Until this month, the short history of the Saudi Arabian government’s nascent professional golf circuit could split neatly into two eras. First there was an up period, which gathered steam in 2021 and reached a crescendo in the early months of 2022. In this period, LIV Golf, a product of the Saudis’ Public Investment Fund, was rumored to be offering lots of money to lots of different professional golfers, and many of them were in turn rumored to be taking the Saudi courtship quite seriously. (Rumors were a constant feature, as not a single player confirmed his participation until this month.) By February, LIV, headlined by two-time major winner Greg Norman, looked like an emerging threat to the PGA Tour’s dominance.
Then there was a down period. It began around the time Phil Mickelson opened his mouth and let an honest explanation for his interest in the Saudi-backed tour flow forth like diarrhea. Mickelson called the Saudis “scary motherfuckers to get involved with” and acknowledged a “horrible record on human rights,” including the executions of gay people and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But LIV Golf retained his interest, he said, because it provided leverage for top players against the PGA Tour. The pure financial incentive was obvious from the start, but Mickelson’s statements were a bit too honest for his own good, and they spooked all of the top players who were still on the fence about the Saudi effort into publicly committing to stick with a PGA Tour that had threatened suspensions for those who played in LIV events. Whatever momentum the Saudis and Norman had built was blunted. LIV Golf would go ahead, but it would be a zombie without a main attraction beyond Mickelson at 51.
But now, like an iron flighted downwind, the Saudis’ sportswashing tour has found a second life. On June 1, when LIV announced most of the players for its first event (taking place this week in London), the field included a whale: two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 15 player. Johnson was among the players who pledged fealty to the PGA Tour after Mickelson put his foot in his mouth, but the Saudis evidently threw enough money at him that Johnson couldn’t remain a “no.” The bandied-about cost of his services for the new tour is somewhere north of $100 million, which would be at least $25 million more than Johnson has made on the course in an illustrious tour career. In fact, depending on the exact number, it could be more than any golfer has ever made in tournament earnings. Whatever the figure, Johnson’s agent said it was “too compelling to pass up,” even baking in the loss of a sponsorship deal with the Royal Bank of Canada and who knows what else. Mickelson confirmed Monday that he will join Johnson. The first reported number for Mickelson’s participation—nobody is going to confirm any details—is $200 million, which would easily be the most a golfer has ever made on-course. Rickie Fowler might join too, now that it’s likely he’ll never compete for top competitive prizes again. (Fowler is a former top-five player and runner-up in several majors, but he has struggled the past few years, and this week failed to even qualify for the U.S. Open.) The headliners will boost a field that is mostly has-beens and never-will-bes, with a few solid veterans mixed in. All have decided that the threat of a PGA Tour suspension or ban is not a worthwhile deterrent. Someone will eventually sue over that punishment if it is carried out, and antitrust lawyers will hash out the next chapter in this saga.
Overall, the LIV player list is not impressive. Even if it had a broadcast partner other than YouTube and Facebook, it is hard to fathom that many people would watch it for reasons other than morbid curiosity. But the Saudis are on the front foot again. Whether LIV achieves the eventual goal of improving the government’s reputation among Western audiences, the league will exist. It will hold eight events this year. In the long run, it will probably get better players, not worse, than it has now. After all, the Saudis are following the same playbook in golf that they have always followed in international relations: Build a strong enough financial position, and eventually the powerful holdouts against you will prefer to be your friends.
Professional golf would normally be nobody’s candidate to become a mini-hub of resistance against a bad actor of any kind, let alone a dictator accused of chopping up dissidents. This is not a sport that feels shame, or that feels any need to feel shame. Jack Nicklaus, the second-best player of all-time and still a hallowed elder in the sport, just called it “cancel culture” that Donald Trump’s course lost this year’s PGA Championship after a little bit of coup-attempting. But Nicklaus has said he turned down multiple offers from the Saudis, and most of the golf world has lined up with him—often with harsher things to say about the upstart tour. His opprobrium has been echoed by elite players who would wear just about any logo if the sponsor paid enough, and by a media corps that depends heavily on access to players and the agents who manage them. The golf press is usually docile, but en masse, it has pulled few punches on this story.
There are a few theories as to why the Saudi entrance to pro golf has drawn such blowback, while other sports (and golf itself) have plenty of dealings with autocratic governments and have been able to carry them on without much trouble. One idea is that LIV Golf has positioned itself as an alternative to the existing golf ecosystem rather than part and parcel of it. The PGA Tour’s open hostility to the burgeoning circuit gives media who rely on PGA Tour relationships a reason to avoid sucking up to a competitor. If you watched CBS’s broadcasts of either the Masters or the subsequent RBC Heritage tournament, you may have noticed the network’s commentators bending over backward to avoid saying the words “Saudi Arabia” when discussing international events. Harold Varner III, who won a tournament in the kingdom this past winter, was not joking when he said he could not tell the media the location of that event, even though everyone already knew. Jim Nantz referred on air to Varner’s win as having come “overseas.” There is a business fight here, and to the PGA Tour’s media allies, the Saudi government is on the wrong side of it.
Another source of such open conflict is that golfers are their own bosses. Think whatever you will about the NBA operating in China, but it is not up to LeBron James whether that relationship persists. The NBA’s owners and commissioner made a business decision—a common one—to take their business to a country that is currently engaged in genocide. Try as conservative media might to make that all the choice of James and other players who speak out against racism in the United States, most people understand that the NBA is a massive business that will do what it pleases irrespective of individual athletes’ feedback. There is no such firewall in golf, where every player is an independent contractor in charge of his own affairs. When Mickelson or Johnson takes blood money, there is no shadowy ownership group to fall back on. And, as golf writer Kyle Robbins has pointed out, LIV’s competition format—guaranteed payouts for everyone, no cuts, and an invitational rather than open structure—does not fit with golf’s tradition as a sport where any player can theoretically work their way to the top by hitting enough good shots. Mickelson’s bizarrely honest commentary about the Saudi government did not help the counter–public relations effort.
This might all seem like a lot for LIV Golf and its Public Investment Fund backers to confront. But an organization doesn’t throw billions of dollars into a second-rate golf tour without a commitment to getting some bang for its buck. The Saudi government has had a few PR problems in its many decades as a valued partner of Western governments. Sept. 11 was one. The murder of Khashoggi and an ongoing war-turned–humanitarian crisis in Yemen are two more. (To help, they’ve called in Ari Fleischer, one of the Bush administration’s chief Iraq War propagandists. Nobody can say he isn’t a culture fit.) The Saudis have maintained good standing in Washington and other Western capitals despite those inconveniences. The idea that a golf tour would be a bridge too far was fanciful.
In this way, PGA Tour players’ gradual peeling-off toward LIV Golf is not anything new. The president of the United States talked tough on Saudi Arabia for a few months in the post-Khashoggi world. Joe Biden said he wanted the country to be a pariah state. He has since tucked tail and planned a visit to Riyadh, because he needs the country’s help getting our gas prices from $4.80 to $3.70. The Saudis had leverage—oil—and flexed it until Biden did what they wanted. If they can persuade Joe Biden, then yes, they can persuade Kevin Na and Louis Oosthuizen.
It has been a somewhat astonishing effort that most of professional men’s golf has put up a united front against LIV Golf for as long as it has, and for a touch longer than the American government did. But the Saudis again have the leverage, this time in the form of comical payouts that mean even the last-place finishers at their events will make well into the six figures for their time. At most PGA Tour events, a missed cut means a payout of zero dollars, while the big payouts go to those atop the leaderboard. That money, to say nothing of whatever sums that names like Mickelson and Johnson are getting, goes a long way. It could turn out to be more potent than whatever disciplinary action the PGA Tour imposes on LIV’s participants.
The entire exercise remains a game of incentives, like almost everything in sports, business, or international relations. The best players in the world have one: to make as much as they can without compromising their reputations to such an extent that the social costs outweigh the financial gains. The Saudi government and LIV Golf have their own motives: to throw enough money at those same players that they stop saying no, as a few of them have already begun to do. The composition of the field at future Saudi-funded golf events hinges on what runs out first: the PIF’s money, or athletes’ fear of taking it.