• Sports

Saudi Arabia’s Influence on Golf Is the Talk of the U.S. Open. It Might Be Here to Stay

14 minute read

In late November of last year, while driving up I-5 north of Los Angeles, golf journalist Alan Shipnuck received the phone call that would shake up the sport in 2022. Phil Mickelson, the six-time major champion who, a year ago, charmed sports fans worldwide in becoming the oldest person, at 50, to win a major title—at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C.—was on the line. Shipnuck was writing a biography of Mickelson, and had been itching for an interview; Mickelson’s reps, however, had run interference. Until now.

Mickelson had been in conversations about joining a Saudi Arabia-backed golf entity that threatened to rival the PGA Tour. This development, naturally, came up in their conversation. Mickelson told Shipnuck that he knew that the Saudis were engaging in “sportswashing,” or using athletics to change the narrative about the country’s human rights violations. “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] 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 organization] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”

Shipnuck knew Mickelson had said the quiet part loud. And that the game of golf could be forever altered.

In February, Shipnuck published Mickelson’s comments on the website of his new media company, the Fire Pit Collective. (His book Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar was released in May). The fallout indeed proved explosive. His words drew the battle lines between the Saudi startup, called LIV Golf, and the PGA’s existing monopoly over the sport. It drew attention to LIV Golf, and the eye-popping prize money the Saudi startup was offering golfers. Mickelson took an extended leave of absence from the sport. Last week, he and other major-title winners like Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, and Bryson DeChambeau officially joined LIV Golf; the PGA Tour announced these and other players who signed up would be suspended.

The first LIV Golf event teed off outside London last week, and Shipnuck again was involved in probably the biggest news event of the tournament, when he was ejected from a Mickelson press conference. (Shipnuck shared a text message from LIV chief Greg Norman feigning ignorance about Shipnuck’s ejection; meanwhile, a photo showed a Norman standing behind Shipnuck while security badgered him). Now, Mickelson—long a fan favorite on tour— is playing in the U.S. Open in Brookline, Mass., with his legacy tainted. He suffered through an uncomfortable press conference early in the week. Families of 9/11 victims have criticized Mickelson and other LIV players.

TIME caught up with Shipnuck, who’s in Brookline, Mass. covering the U.S. Open, to discuss this surreal situation in golf.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity)

What was your reaction when Mickelson called you to unload on Saudi Arabia and the PGA Tour?

In the final analysis, Phil just couldn’t help himself. He had been told by his people not to talk to me. But he wanted to explain to me how he had won all these political battles and that he was smarter than Jay Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner, and he was smarter than Greg Norman, the Saudi frontman, and he had gamed the system and he was getting everything he’d always wanted. And he just couldn’t stand the idea of me not knowing this for this book. It’s been clear that Phil has some issues with impulse control. You see it on the golf course. He’s recently admitted to a gambling addiction. And I think that there was a thrill in it for him to call the one person he probably shouldn’t have shared this with, the one person on the planet who was writing this book about him. It certainly turned his world upside down, and mine as well.

How do you think his comments impacted golf?

This has been percolating for over a year, the Saudi seduction. But it was all happening in the shadows. It was all these secret backroom negotiations. And so this just brought it to the fore and became the biggest story in golf and it continues to be so. What Phil said just put a huge spotlight on it. The Saudi threat was real to the PGA Tour. The sportswashing was real. The players knew it. They knew they were pawns in this larger game. But the money was so fantastical. They weren’t going to be able to say no. But it also highlighted that, for a lot of players, it’s just about the money. For Phil, there’s more at work here. He’s been battling the PGA Tour his whole career, sometimes publicly, sometimes in private. And he’s always been stymied because he had no leverage. There are a half-a-dozen superstars in golf, and there are 150 journeymen and the Tour has to cater to all of them. And so on anything, Phil is badly outvoted by the sheer number of other players whose concerns are very different from his. They’re just trying to keep their job. So he’s always been frustrated that he didn’t have more traction. Nobody gets in bed with the Saudis unless there’s a huge payday. We know that that’s obvious. But for Phil, it was also a chance to reshape the sport in his image and to be this maverick and this agent of change. He’s always craved that role, but he never had the juice. He never had the leverage. And the Saudis gave him that.

And so, he was really working both sides of the street as long as he could, where he was negotiating with the Saudis and he was negotiating with the Tour. But finally, you know, he had pledged his allegiance to one side or the other. And he turned his back on the PGA Tour. But even before he did that, he had accomplished a lot of what he wanted. I mean, the Tour started funneling a lot more money to the players to try and thwart his Saudi threat. Law. They established this NFT platform that was an obsession of Phil’s. I’m not saying he gets all the credit for these things. But he gets some. And I’m sure they’re going to reexamine how they treat the players and their media rights. So that’s one of the ironies in this. He was winning some of these battles, and he had support from a lot of players up to a point. But he kind of overplayed his hand.

Phil’s always been one of the most popular players with fans. Do you think the backlash to his LIV involvement has left him feeling hurt?

Phil is the consummate showman. He thrives off the love and the energy of the crowd. It’s painful for him to know that some fans are outraged and some will never forgive him. That hurts him on an almost spiritual level. But at the same time, Phil did his time for his crime. He spent four months in exile. We’ve already seen it in the gallery here at Brookline, in the practice rounds, he’s getting a lot of love from the fans. They’re just happy he’s back. They like watching him play. They certainly don’t seem overly bothered by the geopolitics of it all.

He’s still going to play in the most important tournaments there are, which are the major championships. The suspensions of these PGA Tour members who’ve thrown in with LIV Tour, that’s written in pencil, not blood. This is all going to get negotiated. At some point, a middle ground is going to be forged. It’s hard to believe Phil will never play Pebble Beach, where he’s won five times, again. That doesn’t serve the PGA Tour. It doesn’t serve the tournament. It doesn’t serve the sponsors and the fans. They want Phil to be there. Even though some of them are mad at him at the moment.

At the first LIV event last week, you were pushed around by security guards when trying to attend a press gaggle after Phil’s round. What was that experience like?

The whole thing was absurd. I was mostly just laughing and shaking my head because it was like the Keystone Cops. Initially, they hadn’t responded to my request to be credentialed. And in fairness to the tournament organizers, I was coming in last minute. So I actually went on the website and bought tickets for myself. I was just going to show up and watch with my own eyes and observe the whole thing. And then the day that I arrived, they wound up giving me a press credential. But when it was handed to me, the tournament official said, you know, Phil’s has made it clear to us that he doesn’t want to speak to you this week. And I was like, Yeah, I can’t really commit to that. I just traveled 6,000 miles. He’s the biggest newsmaker in a very important moment for the sport. I’m not really inclined to be censored by Phil Mickelson.

But we just kind of left it at that. It wasn’t a formal sit-down press conference, it was kind of like this outdoor flash area. And all the reporters are standing and I was in the back row. I’m not sure he even really saw me. It just started, and these guys literally grabbed me by the arm and it was such a wild overreaction. This is just a golf tournament. I’m just a lowly golf reporter. I was not going to ask a gotcha question. I want to talk to him about, you know, what he learned about himself during his time away. That was my question. You could call it a softball, but that’s really what I wanted to know. And I never got that chance. They really hustled me out of there. In the days that followed, I was trying to understand what exactly happened. It’s more clear to me now that it actually wasn’t Norman who sent those guys who asked me to leave. It was Phil’s people. And that’s actually more troubling. On a procedural level, the tournament organizers control the credentials and they have the authority to revoke a credential for whatever reason they can come up with. But for a player to try to get a reporter removed, that’s a very troubling precedent.

And it speaks to the kind of Saudi-style censorship. Norman certainly could have stepped in and prevented it from happening. So he’s culpable as well. I mean, it’s his party. He’s the Supreme Leader of LIV Golf. He could have done the right thing there. He chose not to. It speaks to how under siege they feel and this sense that you know, everyone’s out to get them when in reality, this is all Phil’s doing. No one made him collude with the Saudis. No one made him take the money. He could have walked away and come back to the PGA Tour. He would have been embraced as the savior of the PGA Tour, the guy who might have sunk this Saudi threat to the game. But that wasn’t his choice. You can’t have the money without the accountability. You can’t have the glory without the scrutiny. It’s just not how it works in this world.

Do you think the LIV Tour has staying power?

Yeah, because the Saudis have unlimited resources to float this thing. This is not a traditional business venture where there’s a mandate to make a profit. Right now, this is about laundering their reputation on the world stage. So that has value to them. They’re willing to pay for it. What the Saudis want is to buy legitimacy. At the Centurion Club, Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, a top Saudi official, is getting hugs from some of the best golfers in the world and is embraced and thanked. The adulation, that’s what they’re trying to buy. And you can’t put a price tag on how much that week meant to this guy and his people. And so I think they’re in it for the long haul.

Charl Schwartzel had become a complete non-factor in the sport and in three days, he won $4.75 million. And guys who beat him week after week [on the PGA Tour] are earning a fraction of that. So of course they’re going to look around and be like, well, I want a slice of that pie. The PGA Tour is trying to turn this into a moral argument. They’ve already lost that debate. I mean, professional golf has long been played in China, in the United Arab Emirates, in Qatar, for years. Golfers have voted with their feet and their pocketbook. They are at peace with taking money from oppressive regimes. That’s just a fact. It’s indisputable. And so they’re not worried about where the money’s coming from. They just want the money. And there are players like Roy McIlroy, who have become the conscience of the sport. He’s said no. But it appears he’s going to be in the minority. So the Saudis will continue to buy more and more players. The LIV tour is going to become an inescapable part of professional golf.

Guess this isn’t a bad time to start a golf media company.

It’s a gift from the content gods. This story has spilled out of the golf arena into the larger sports world, and even just general news. There’s a lot of personality. You’ve got Saudi Arabia, which is a huge part of our life. Joe Biden’s flying over there any day now. On the global stage, the Saudis have never been more influential. Former President Trump, he’s hosting two of their events. So you have the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is in the mix here. You’ve got Donald Trump. You have Greg Norman. He’s long been kind of a pariah in the game and a polarizing figure. Norman adds a lot of energy to it. You know, Phil, one of the biggest stars of the last 30 years, also a polarizing figure. And even the players they’ve signed up are not wallflowers. Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Kevin Na, Patrick Reed, these are some of the most controversial players in the game, and they move the needle. They’re not the best players. They don’t have the loftiest world-ranking positions. But they have some of the biggest personalities. They inspire conversation. You may want to, but you can’t really ignore the LIV Tour anymore.

Where does the game of golf go from here?

What the Saudis very cleverly realized is that there are some marketing efficiencies. The PGA Tour has never had competition. So its product has grown very stale. There’s no innovation in the format. The TV streaming and social media presentation is terrible. It’s a very lumbering organization. That’s being exposed. So competition is good. I mean, the Tour is going to have to evolve, it’s going to have to improve. For the golf fan, that’s going to be a win. Both organizations are going to have to be more dynamic and more nimble and rethink how they reach the fans. And so this could actually be a great thing for golf fans. But it’s messy. The genteel veneer of golf has been stripped away.

More Must-Reads From TIME

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