RYAN BYRNE WRITES – Last week, after more than a year of trading barbs and lawsuits, the world’s preeminent golf circuit, the PGA Tour, announced that it, along with the European-based DP World Tour, would merge with the Saudi-backed LIV Tour. The LIV Tour, then, managed to leverage the enormous coffers of the Saudi government to secure a favorable deal, but is this a win for Asian golf?
No. The LIV tour has been mired in controversy since its inception. The Saudi government has been accused of “sportswashing” its human rights abuses as well as its role in the September 11th, 2001 attacks.
In addition, the merger is curious, given the LIV’s apparent stumbles on the business end. The tour’s ratings reportedly sank between its first and second broadcasts on the CW this spring; LIV then “quietly stopped reporting TV ratings,” according to Golf.com. What’s more, just one LIV Tour golfer has managed to win a major since the tour’s inception, in spite of the star power on the tour.
Ultimately, those things didn’t matter. LIV secured a merger with the PGA and DP tours –thanks to the wealth of the Saudi government. Why? Because, as the Wall Street Journal reported PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said, the tour could no longer afford to continue its legal battle with the rival LIV circuit. A report by ESPN further stated that the tour had spent “‘tens of millions of dollars on lawyers while fighting LIV Golf’s federal antitrust lawsuit.” Though Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is not the largest in the world, at nearly $700 billion it most certainly makes for a formidable legal opponent!
This constitutes a no-win deal for the rest of Asian golf. No other tour will be able to leverage government wealth to secure an LIV-type deal. While the Asian Tour purportedly embraced the merger, the Tour also recognized that it is, to say the least, not in a favorable position compared to that of the LIV Tour. The tour’s commissioner, Cho Minn Thant, said that he could only hope the Asian Tour would “have a seat at the table” in the discussion of golf’s future. “We’re going to have to make sure international golf remains on the agenda and it doesn’t revert back to the way it was,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Indeed, golf in Asia is not getting it’s due. Japan and Korea are the second and third largest golf markets in the world. Golf has seen rapid recent growth in Asian nations, including China, India and Malaysia; an HSBC report predicted that “a boom in the number of children playing [golf] in China and India means that the next generation will increasingly be from Asia: players like Shanshan Feng and Andy Zhang are a sign of things to come.” What’s more, nations such as Japan and South Korea have produced major champions in the past—which is not to say that professional golf (or golf in general) in Western Asia doesn’t deserve a seat at the table; far from it in fact! Remember, the LIV Tour is not a representation of golf in West Asia. Not a single LIV golfer is from a Western Asian nation (only India’s Anirban Lahir hails from an Asian nation). Though LIV announced a partnership with the MENA Tour, just a handful of events were played in Western Asia and none were won by golfers from Western Asia. And so, it seems, the LIV tour is simply catering to western audiences and checkbooks.
The LIV Tour (and by extension, the Saudi government) outlasted the PGA Tour and has, finally, won. But this nascent if not politically noxious merger is no cause to celebrate, considering, especially, the once bright future of golf at both the professional and grassroots levels across Asia. The exact implications and details of the merger are not entirely clear. One thing is clear, though: the LIV Tour strong-armed its way into a deal that puts it on equal footing with the PGA and DP tours, and no other tour in Asia will get the same treatment. The LIV may bask in the blazing sun of victory, but the rest of the Asian golf world will be left out in the cold.