Endless Saudi Money Throws Golf Into an Existential Crisis

Phil Mickelson plays on the 18th during the Pro-Am at the Centurion Club, Hertfordshire ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational Series. Photo: Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

There is perhaps no sport more designed for self-interest than golf. It is the opposite of a team sport. Even in tennis, you have someone to hit the ball back to you. In golf, you are alone with your thoughts, responsible only for what you do, success or failure riding solely on your own actions. To thrive as a professional requires believing in yourself — and yourself only. All golfers think of themselves as rugged individualists, even if they’re all wearing the same polos and plaid pants.

It is in this context that the Saudi Arabian government, using its sovereign wealth fund, created LIV Golf and plunged the sport into absolute chaos. The PGA Tour has been the governing arm and organizing principle of the golf world for decades, but it, unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, or most other professional sports leagues, doesn’t have a union. The players are independent contractors, usually paying their own way to events. And that has left it vulnerable to exactly what is happening now. The Saudis are blowing up the world of golf, and those rugged-individualist American golfers are giddily helping them push the plunger.

To get you up to speed, LIV Golf is having its first event this weekend, outside London, featuring top golfers like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau. Those three, along with every other golfer taking part, have all been kicked off the PGA Tour, purportedly for good. It has led to golf — a sport that was already losing relevance and market share, which was another reason the Saudi government targeted the sport — to face its biggest existential crisis in decades.

LIV Golf ostensibly claims to be an alternative to the PGA. It even has its own very (strange) slogan: “Golf, but louder.” (Fans still have to be quiet when golfers are in their backswing on the LIV Golf tour.) But what all of this really is a way for Saudi Arabia to launder its less-than-stellar reputation through sports, also known as sportswashing. And the quickest way to do that is to spend ungodly amounts of money and hope no one worries too much — or even cares — about where that money comes from. The LIV Golf tour is offering a jaw-dropping $255 million in prize money over its eight events this year; the Masters, the PGA’s jewel event, gave out $15 million last year, the largest amount it ever as, and it’s not even close to what each of the LIV events are offering.

Enter golfers — and, specifically, Phil Mickelson. Mickelson has long been the sport’s most self-aggrandizing iconoclast, a famously degenerate gambler (he once lost $40 million gambling over a five-year stretch) and smarmy self-promoter who was always just chatty enough with reporters and irresistibly self-destructive that you couldn’t take your eyes off him. (That he’s still a top-tier golfer, at the age of 51, doesn’t hurt either; last year he became the oldest man to ever win a major when he finished first at the PGA Championship.) Mickelson stands out, even in a sport where people are only out for themselves, as the guy who’s the most out for himself. He was one of the first players to sign up for the LIV Tour, but, because he’s Phil Mickelson, he couldn’t shut his mouth about it. And so he told his biographer Alan Shipnuck that he was joining Saudi Arabia’s new tour even though “they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights” and “execute people over there for being gay.” (Mickelson has paid Shipnuck back for accurately quoting him by kicking him out of his press conferences.) The reason Mickelson joined up was, of course, the money: reportedly $200 million for him alone to switch, which will take care of a lot of busted parlays. The Saudis have made him the face of the offshoot tour, and Mickelson obliged to the point that, on the first day of the first event, he wore a Masters vest with the logo blacked out.

Most golfers, including Tiger Woods (who reportedly turned down a “high-nine-figure” offer to join the LIV tour), are sticking with the PGA Tour — which is hardly some blameless organization being preyed upon by the big bad Saudis. Their monopoly on golf has led to policies — like the ones where players all have to pay their own way to every event — that have angered golfers for years. The desire for competition was one of the things Mickelson said drew him to the LIV Tour in the first place. (He actually told Shipnuck, “I’m not sure I even want them to succeed.” He has since presumably changed his mind.)

Joining up with the Saudis (and taking their money) might require jumping through some moral hoops, but Mickelson, ironically, is the only golfer to talk so openly about the Saudi government’s shady history of human-rights abuses. LPGA golfers have played Saudi events and received decidedly less criticism for it. Golf is not the only target here, either. The Saudi Cup has become horse racing’s most lucrative event, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the famously amoral WWE has been working with the Saudi government for years and held its “Crown Jewel” event in the country just days after Khashoggi’s murder. But the Saudi government’s sportswashing experiment has found its biggest success in golf, where it could flash around its insane money to the exact players most amenable to taking it.

It’s worth remembering too that while the NBA and other American sports leagues have resisted Saudi money so far, they are plenty flexible on this sort of stuff when it suits them. The NBA is playing two exhibition games next year in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. These problematic partnerships, I’m sad to say, will probably soon be par for every sport’s course. After all, the only golfer to explicitly call out the Saudi government for its brutality did so while explaining why he was taking their money anyway. Sports are like any other business: They’re going to go where the money is. Right now, the Saudi government is throwing around absurd amounts of cash to any professional athlete who will hold out their hand. Golfers, wrestlers, and racehorse owners appear to have had the most eagerness to go first. They will not be the last.

Endless Saudi Money Throws Golf Into an Existential Crisis