A ritzy golf tour sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government is roiling the world of professional golf. The oppressive regime's attempt to use sports to gain acceptance within Western democracies has human rights advocate rightfully concerned.
The Saudi-backed war in Yemen, Saudi's de facto leader reportedly authorizing the killing of a Washington Post journalist, and the Saudi government’s long history of human rights abuses have driven concern about the oil-rich country’s global influence.
For years, those concerns helped prevent the Saudi-backed LIV golf tournament (a Roman numeral reference to the 54 holes played during the competition) from getting off the ground. Over that time, officials from the world’s preeminent golf tours — namely, the PGA Tour — have staved off LIV’s rise by threatening players with bans if they defect to play in the Saudi Arabian league. Regardless, the potential for extra-large payouts has lured some of golf’s biggest names to LIV, which officially kicks off on Thursday.
On Tuesday morning, Dustin Johnson, a top-ranked American golfer and winner of multiple major tournaments, resigned from the PGA Tour and said he’d play exclusively in LIV events. Johnson said in February that he was “fully committed” to the PGA Tour, but multiple reports last week revealed he reversed course.
As of last week, Johnson and several other top golfers from around the world were listed as participants in Thursday’s inaugural LIV tournament in London.
But the biggest defection from the PGA didn’t come until Monday night.
That’s when Phil Mickelson, a two-time PGA Championship winner, officially announced he too will join the LIV tour. Mickelson’s participation doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. He’s tried to keep a low profile in recent months after sparking controversy for calling the Saudi government “scary” but saying he’d play in tournaments they sponsor anyway.
“We know they killed [Post journalist Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights," Mickelson told journalist Alan Shipnuck. "They execute people over there for being gay. 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.”
Mickelson’s justification for participating in the Saudi-backed golf league — that he’s doing it to help the sport — is laughable, to say the least. He’s reportedly earning $200 million by joining the LIV. Johnson is reportedly earning around $125 million. Greg Norman, a retired professional golfer from Australia, is a chief executive of the Saudi tour and is likely making several million dollars as well.
He told The Washington Post that Tiger Woods turned down a “mind-blowingly enormous" offer — in the nine figure range — to participate.
And there’s no real confusion about what the regime is aiming to do with this tournament.
In his interview with Shipnuck, Mickelson even invoked the specific term — “sportswashing” — describing countries that use sports to sanitize their image. The Saudi government, for example, has sponsored several major sports and entertainment events, including last year’s “Crown Jewel” professional wrestling event held in collaboration with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment. The regime is also a major sponsor of Formula One racing, the European motorsports league. And the Saudi Arabian government also owns a soccer team in the English Premier League.
The LIV Golf tour is another means for Saudi Arabia’s government to dress up its image across the world. And for the right price, top golfers are making themselves tools to help the nation do so.