After the Saudi government created an upstart professional golf tour in 2021 to compete with the PGA — the world’s most prestigious tour, based in the U.S. — top PGA executives set out to destroy the new venture.
They banned golfers who signed up with the Saudi tour, known as LIV Golf, from PGA events and put intense pressure on other golfers not to join LIV. PGA executives also complained to members of Congress about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Anybody ignoring that record, said Jay Monahan, the PGA commissioner, was “living under a rock.”
Monahan went so far as to suggest that LIV golfers were betraying the victims of the 9/11 attacks (an allusion to the fact that most of the attackers were Saudi citizens). “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?” Monahan asked on national television.
It was all part of a campaign to undermine LIV, even if doing so required damaging the reputations of leading golfers.
Then, yesterday morning, to almost everybody’s surprise, the PGA reversed its position. It offered little explanation for the turnabout.
The PGA announced that it would merge with LIV and accept a large investment from a fund run by Saudi Arabia’s government. Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who runs the fund, will become the chairman of the combined tour, while Monahan will become the chief executive. As part of the deal, the Saudi investment fund will have the right of first refusal for future investments in the tour, allowing it to expand its stake.
The merger is the latest sign that money can overwhelm almost any other force in professional sports. “The PGA Tour succumbed to the Saudis,” Brody Miller of The Athletic wrote. “In the end, Jay Monahan and the PGA Tour had a price tag.” Monahan and his fellow executives evidently decided they would rather join forces with the Saudi government than continue to bid against it for golfers.
The winners from the deal include those golfers who had left the PGA for LIV, and typically received enormous payments for having done so. Two days ago, the PGA was still treating them as traitors who were trying to ruin professional golf. Yesterday, they were welcomed back.
“Awesome day today,” tweeted Phil Mickelson, one of the LIV golfers, alongside a red-cheeked smiling emoji. Brooks Koepka — another LIV golfer, whose victory at a major event last month, including golfers from both tours, seemed to legitimize the Saudi tour — mocked a golf announcer who had criticized LIV.
Golfers who had remained with the PGA Tour, by contrast, reacted bitterly. Some of them had turned down multimillion-dollar deals from LIV, as Monahan and the other PGA leaders had urged.
Rory McIlroy had reportedly turned down a $300 million contract. Afterward, McIlroy joined the P.R. campaign against LIV saying “there’s no room in the golf world” for it. Of the golfers who left, like Mickleson, McIlroy said, “Their best days are behind them.”
Wesley Bryan, another PGA golfer, wrote on Twitter, “I feel betrayed, and will not be able to trust anyone within the corporate structure of the PGA Tour for a very long time.” Collin Morikawa, ranked 18th in the world, suggested it was “the longest day in golf.” Athletes in other sports also took to social media to point out how angry the PGA golfers must be: They were effectively punished for their loyalty.
Scott Van Pelt, a longtime ESPN anchor, summed up the frustration in his own tweet:
One of the few people who accurately predicted the outcome of this saga was Donald Trump, who remains close to Saudi officials and whose clubs hosted several LIV events.
“All of those golfers that remain ‘loyal’ to the very disloyal PGA,” Trump wrote in an online post last summer, “will pay a big price when the inevitable merger with LIV comes, and you get nothing but a big ‘thank you’ from PGA officials.”
Now Trump stands to benefit from the merger. The PGA Tour suddenly seems more likely to hold events at his courses.
“The merger represented the most stunning success to date of Saudi Arabia’s ambition to become a player in global sports,” The Times’s Alan Blinder wrote. It is “nothing less than an attempt to seize control of an entire sport.”
The deal is the latest example of “sportswashing” — when an authoritarian government tries to burnish its image through sports. Saudi Arabia stepped up its efforts after its apparent 2019 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident.
The Biden administration has long pressed Saudi Arabia on human rights abuses, including Khashoggi’s killing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Saudi Arabia today to meet with the kingdom’s leaders, Al Jazeera reports.
If you want to understand why the Saudi government is so interested in golf, we recommend this behind-the-scenes piece by Brendan Quinn of The Athletic. (Note: All Access Times subscribers can read all Athletic stories.)
For golf fans, the deal has an upside, Miller wrote in The Athletic: “Having the best golfers split into different leagues and only playing each other in the majors four weeks a year was good for nobody.”
Saudi Arabia is also expanding it’s reach in soccer. Karim Benzema, one of the sport’s top players, agreed to join a Saudi team yesterday.
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Political tension: At the French Open, Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus waited at the net to shake hands with Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, The Times’s Matthew Futterman writes.
A return to football: The Bills safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest during a game, fully participated at practice yesterday, The Athletic reports.
ARTS AND IDEAS
The best in dining
The James Beard Awards — the Oscars of the culinary world — announced their 2023 winners.
Outstanding Restaurant: Friday Saturday Sunday in Philadelphia. The restaurant reinvented itself after the pandemic by switching to a carefully crafted tasting menu, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote.
Outstanding Chef: Rob Rubba, who created a mostly plant-based menu at Oyster Oyster in Washington, D.C. “Few chefs have more fun getting us to eat our vegetables than Rob Rubba,” The Washington Post wrote.
The winners also included bakeries, bars and regional chefs and restaurants around the U.S. Browse the full list.