Professional sport is set up to follow the money. Nonetheless, the dismayed acceptance within golf of the news that the Professional Golf Association (PGA) on Tuesday agreed to merge with the Saudi Arabian sponsored rival tour LIV golf is ominous. For the past year, players like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy exchanged bitter words with rivals who defected to the LIV stable for vast sums of money. This week, without consulting his players or fans of the game, PGA tour commissioner Jay Monahan made the announcement, a hypocritical reversal on his promise to the families of the victims of 9/11 that such a deal could never happen.
The details have yet to be drawn up but “premier corporate sponsorship” will fall to the sports wing of the Saudi kingdom, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). The smoothness with which the PIF has infiltrated golf is a further sign of its intent to buy its way into professional sport and to improve its public image through “sportswashing”.
Since hosting Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight fight against Andy Ruiz in 2019, Saudi Arabia has hosted Formula One races and bought Newcastle United football club. It would be no surprise if it bids to host the 2030 World Cup tournament.
McIlroy, who did not disguise his contempt for LIV, sounded defeated this week when he said that “PIF and Saudi Arabia want to spend money in the game of golf... and they weren’t going to stop.” He was suggesting that they know their money was irresistible – and he may be right.
There will be profound disappointment among many sports fans that the PGA has capitulated like this. Statements from human rights organisations drew attention to Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian regime, pointing out that it was responsible for 81 executions in a single day last year and sentencing dissidents and protestors to decades of imprisonment. The Saudis are gambling that none of this will prevent the fans turning up to watch their stars; that the majority don’t care where the money comes from. Until those stars speak out, as McIlroy has done for the past year, the Saudi infiltration of sport will continue unchecked.