Some of the greatest golfers in the world are joining the new LIV Golf professional golf tour, but their new tour membership comes with more than just a massive signing bonus. Players who join also receive relentless questioning about human rights violations and the barbaric murder and dismemberment of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On its face, it may seem unusual that elite golfers such as Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Bryson Dechambeau are facing such questions. That is until one learns that the new tour is funded by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund and has been flagged by many as an attempt to “sportswash” the Saudi government’s troubling reputation.
So, just how much money are players being offered to join the new tour? Dustin Johnson, once ranked the number one golfer in the world, was reportedly offered roughly USD 150 million to join. Similarly, Phil Mickelson and Bryson Dechambeau were reported to have been offered USD 200 million and USD 150 million, respectively. Astonishingly, golf legend Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a nearly one billion dollar offer to join the controversial tour.
LIV Golf is now a direct competitor with the world’s most prestigious professional golf tour, the Professional Golf Association (PGA). Unfortunately for the PGA, it cannot offer players anything near the astronomical amounts of money that the Saudi-funded tour can. Not only does LIV Golf provide massive sums just to join, but the prize money available for participants in its tournaments is also significantly more than that of PGA events.
Even after increasing its purse this year, the PGA’s average tournament purse of USD 9.1 million pales in comparison to LIV Golf’s average purse of USD 25 million. Moreover, the average payout per finisher at LIV Golf’s first tournament in London was USD 521,000 – nearly double the average payout at the PGA’s highest-paying event.
The larger purse is not the only thing the new Saudi golf tour is doing to distinguish itself from the PGA. LIV has also implemented a number of different rules. Most notably, the players on the Saudi tour compete in teams rather than individually. Additionally, there are only three rounds of golf in LIV’s tournaments, compared to the standard four on the PGA Tour. Due to the smaller number of players on the Saudi tour, players are also not eliminated from the tournament after two rounds, and the players begin the round in a “shotgun” fashion. ‘Shotgun’ refers to a mode of play in which players start the round on different holes simultaneously. It is often used in social tournaments – but not in PGA professional tournaments.
Despite the large sums of money and unique rules, the tour and its players have been unable to deflect the questions about Saudi Arabia’s contentious reputation. Players and tour representatives have repeatedly had to answer questions about the government’s blatant human rights violations, such as the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, widespread discrimination against women, and frequent beheadings of prisoners. In addition to human rights questions, the players have also faced difficult questions about the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which the CIA concluded was directly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
CEO of LIV Golf Greg Norman, a winner of two major championships on the PGA, seemed surprisingly nonchalant about these concerns. Norman told British news organizations, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
For many of the players who decided to join the tour, the big payday seems to have outweighed their concerns over human rights or the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Perhaps the most blatant about-face came from one of the highest-paid players, Phil Mickelson. In an interview in November 2021 with author Alan Shipnuck, the six-time major champion acknowledged that the Saudis killed Khashoggi and called their human rights record “horrible.” Although Mickelson reportedly accused the Saudi government of “sportswashing” and called them “scary motherfu**ers to be involved with,” it seems USD 200 million was enough for him to eventually overcome this fear.
In addition to the constant barrage of tough questions from reporters, the players have also faced pressure from survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The 9/11 Families United organization sent letters to Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Kevin Na, accusing them of betraying their country and sportswashing for the Saudis.
Naturally, as LIV Golf poses a threat to the PGA’s ability to remain the most attractive golf tour for elite players, the PGA has come out firmly against it. During an interview, PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan asked, “How is this good for the game we love?” Monahan and the PGA also decided to suspend all PGA players that chose to play in the LIV Golf series. LIV responded by calling the move “vindictive.”
As a direct competitor, the PGA’s stance may be based more on the potential threat LIV Golf poses to its share of the market rather than the Saudi human rights record. In fact, the PGA has been relatively quiet about concerns over the Saudi funding of LIV. When asked by sportscaster Jim Nantz how much of an issue the Saudi financing of LIV Golf was, Commissioner Monahan simply said, “Well, it’s not an issue for me because I don’t work for the Saudi Arabian government. But it probably is an issue for players that chose to go and take that money.”
Sports have traditionally been a way for people of all different backgrounds and nationalities to come together for friendly competition and entertainment. However, this alleged attempt by the Saudi government to cleanse its troubling reputation by starting its own league and throwing incredible amounts of money at the best players in the world is part of a wider trend of attempted sportswashing that includes a Saudi-funded purchase of the English football club Newcastle United and Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
If successful, these efforts could set a troubling precedent for the future of sports and human rights. No amount of money or intriguing new sports leagues should exculpate Saudi Arabia – or any other country – for a brazen disregard for human rights and the murder of journalists and innocent civilians.
Athletes from Russia and Belarus have been banned from various sporting events, such as Wimbledon, as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and multiple countries carried out a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing due to human rights violations against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The readiness of those in the West to use sports to punish Russia and China for human rights violations while supporting and profiting off other serial human rights violators, such as Saudi Arabia, only lends further credibility to the damaging narrative of Western hypocrisy and insincerity regarding human rights.
If the West continues to condemn human rights violations by adversaries and ignore those by strategic allies, its human rights record will be about as credible as former North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s “world record” 34 on the golf course.