This summer, the kickoff of the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf tour sparked controversy with the PGA Tour – its competitor – as well as many who feel displeased with the Saudis’ human rights record. The situation poses questions, such as: what are the Saudis’ goals behind the LIV tour, and how have pro golfers taken sides?
According to the New York Times, the LIV Golf tour is financially backed by Saudi Arabia as a part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s initiative to transform Saudi Arabia’s “conservative oil image” into one that aligns more with that of Dubai. The initiative plans to increase Saudi Arabia’s power on a global scale and expand its Western reputation.
While the LIV tour can be seen as an attempt to make Saudi Arabia more of a luxury destination, the tour has simultaneously provided a distraction for MBS’s less than ideal human rights record. News of the Saudis’ murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and their naval and land blockade in Yemen, which caused famine, disease and civilian displacement, has sparked outrage within some members of the golf community.
In addition, the LIV tour has been designed to compete with the PGA’s tour, although the LIV tour’s structure differs significantly. For starters, while the tour name is pronounced like the word “live,” the tournament actually stands for the roman numeral 54, symbolic of the 54 holes that each player will complete in the tournament. The format of the LIV tour also includes a team component, involving a captain and selection of players with that team. Perhaps the greatest difference between the LIV Golf and the PGA tour is that the LIV tour offers a substantial payout. In the Saudis’ most recent golf tournament, winner Henrik Stenson came home with four million dollars.
The potential of a high payout has attracted golfers Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Bubba Watson to join the LIV Golf tour, although their decision has led to pushback from golfers who have stayed loyal to PGA due to ethical concerns.
Tiger Woods, one of the greatest golfers in the world and five-time winner of the Masters Tournament, has taken a stand against the LIV tour. Woods claimed those who have made an agreement to sign on — with multi-million dollar contracts in their corner — are “turning their back on what has allowed them to get into this position.” Woods also expressed concerns about how the LIV tour has swept up young players because he thinks the experience of competing in a 72-hole PGA Tour is more valuable to newer golfers, rather than a 54-hole tournament.
Back in June, the PGA Tour announced that golfers who participated in the LIV tour were no longer welcome to play in any of the PGA tour events. The new rule suspended a total of 17 players, including Mickelson, who has probably faced the most media opposition with his move to join LIV.
At a heated press conference in June, Mickelson responded to a question regarding whether or not he had considered Americans who died in 9/11 when he made the decision to play in the LIV tour. Mickelson addressed families impacted by the attacks, saying that he has the “deepest sympathy and empathy for them.” Notably, Mickelson’s signing deal with LIV Golf is rumored to be around $200 million.
At LIV’s most recent event at the Trump Bedminster golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, in July, the atmosphere of the event contrasted greatly with the quiet and professional atmosphere of the PGA Tour. Music blared, golfers seemed to have a carefree attitude for the day and the number of fans present was underwhelming. Many of the players received their payout before the event had begun, and a majority of the players – apart from the old guard of PGA pros who had come over to LIV – were not known to spectators.
Meanwhile, only a few miles down the road, the activist group 9/11 Justice stood their ground. At the protest, the families, children and loved ones of Sept. 11 victims expressed their anger at the players, who, like Mickelson, accepted tremendous amounts of money from the Saudis. In addition, attendees also protested in response to former president Donald Trump’s decision to allow the use of his golf club for the tournament, after previously blaming the Saudi government for the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Wednesday, Aug. 3, breaking news struck: Out of the 17 golfers suspended by the PGA Tour, 11, including Mickelson, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour. The LIV tour players’ lawyer claims that the PGA Tour’s actions are unlawful, as even with one-time participation in a LIV event, the PGA Tour can restrict participation in PGA Tour events, such as the upcoming Fedex Cup Playoffs. Some players are pushing for a temporary restraining order in order to play at the Fedex Cup Playoffs.
“It has threatened sponsors, vendors and agents to coerce players to abandon opportunities to play in LIV Golf events. And it has orchestrated a per se unlawful group boycott with the European Tour to deny LIV Golf access to their members,” the lawsuit said, according to ESPN.
The PGA Tour quickly dismissed arguments from players who opposed their suspension.
“[The players] have walked away from the Tour and now want back in,” Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, wrote in a memo obtained by ESPN.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, golf’s popularity has grown exponentially, and Saudi Arabia’s effort to back the LIV Golf tour could have positive economic effects for the country. While the LIV tour may suffer from backlash over ethical concerns, and the PGA Tour remains strong retaining the top 10 ranked golfers, only time will tell if LIV will actually be able to hold its ground next to the PGA Tour.