famous for its decorum, which is so committed to values ​​like honor and sportsmanship that players will be penalized if they break its rules.

Saudi Arabia is, of course, not the first country to use sport as a platform to burn its global image, trying to revive itself and its economy by moving away from human rights violations to autocratic government and terrorist financing. . Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and especially Qatar, which will host the World Cup this year, have invested heavily in international sports over the past two decades.

But the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in golf may still be the most ambitious effort a Gulf country has made to weaken the structure of a sport: in fact, it is trying to use its wealth to keep players away from the most important and best tournaments. – He set up a golf course, the PGA Tour, creating a whole new league. Many of the players who took part this week were reluctant to talk about these motives.

McDowell acknowledged so much in response to a question that, among other things, the execution of the Saudi war in Yemen and the execution of 81 civilians in a single day in March. “We’re here,” he said, “to focus on golf.”

After all, it’s been a rocky start. Even before the Centurion Club’s first ball was played outside London this week, the cash-soaked LIV Series – funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth – turned into a lightning bolt of controversy. One of his biggest signings, Phil Mickelson, sparked outrage in February when he praised the series as a “definitive opportunity in life,” even though he acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s “terrible” human rights history and used a story to describe it. that the country’s government is “dangerous”. The project’s chief architect, former player Greg Norman, made matters worse a few weeks later when Saudi Arabia ruled out the murder of a Washington Post journalist: “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”

Most, but not all, of the world’s top players have abandoned the concept: McIlroy, for example, mocked a money-making project in February. Although he said he understood the motivation of the players who joined on Wednesday, he made it clear that he would never make the same decision. “If only for the money,” said McIlroy“It looks like it’s never going to go the way you want it to.”

There have also been tensions over the possibility of LIV Series players defending their decisions directly in front of reporters this week. At a press conference on Wednesday, a group of players were asked whether they would take part in Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia or apartheid tournament in South Africa.if the money was right”. A day earlier, Korean Korean player Kevin Na was caught on a live microphone while saying, “This is uncomfortable.” press conference a British journalist ended up shouting at the moderator.

Despite repeated storms, many of the players who arrived in London this week for the first event in the series, the most profitable golf tournament in history, did not seem to be able to take the hard questions. They tried to deflect various questions by saying that they were just golf fans, or by optimistically speculating that golf was a force for good in the world. But few have even stumbled upon how these values ​​fit into selling their talent to Saudi Arabia as part of its efforts to clean up its image through a sudden and spectacular sport.

In a particularly awkward exchange, a lineup of three main winners — McDowell, Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuiz — questioned who should work on a question that included references to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and homosexuals.

Most players, however, seem to have concluded that the money was too good to spend. For Johnson, the top player to jump into the new series, the $ 150 million incentive would be more than double the cash prizes he has won on tour in his career. The prize money for Centurion’s final qualifier this week is $ 120,000, which is $ 120,000 more than being the last at a PGA Tour event. The winner’s $ 4 million check, meanwhile, is three times the portion of the winner offered at this week’s PGA Tour, the Canadian Open.

Money, in fact, may be LIV Golf’s biggest attraction at the moment: two other major champions, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, are close to accepting big paychecks similar to joining the series when they travel to the United States this summer. , Including a visit to New Jersey for the first of two events scheduled in Donald Trump-owned courses.

Saudi Arabia’s embrace of golf is part of a much broader and more aggressive approach to 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 over Saudi interests have already hit other sports, including boxing, car racing and, most importantly, international football.

But with previous Gulf ambitions often taking the form of an investment in a sport, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, seems to be like a daring attack that aims to control an entire sport with a sudden push for golf. cost Tiger Woods, for example, allegedly refused nearly $ 1 billion to participate in the LIV Series, and other major stars have at least turned their heads.

Arguably the most famous, and perhaps most controversial, person to enter the series is Mickelson, a six-time major champion who has been one of the most popular and marketable players on the PGA Tour for years. He has made no secret of his interest in his contempt for the PGA Tour, accusing him of “horrible filth”.

Earlier in the year, headlines about Saudi Arabia and criticism of the decision by several of its sponsors to sever ties with him were criticized, with Mickelson reappearing on public stage on Wednesday, but declined to provide details about the relationship. LIV or discuss PGA. “I think the contract agreements should be private,” said Mickelson, who is receiving $ 200 million to participate.

However, there may be little hope that Mickelson, his new colleagues, or his new Saudi funders will be able to quickly turn the story into action in the course of the course.

“I don’t tolerate human rights violations at all,” Mickelson said at one of the most uncomfortable moments of a week-long press conference with them.

Shortly afterwards, wearing shorts and a windbreaker, he went to his first shirt, where he and Yasir al-Rumayyan, a member of the board of the Public Investment Fund, had their first team in the LIV Series Pro-Am.

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