RYAN BYRNE WRITES – The June kick off of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund-backed LIV Golf Tour has torn the golf world apart. Some have derided the tour, and the players who defected to it, for being bankrolled by a nation with a poor human rights record, while others have seen the tour as a breath of fresh air for a traditionally stuffy sport; after all, the new tour has no cut, hosts 54 hole tournaments, assigns players to teams and has payouts unheard of on rival circuits.
When the announcement that a new Saudi-backed tour was in the works came, the PGA Tour issued warnings to players about the potential for punishments up to bans from the preeminent golf league. Yet, this new, daring tour has been plucking many players away from the PGA Tour and the European Tour. Phil Mickelson (a World Golf Hall of Famer), Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka (both former PGA Tour Players of the Year), Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia (both former European Tour Players of the Year) have all jumped ship to the new Saudi project. All have been met with push back from players, and even those outside of the golf world. Sponsors have ended their relationships with LIV Tour players and the PGA Tour has made good on its promise to suspend players who have defected.
In spite of the pushback, the LIV Tour has been met with some praise. Its broadcast has been well received by some commentators (in spite of low viewership for its inaugural event). Golf legend Gary Player defended defectors to the LIV Tour, saying that they “need the money” while golf fans have pushed back against the PGA Tour’s punitive actions against golfers who have chosen to defect.
For all of the recent fireworks, it is crucial to understand the pushback against golf in Saudi Arabia is nothing new. In 2019, golfer Tiger Woods allegedly turned down millions of dollars to play in a tournament in the Arab nation while fellow golfer Rory McIlroy cited concerns around the “morality” of playing at the event.
The tour, and its broader success, come at a tentative time for the Saudi government. The Saudi government has faced harsh criticism for their alleged role in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and their actions in the civil war in neighboring Yemen. Nations such as the Germany and Denmark introduced arms embargoes against the Arab kingdom as a result. World leaders have decried the Saudi government; Joe Biden called the regime a “pariah” while United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson has accused the government of “abusing religion” and “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” in the Middle East.
Yet, high gas prices spurred by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine have brought the Saudi government back into a position of strength. As one of the leading nations in OPEC, it has refused to acquiesce to the request of many Western leaders to produce significantly more oil, leading to visits from Boris Johnson and Joe Biden.
Indeed, the LIV Tour may be another key to improving the Saudi image on the world stage. The idea of sports diplomacy is hardly new. The 1936 Olympics demonstrated to the world that Nazi Germany was a resurgent power while boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics laid bare the fissures of the Cold War. But often, the events that produce changes in international relations are more subtle than an internationally televised, multiple-sport event. China (with a spotty human rights record, much like Saudi Arabia) has gone from a closed, reclusive pariah state to an international powerhouse due in part to its use of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” with the United States or “Stadium Diplomacy” in many developing African nations. Dennis Rodman’s trips to North Korea showed its lighter side.
While not all examples of so-called “sports diplomacy” have succeeded (the 2022 World Cup has hardly done any favors for the Qataris), the fact that the LIV Tour has attracted “6 of the PGA Tour’s top 15 biggest draws among U.S. sports fans” or that equipment makers have been quiet as to whether they will withdraw sponsorships with LIV tour defectors lends to the possibility of the Tour’s success.
Ryan Byrne is an AMI staff writer.