With This Tee-Off, World of Golf Is in Turmoil

Saudi-financed LIV league threatens to cause a major split among professional golfers
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 9, 2022 10:40 AM CDT
With This Tee-Off, World of Golf Is in Turmoil
Tiger Woods reportedly turned down about $1 billion to play in the Saudi league.   (AP Photo/Matt York)

Some big names in golf teed off Thursday in a tournament just outside London, but the resulting headlines aren't focusing on who might win or lose. Instead, they're all about how the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational has sent the world of professional golf into a tizzy. Why? The LIV is funded, lavishly, by Saudi Arabia, and the rival golf league has begun drawing away players from the PGA Tour. Coverage:

  • Main criticism: Critics say Saudi Arabia is guilty of "sportswashing"—using the venture to draw attention away from its human rights record, specifically the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, per Axios. Its big-picture assessment: "It's either the dawn of a new era, or the early days of a startup doomed to fail. Either way, the clubby world of men's pro golf has changed forever."

  • A tug of war: The New York Times has an analysis on all of the above. The Saudi venture "represents nothing less than an attempt to supplant the elite level of an entire sport, taking place in real time, with golf's best players cast as the prize in a high-stakes, billion-dollar tug of war," writes Tariq Panja. This goes beyond "sportswashing," however, Panja adds. It's "part of a layered approach by the kingdom—not just through investments in sports but also in spheres like business, entertainment, and the arts—to alter perceptions of itself, both externally and internally, as more than just a wealthy, conservative Muslim monarchy."
  • Big names: Phil Mickelson is perhaps the biggest star to sign on, reportedly with a whopping $200 million inducement. "I'm certainly aware of what has happened with Jamal Khashoggi, and I think it's terrible," he said this week in defending his decision, per the AP. "I've also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history." Greg Norman is the CEO of parent entity LIV Golf Investments. Other big players include Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia. The Telegraph reports that Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed will come aboard for future tournaments.
  • But not this one: Norman tells the Washington Post that Tiger Woods rejected a Saudi offer that was "mind-blowingly enormous; we're talking about high nine digits." Yes, that would be about $1 billion. Others can't resist the big paydays. This week's tournament winner gets $4 million, for example, and the last-place finisher gets $120,000. "I've had a longer career than most," says 49-year-old Lee Westwood, per the Independent. "It's my 29th season, but like you, if there's a pay increase, at my age, I'd be stupid not to take it."

  • 'Mistakes': Norman ran into criticism in May when he sought to put the killing of Khashoggi into context. "This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights—talk about it, but also talk about the good that the country is doing in changing its culture," he said, per the Guardian. "Look, we've all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes."
  • Tough question: At a press conference this week, a reporter posed this question to Westwood and fellow LIV golfer Ian Poulter: "If Vladimir Putin had a tournament, would you play that ... if the money was right?" per Golf.com. Both golfers declined to answer, calling it unfair speculation. Watch the exchange here.
  • Consequences: The PGA has indefinitely suspended 17 golfers, including Mickelson and Johnson, from PGA Tour events because of their participation in the LIV, reports CNBC. The AP points out this, however: "The USGA already has said eligible players can still compete in the US Open next week. The PGA Tour does not run the majors."
(More golf stories.)

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