The most controversial tournament in golf history teed off at the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire, England, on Thursday, threatening to upend a century-old professional tour in the process.
The LIV Golf Invitational is a breakaway series made possible by the largesse of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund that has managed to attract some of the biggest names in golf with enormous financial incentives, including major championship winners Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, as well as Ryder Cup standouts like Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. (The LIV Golf Investments CEO is Greg Norman, the Australian golf icon.)
But LIV Golf’s success in drawing in some of golf’s biggest names has raised concerns about the future of the sport.
The newfound series will take place over the course of eight tournament events, with prize money totaling $225 million — the most in golf history.
But LIV Golf’s success in drawing in some of golf’s biggest names has raised concerns about the future of the sport. The PGA Tour — the organizer of the main professional golf tours — responded by issuing suspensions to the 17 players who signed on to participate, barring them from competing in PGA events. It has also led human rights activists and organizations to accuse the Saudi-backed event of sportswashing — a term used to describe the practice of investing in sports events to polish a controversial country’s image on the international stage and to distract from accusations of human rights violations.
While the kingdom has been expanding its sportswashing strategy for years, the LIV Golf Invitational Series may be its most ambitious initiative yet. And it signals a concerning escalation in Saudi’s tactics.
Saudi Arabia’s strategic investment in sports and entertainment events dates back to (at least) November 2016, when crown prince and de facto Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman began diversifying the kingdom’s investments as part of Vision 2030, an initiative intended to reduce Saudi’s dependence on oil.
Six years later, Saudi Arabia has transformed itself into a global hub for sports events. It signed a 10-year, $650 million deal for a Formula One motor racing event, established a long-term partnership with WWE and hosted some of the biggest boxing showdowns in recent memory, with more expected to take place this year. The kingdom has even zeroed in on the burgeoning eSports market, spending billions to stake its claim in the booming industry.
Among Saudi’s most significant sports-related investments was its 2021 purchase of Newcastle United, an English soccer team in the Premier League. That investment offered the kingdom immediate access to a legion of loyal fans, a prominent position in English soccer, as well as an international platform to distract from its recent abuses, including the infamous assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its devastating war in Yemen that caused a humanitarian catastrophe, as well as its ongoing crackdown on intellectuals, reformers and women’s rights activists.
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has taken part in more traditional, albeit smaller sportswashing projects — i.e., hosting or investing in sports events to whitewash abuses. These vanity projects were effective but did not necessarily alter the sports landscape. However, Saudi’s recent investment in a golf series marks the kingdom’s first attempt to disrupt an entire sport, in this case by attracting some of golf’s biggest names with reported nine-figure appearance deals.
By challenging the authority of the PGA Tour — which is more than a century old — Saudi Arabia is also blatantly disregarding the status quo. Perhaps emboldened by previous sportswashing achievements, Saudi Arabia now appears to be attempting to usurp control of an entire sport.
Predictably, the tournament has sparked some backlash. But critics shouldn’t get too excited by the smattering of bad publicity.
Predictably, the tournament has sparked some backlash. But critics shouldn’t get too excited by the smattering of bad publicity. Several of the series’ enlisted golfers have already begun to spin the sportswashing event as an opportunity for the kingdom to reform.
“If Saudi Arabia wants to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be, and they have the resources to accelerate that experience,” former U.S. Open champion and recent LIV signing Graeme McDowell said at the pre-event press conference this week, “I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.”
Here are some facts for McDowell. Though Saudi Arabia and its proponents have long claimed that the kingdom is becoming more progressive, the conservative country’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate. In March, Saudi authorities executed 81 men in a single day, marking the largest mass execution in recent years. And prominent dissidents like humanitarian aid worker Abdelrahman al-Sadhan and physician Lina al-Sharif remain in prison for promoting human rights.
Thus, the LIV Golf series is not a mark of change but rather a dangerous evolution in Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing strategy — one marked by aggressive investments and a disregard for established sports institutions. It also underscores the kingdom’s commitment to altering its domestic and international perception without any obligation to advancing human rights.
Unfortunately, as long as prominent athletes are willing to forfeit their integrity and moral obligation in the pursuit of profit, Saudi Arabia will continue to enjoy unmatched sportswashing success.