Sports

The Saudi Incursion Into Pro Golf That Could Torpedo the PGA Tour

The Kingdom is offering top players big checks to join a new rival league. Some might.

Phil in reflector aviators and hat on his follow-through watching his approach shot with the fairway behind him
Phil Mickelson on the 17th hole during Day 2 of the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on Feb. 4, in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

Professional golf has existed for decades under a detente between the best, most marketable players in the world and everyone else. The exact location of that line—who constitutes the best and most lucrative—has depended on the discussion being had.

In the late 1960s, it was between the thousands of club professionals who made up most of the PGA of America and the tiny sliver of a few dozen touring pros who played in the biggest events and won the most money. (Think of the difference between the person who gives lessons at the local course, who is a professional in their own right, and Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson.) Once upon a time, those touring pros thought the everyman professionals were exerting too much power over their schedules and taking too much money that should rightfully go to themselves. “It comes down to this,” one of the tour pros told Sports Illustrated in 1968, after the PGA denied them the chance to play in a lucrative event that was only for the cream of the crop. “We run all the risks, so why should we have a bunch of armchair club pros telling us we can’t play a $200,000 golf tournament? It’s all a matter of common sense.” The tour pros responded, eventually, by splitting off into their own circuit. It’s now called the PGA Tour.

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The argument has shifted but never ended. Everything the PGA Tour does today, as an organization owned and operated by its players, is the result of a political balance between the best and rest. The debate is no longer between touring pros and the guy who puts on a clinic at your local club, but between a small group of the absolute best players in the world—a few dozen, really—and the hundreds of others who try to hack it on the PGA Tour every year. There’s a good case that the mega-elite players are the ones who drive interest in the tour and should reap most of its spoils. When you flip on an event on a Saturday afternoon, you are there to watch Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm, not Scott Piercy and Patton Kizzire. To get even more specific, Tiger Woods alone has personally made many millions of dollars for his fellow pros.

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Yet the PGA Tour is, believe it or not, democratic. Woods’ on-course earnings aren’t that much higher than the other great players of his generation, despite his 82 tour wins nearly doubling anyone else in his time. A tournament with a total purse of $12 million might grant $2 million to the winner, with everything else spread around on a grade. The competition format is designed to welcome a lot of comers. The cut is the cut, and if Woods takes 140 strokes on Thursday and Friday while the world’s No. 456 player takes 139, that player could see the weekend while Woods goes home, despite Woods being the reason there’s so much money at stake in the first place. The tour has giant fields of players, usually well over 100 in an event, and most have no real chance of contending with the top 20 players in the world. It’s a charming system, because it allows grinders to dream as they work their way up the pro golf ranks.

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But that system has also made the PGA Tour vulnerable, and now the organization is under its gravest threat. The tour’s internal class divide cracked the door open, and other factors have piled in to threaten the circuit’s unchallenged status as the best tour in the world. The tour leadership’s mismanagement is one such factor. Another is that golf is a great way for a bad actor—say, a shady real estate developer or a murderous crown prince—to launder his reputation in the West.

The threat to the PGA Tour’s preeminence comes from LIV Golf, a Saudi Arabia–backed company that formed in 2021 and hired two-time British Open champion Greg Norman to lead it. The majority shareholder in LIV Golf is the Saudis’ Public Investment Fund, which the government of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman uses to make money and friends via a range of (frequently Western, non-oil) investments. The Saudi government’s enchantment with golf goes back at least a few years. It has hosted the Saudi International tournament since 2019, initially under a partnership with the European Tour. The first went off months after the crown prince apparently ordered the murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As golf writer Will Bardwell has detailed, the Saudis’ game here is not complicated. It is a straightforward exercise in sportswashing, where the government is trying to distract from its authoritarianism and oil with golf. Focus on the nine irons, not the bonesaws.

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Little is known for sure about the Saudis’ plans, but enough leaks have dripped out that we have a rough idea. The plan is to exploit the PGA Tour’s supposed shortchanging of its best, most marketable talents and offer them much more money than they make now. (Exactly how much is unclear, but it seems like at least tens of millions of dollars in guarantees for some players.) The Saudi organization has affiliated with the Asian Tour, making it easier to woo players with the promise of Official World Golf Ranking points on the line in future events. The Saudi circuit seems poised to play a lighter schedule than the PGA Tour, and rumored perks for the top players include 54-hole events rather than 72, no cuts, and guaranteed payouts that don’t need to be won on the course. The new tour might also play around with a team format of some kind. Things like the time and location of the events, much less who’s playing in them, remain unknown. Nobody has committed outright to go along, but there’s a whole lot of interest. A rough sketch:

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It’s not certain, either, why all of this seems to be coming to a head right now. Maybe the Saudis are close to making some announcements. Maybe everyone’s just on edge.

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The PGA Tour has so far used carrots in an effort to forestall its competition. Last year, it started what it calls the “Player Impact Program,” a $40 million fund that goes to the 10 players whom the tour deems to be driving the most engagement with golf. The program uses Google searches, Q-scores, and some other media metrics to rank players. Another enticement may come with the PGA Tour adopting tournament formats that would look suspiciously like what the Saudi tour is rumored to be contemplating. Similarly, the league might change up its fall schedule, which has never been all that popular with either players or fans. The tour also has alluded to a stick at its disposal, though it might not work: the threat of a suspension or ban from PGA Tour events for anyone who joins the Saudi organization.

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Some of the world’s best players say they aren’t interested. Rahm just pledged his “fealty” to the PGA Tour, saying the money didn’t entice him. Rory McIlroy was blunter and said, “I just don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions.” McIlroy reasoned that more money wouldn’t stop him from using the same three or four rooms in his house anyway. Collin Morikawa is “all for the PGA Tour” and hasn’t seen a viable plan from the Saudis.

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So far, the players espousing the most intrigue in LIV Golf are mostly in two camps. One camp is Bryson DeChambeau. The tour’s biggest hitter, who is best taken with a grain of salt at all times, might go or might not. The other camp is older stars who are closer to the end of their PGA Tour runs than the beginning. Phil Mickelson, a world-champion bag-getter who probably would advertise for anything or anyone for the right price, has been clear about how much he likes the “leverage” the Saudi option provides. Lee Westwood, a lifelong second- and third-place finisher in major championships, is at least far enough along with the Saudis to have a nondisclosure agreement with them. Adam Scott says “the schedule they’re proposing is very appealing.” Mickelson is 51, Westwood is 48, and Scott are 41.* Other players nearer to Scott’s age might ultimately join up too. Many of them—not just DeChambeau—have played in the Saudi International over the past three years and haven’t had a problem dismissing anyone’s criticism out of hand. The world’s No. 25 player, Jason Kokrak, is 36 years old and is explicit that the Saudi tour would help him reach his goal of retiring at 44.

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The PGA Tour’s leadership has put itself in this precarious state, as the Shotgun Start podcast detailed well this week. Whatever you think about how the tour should split its loot between the top players and those lower down the pecking order, it’s made plenty of mistakes over the years. For instance, it devotes time and money to the Champions Tour, a senior tour that most golf fans don’t care about at all. A lot of tour events lack verve and don’t excite many fans or players, and they don’t carry the financial might to make up for that. An instructive case study might be that dozens of notable names picked the Saudi tournament at the start of February over a competing PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach, one of the most beloved courses in the United States. The PGA Tour does not operate any of the sport’s four majors—the events players most covet—though it does control The Players Championship, which it wants you to perceive as a “fifth major.”

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Blame the players too, though. That’s not playing both sides of the fence, because the players own the tour and have enormous input into its structure. Some of them have made asses of themselves in discussions of the Saudi venture. Charley Hoffman filled his diaper after an official’s ruling at the recent WM Phoenix Open didn’t go his way, saying that the tour didn’t “protect” its players on rules issues and implying that that’s why the tour was in danger. (In a nonalternate reality, the tour coddles players on rules issues to a preposterous extent.) Kramer Hickock, who has never qualified for a major in his career, wants the majors to bump up their purse amounts. (To be fair, given the majors’ outsize value to fans and players alike, he might have a point, even if he’s a funny messenger.) Mickelson reportedly acknowledged to a journalist that the Saudi government murdered Khashoggi and has “a horrible record on human rights,” but he has decided using the Saudi option to move the PGA Tour is a pursuit of realpolitik that he frames as almost noble. “They execute people over there for being gay,” he told veteran golf reporter Alan Shipnuck in a freshly shared book excerpt. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

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Nevertheless, the PGA Tour might nullify the threat. In sports, money usually wins, but people sometimes get such a public dragging that they can’t stomach going ahead with their most ambitious ideas. The collapse of the early-2021 European Super League in soccer, which had contracts with the biggest clubs in the world, is proof. Much of the golfing press, often docile toward players and their agents, has been openly hostile to the idea of a breakaway Saudi tour. Some of the game’s greatest players, still in their primes, have opposed it in public.

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But it would not take a lot for the house of cards to fall. Players have already decided in droves that the standalone Saudi tournament of the past few years is worth answering some uncomfortable questions about in exchange for a check. Joining the burgeoning tour would invite more criticism—but also bigger checks. The athletes could claim cover from any number of other sportswashings, whether they be the Olympics, Formula 1 racing, British soccer, or plenty of other beloved events backed by authoritarians and unscrupulous companies, American ones included. They could stand behind the shield of the U.S. government, which still collaborates with Saudi Arabia on a range of oil and military issues. If the nation’s president won’t even wrist-slap MBS for murdering a U.S. resident who worked in the public eye for one of America’s premier news outlets, then why, a golfer could easily rationalize, should he make a stand? Once a few players go and take the public heat, it will be simpler for more to follow.

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Maybe the PGA Tour, in that case, will stand firm. It could issue outright bans to the defectors. But would it? Would the title sponsors of tour events be jazzed if one of the world’s best players wanted to bring further attention to their tournament, but the tour didn’t allow his attendance? Of course not; moreover, the tour itself has already bent on planned prohibitions against Saudi events. Perhaps the governing bodies for the majors and the Ryder Cup would issue their own deterrents against players who might defect, but those tournament organizers might not want to risk themselves for the sanctity of the sport’s less prestigious events.

The PGA Tour has a solid base of player, media, and fan support. But it also has a competitor with essentially limitless resources and a strong desire to use golf as a diplomatic prop. Betting against the Saudis causing a major disruption to the professional golf order might boil down to betting against Phil Mickelson and like-minded peers taking huge money when it’s waved in front of their faces. And that is a bet that even Phil Mickelson probably would not make.

Correction, Feb. 18, 2022: This article originally misstated Adam Scott’s age. He is 41, not 48.

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