The Saudi Golf Tour is blatant ‘sportswashing’


Phil Mickelson and Cho Minn Thant, CEO of Asian Tour. (Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images/Getty Images.)

From June 9-11, LIV Golf held its first tournament, at the Centurion Club outside of London. The winner was Charl Schwartzel, the South African star (who won the 2011 Masters).

“LIV Golf”? Yes, otherwise known as the “Saudi Golf Tour”. It is financed by the PIF – the public investment fund or sovereign wealth fund – of the Saudi government. The chairman of the fund is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who effectively functions as the country’s dictator. The CEO of the new tour is Greg Norman, the veteran Australian golfer, aka the Great White Shark.


What does “LIV” stand for? It’s not an acronym. It is a Roman numeral, alluding to the fact that the tournaments of the circuit will be played in three rounds, or 54 holes. Traditional tournaments, such as the PGA Tour, are four rounds or 72 holes.

These details aside, the Saudi government is engaged in “sportswashing”. This is the practice by which bad actors try to clean up their reputations by getting involved in sports. The Chinese are master washers of sports, as they proved in their Olympics, and the Saudis are also very good at it. In addition to their golf league, they have a Premier League football club, Newcastle.

In its inaugural season, the Saudi Golf League will hold eight tournaments, including two on courses owned by former President Donald Trump: his club in Bedminster, NJ, and his club in Miami. The PGA Tour is not very happy with the new league and made the players choose: “You can play with us or with them, but not both.”

What is the appeal of the Saudi Golf League for players? Moolah, lots of moolah. The purse for the initial tournament at the Centurion Club was $25 million. The PGA Tour’s competing event, the Canadian Open, had a purse of $8.7 million. But this is not the big attraction for players.

No, the big attraction is that they get guaranteed money from the Saudis: money just for showing up, just for participating. There are no “cuts” – no tournament eliminations – in these 54 holes of LIV Golf. You get a good chunk of change no matter how hard you play.

If you’re really big – big name, big draw – you make big money. Phil Mickelson receives $200 million for joining the new league. Dustin Johnson, who until recently was the world’s No. 1 player, is on $125 million.

There were 42 players in the first tournament. Many of them were middle-aged golfers – on the other side of the hill, with their best earning years behind them. Examples of such players are Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. Others, however, are at their peak, like Johnson. Bryson DeChambeau, very much in his prime, and a big star in the game, will soon be joining the tour.

The biggest star of them all, Tiger Woods, has refused to move from the PGA Tour to the Saudi. He refused almost a billion dollars to the Saudis. “Unbelievably huge” is how Greg Norman put it. “We’re talking high nine figures,” he said of the deal that Woods turned down. Jack Nicklaus – who was Woods before Woods, if you will – was also offered a deal. According to Nicklaus himself, this agreement would have brought him “more than 100 million dollars”. All that money to gamble at 82? No, to basically get Norman’s job.

Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish star, stayed put – stayed with the PGA Tour. “I don’t see the point of tarnishing a reputation for millions more,” he said. Jon Rahm, the great Spaniard, did the same. “I don’t do this for the money,” he said. “They throw numbers at you, and that’s supposed to impress people. I am in this game for the love of golf and the love of the game and to become a champion.

All very noble. But you could say McIlroy and Rahm can afford to turn down the guaranteed money. The other players are unable to resist the temptation. “I have to do what’s best for me and my family,” is a common line.

At a press conference before the inaugural tournament, two veteran players, Lee Westwood (49) and Ian Poulter (46), were asked if they would play in a tournament hosted by Vladimir Putin, if the money was right. Neither would comment.

Greg Norman was questioned about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (Khashoggi, as you remember, was the journalist and dissident who was tortured, murdered, and then cut up with a bone saw in October 2018. US intelligence has determined the murder was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman. ) Norman replied, “Listen, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can fix them in the future.

Mickelson was very honest about saudi people— in comments to a writer that he said after publication were meant to be confidential. “These are some scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said. “We know they killed Khashoggi and they have an awful human rights record. They execute people there because they are gay. He went on to say he wanted to use the Saudi Tour as leverage against the PGA Tour, to effect changes he deemed desirable.

When his comments came to light, much of the world fell on him. His longtime sponsor, KPMG, the accounting giant, dropped him. Because of his Machiavellian designs? Because of his amorality towards the Saudis? KPMG has three offices in Saudi Arabia. Mickelson’s real offense, surely, was to have been indiscreet with the truth.

Personally, I am pro-competition. I believe in markets, including golf tours. I am anti-monopoly. But I choke on the Saudi aspect. If you forgive me, the more you know – the more you know about the Saudis and their practices – the less you can enjoy a Saudi golf league, even with thieves as lovable as Mickelson.

Over the years I have writing many Saudis political prisoners, who are tortured, sometimes to death. I interviewed several family members – wives, brothers, sisters – campaigning for the release of their loved ones. They do so at considerable risk to themselves, by the way. The Saudi government does not appreciate human rights campaigns. And he doesn’t shy away from targeting people on foreign soil, not to mention Saudi soil.

Perhaps I could mention a case.

Last month I have interviewed Areej al-Sadhan, at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. His brother, Abdulrahman, is a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. The Sadhans grew up between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Abdulrahman went to Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California where he graduated in 2013. He then went to Saudi Arabia to start a career. Of a compassionate nature, he joined the Red Crescent (as the Red Cross is known in Muslim-majority countries).

On Twitter, Abdulrahman made some criticisms of the government. He is a defender of freedom, democracy and human rights. The government, not so much. He tweeted anonymously, but his cover was blown and he was arrested in his office. He was then “disappeared”, unable to contact his family for two years.

But the family received reports from relatives of other political prisoners. Abdulrahman was tortured, of course, that’s what the Saudi authorities do. They subjected him to the usual repertoire: electric shocks; sleep deprivation; suspension by feet; strokes. But they added a twist. As they clapped the prisoner’s hand, they mocked, “Is this the one you’re tweeting with?”

In a secret and mock trial, in April 2021, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban. The government is loath to allow its victims to tell their stories.

Many people are cynical about human rights, often under the guise of being worldly or realistic. “It’s a big bad world out there,” they say. “I can’t follow the fall of every sparrow.” In early 2017, Bill O’Reilly told new President Donald Trump, “Putin is a killer.” The president replied, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?

In a recent interview, Greg Norman made a similar point. Asked about Saudi Arabia and its horrors, he replied: “Every country has a cross to bear.”

After the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump was asked who should be held accountable. He replied, “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place.” Later talk with Bob Woodward, Trump said, “I saved his life”, in reference to Mohammed bin Salman. “I managed to convince Congress to leave him alone.”

Next month, President Biden will visit Saudi Arabia, hat in hand, as America runs out of oil.

Democracies often need to have relationships, including alliances, with dictatorships. We could talk about the US-Saudi alliance in another article (or book or series of books). But what about individuals? According to reports, Jared Kushner’s private equity firm has $2.5 billion, of which $2 billion comes from the Saudis. Isn’t such a person able to get his money from other sources? The least evil?

Elon Musk is the richest man in the world. Should he really open a new Tesla showroom and office in the Xinjiang region of China, as he did earlier this year? Xinjiang is where the Chinese government has herded the Uyghur people into concentration camps. The US State Department has called China’s persecution of Uighurs a genocide.

I am for making money. But do golfers really have to make money with the Saudis? None of them have ever been in danger of going on the bread line, as far as I know.

In my experience, people either care about human rights or they don’t. (Some care about it selectively, depending on the abusers and the victims.) I often have occasion to quote a song by Lyle Lovett: “It may not matter to you, but it is very important to me. »

Jay Nordlinger is editor of National exammember of the National Review Institute and music critic of The new criterion.