GOLF

Golfers benefit from Saudi Arabia’s LIV Sportswashing

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Phil Mickelson plays the 18 during the Pro-Am at Centurion Club, Hertfordshire ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational Series.
Photo: Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

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There is perhaps no sport more designed for self-interest than golf. It is the opposite of a team sport. Even in tennis, you have someone passing the ball back to you. In golf, you are alone with your thoughts, responsible only for what you do, success or failure resting solely on your own actions. To thrive as a professional, you have to believe in yourself – and in yourself only. All golfers consider themselves tough individualists, even though they all wear the same plaid polo shirts and pants.

It was in this context that the Saudi government, using its sovereign wealth fund, created LIV Golf and threw the sport into absolute chaos. The PGA Tour has been the governing arm and organizing principle of the golf world for decades, but unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB or most other professional sports leagues, it has no union. Players are independent contractors, usually paying their own way to events. And that made him vulnerable to exactly what is happening now. The Saudis are blowing up the golf world, and these rugged, individualistic American golfers are helping them push the plunge.

To bring you up to speed, LIV Golf is hosting its first event this weekend, outside of London, featuring top golfers like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. These three, along with every other participating golfer, were all kicked off the PGA Tour, allegedly for good. This has led golf – a sport that was already losing relevance and market share, which was another reason the Saudi government targeted the sport – to face its biggest existential crisis in decades.

LIV Golf ostensibly claims to be an alternative to the PGA. It even has its own very (strange) slogan: “Golf, but stronger”. (Fans still have to shut up when golfers do their backswing on the LIV Golf Tour.) But all of this is really Saudi Arabia’s way of whitewashing its less-than-stellar reputation through sport, also known as sports washing. And the quickest way to do that is to spend ungodly sums of money and hope that no one worries too much – or even cares – where that money comes from. The LIV Golf Tour offers a jaw-dropping $255 million prize pool across its eight events this year; the Masters, the PGA’s flagship event, handed out $15 million last year, the highest amount ever, and that’s not even close to what each of the LIV events is offering.

Enter the golfers – and, more specifically, Phil Mickelson. Mickelson has long been the sport’s most self-aggrandizing iconoclast, a famous degenerate gambler (he once lost $40 million playing over a five-year span) and a smarmy self-promoter who was always just chatty enough with journalists and irresistibly self-destructive that you couldn’t take your eyes off it. (The fact that he’s still a top golfer, at age 51, doesn’t hurt either; last year he became the oldest man to win a major. when he finished first in the PGA Championship.) Mickelson stands out, even in a sport where people are only for themselves, because the guy who is the more for himself. He was one of the first players to sign up for the LIV Tour, but, because he’s Phil Mickelson, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it. And so he told his biographer Alan Shipnuck that he was joining the new Saudi Arabia tour even though “they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible human rights record” and “execute people there for being gay”. (Mickelson repaid Shipnuck for accurately quoting him in kicking him out of his press conferences.) The reason Mickelson joined was, of course, the money: $200 million for him alone to change. , which will support a lot of burst parlays. The Saudis made him the face of the spin-off tour, and Mickelson obliged to the point that, on the first day of the first event, he wore a Masters vest with the logo blacked out.

Most golfers, including Tiger Woods (who reportedly turned down a “nine-figure” offer to join the LIV Tour), stick with the PGA Tour – which is hardly a clean organization operated by Saudi big bads. Their monopoly on golf has led to policies – like those where players must all pay their own way for every event – that have irked golfers for years. The desire to compete was one of the things Mickelson said drew him to the LIV Tour in the first place. (He actually told Shipnuck, “I’m not even sure I want them to succeed.” He’s presumably changed his mind since.)

Joining the Saudis (and taking their money) might require jumping through a few moral hoops, but Mickelson, ironically, is the only golfer to speak so openly about the Saudi government’s shady history of human rights abuses. . LPGA golfers have played in Saudi events and received significantly less criticism for it. Golf isn’t the only target here either. The Saudi Cup has become the most lucrative event in horse racing and, unsurprisingly, the notorious amoral WWE has worked with the Saudi government for years and held its ‘Crown Jewel’ event in the country just days after the murder. by Khashoggi. But the Saudi government’s sports-washing experiment found its greatest success in golf, where it could funnel its insane money to the exact players most willing to take it.

It’s also worth remembering that while the NBA and other US sports leagues have so far been resistant to Saudi money, they are very flexible on such things when it suits them. The NBA will play two exhibition games next year in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. These problematic partnerships, I’m sad to say, will probably soon be the norm for all sports courts. After all, the only golfer to explicitly denounce the Saudi government for its brutality did so while explaining why he was taking their money anyway. Sports are like any other business: they go where the money is. Right now, the Saudi government is throwing absurd amounts of money at any professional athlete who reaches out to them. Golfers, wrestlers and racehorse owners seem to have been most eager to go first. They will not be the last.

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