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$255 Million in Prize Money. Phil Mickelson’s Implosion. Saudi Arabia’s Influence on Golf Raises Concerns

7 minute read

Golf, that genteel game, rarely finds itself swept up by the geopolitical flares of its day. But on the eve of this year’s PGA Championship, which tees off in Tulsa, Okla., on May 19, America’s institutional stronghold over the sport is being threatened by one of the most controversial countries on the globe. While the eyes of the golf world turn to Tulsa, the government of Saudi Arabia, of all places, still looms very large over the game.

Saudi Arabia has never been a golf hotbed. But the kingdom is now trying to grow the game. LIV Golf Investments, an entity backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the PIF, launched last year, with former world No. 1 Greg Norman—a two-time major champion—as its CEO. In March, LIV Golf Investments announced the start of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, which promises to dish out $255 million in total purse money, across eight events. “Shot Just Got Real,” LIV Golf says on its website. “We exist to supercharge the game of golf.”

Each event will feature 48 players, who will play three instead of the four rounds standard on the PGA Tour. The winner of each of the seven “regular-season events” receives $4 million; by contrast, the winner of the PGA Championship, a major, gets $2.16 million. The total purse of each LIV event is $25 million; the PGA Championship total purse is half that, at $12 million. The best individual performer across the LIV Golf competition earns $18 million; equal to what the champion of the PGA Tour’s season-ending competition, the FedEx Cup, will earn: LIV Golf, however, throws in a team competition in its last event. A team winning team of four splits a $16 million first prize; the total purse for the team final is $50 million.

The Phil Mickelson controversy

These eye-popping figures have attracted the attention of the world’s best golfers. Defending PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson, for example, told author Alan Shipnuck, whose biography of Mickelson was released Tuesday, that he and three other nameless “top players” paid for lawyers to write the LIV Golf operating agreement. Saudi Arabia’s critics have labeled the kingdom’s massive recent investment in sports like golf and Formula 1 as a classic example of “sports washing,” or using the sheen of sports as a way of whitewashing an autocratic nation’s human rights record. According to a U.S. intelligence report, for example, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident. Mickelson, according to Shipnuck, told him he agreed with the sports washing assessment. But Saudi riches were too good to ignore.

“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. 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. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the Saudi golf tour] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.” Mickelson, one of the most popular players in golf, who captivated the country by becoming the oldest player, at 50, to win a major championship, has taken a hiatus after those comments were published in February. He also apologized saying: ” I used words I sincerely regret that do not reflect my true feelings or intentions. It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words.” Mickelson, long a fan-favorite who at last year’s PGA made history by becoming the oldest player, at 50, to win a major, won’t defend his title in Oklahoma; sponsors such as Workday and KPMG have dropped him. Shipnuck has reported that Mickelson lost $40 million gambling from 2010-2014.

While LIV Golf has not announced its player roster ahead of its first event, June 9-11 in London, at least one other major champion has expressed interest. After becoming upset with a ruling in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship in early May, Sergio Garcia told an official, “I can’t wait to leave this tour. I can’t wait to get out of here. A couple of more weeks and I won’t have to deal with you anymore.” Garcia requested a release from the PGA Tour to participate in the London event.

The PGA Tour has treated LIV Golf as a rogue competitor, particularly because five of the events will be held on the Tour’s home soil, the United States. Two of the LIV Golf events will be held at clubs owned by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who while in office said, “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The July 29-31 event will be held at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., the site that was slated to host this week’s PGA Championship. The PGA of America, however, announced it was moving the major out of Bedminster on Jan. 25, 2021, in the days following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. In a May 10 memo sent to its players, the PGA Tour said it was denying a conflicting-event release for the LIV event in London. LIV Golf doubled down, announcing a $2 billion investment and an expansion of the invitational events to 10 tournaments in 2023, and 14 tournaments in ’24 and ’25.

‘It’s grotesque’

LIV Golf, however, didn’t help its cause last week, when Norman appeared to downplay Khashoggi’s murder. “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” Norman said at an event in London.

Norman’s remarks received swift condemnation. “Would you say that if it was your loved one? How can we go forward when those who ordered the murder are still unpunished, and continue to try to buy back their legitimacy?” Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz told the Telegraph. “We should not fall for their wealth and lies, and lose our morals and common humanity. We should all be insisting on the truth and justice; only then can we look forward with hope and dignity.”

“It’s grotesque,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a non-profit founded by Khashoggi in 2018. “It’s grotesque that Greg is seeking to justify a very lucrative business deal with a very troublesome, disturbing public fund.” Whitson believes Saudi sports washing is still at its nascent stages. “Do you think they’re going to stop at golf?” says Whitson. “They’re not. They have a bottomless pit of money, and every day that fuel prices go up, it gives them billions more to buy up these image-polishing assets.”

Saudi Arabia has marketed its sports spending as a key component of “Vision 2030,” the kingdom’s effort at economic diversification and modernization. Whitson, however, shares a message for American sports fans considering attending one of the LIV events (June 30-July 2 in Portland, Ore., July 29-31 in Bedminster, N.J., Sept. 2-4 in Boston, Sept. 16-18 in Chicago, and Oct. 27-30 at Trump National Doral in Miami). “Take ownership,” Whitson says. “If you go to a Saudi government, Mohammad bin Salman-controlled and operated golf event, he wants you there to normalize him. And when you go there, you normalize him.”

Remember last month at the Masters, when Tiger Woods had a fine first round, and gave golf hope that he could write another comeback story for the ages? The sport can use his spark at the PGA this weekend. Anything—anything—to distract from the geopolitical mess it has on its hands.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com