Luring Players With Cash, Saudi-Backed Golf Tour Accused of 'Sportswashing'

Outrage has grown around the new LIV Golf Invitational Series as critics claim that the tour, powered by a sovereign wealth fund in Saudi Arabia, is being used for more than just entertainment.

Founded in 2021, the invitational series is a multibillion-dollar undertaking funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund. Its stated goal is to "reinvigorate golf" and expose the game to audiences in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, according to to the official website.

The LIV has used star power, massive coffers and the slogan, "Golf, but louder," to market itself as a competitor to the Professional Golfers' Association of America (PGA) Tour.

The entity funding the LIV has direct ties to the autocratic government of Saudi Arabia, which the United Nations has accused of repressing women's rights, committing war crimes in Yemen, killing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and executing 81 men during a single day in March.

LIV, rivals, PGA, Tour, with, star, golfers
Several big-name golfers recently announced that they are leaving the PGA Tour to join a controversial rival, the Saudi-backed LIV. Above, players practice on the driving range ahead of the LIV event at The Centurion Club in St. Albans, north of London, on June 7, 2022. ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the accusations, under the leadership of Golf Hall of Famer and CEO Greg Norman, the LIV has increased in size with more than $2 billion invested, according to Reuters.

As the LIV tees off this week at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Portland, Oregon—its first stop in the U.S.—Teri Lenahan, the mayor of North Plains, a town just outside the city, said the course's owners, Escalante Golf, did not let residents have much of a say in hosting the tournament.

To make her voice heard, Lenahan joined 10 other mayors in the area in signing a letter that objected to holding the event near their neighborhoods.

"We refuse to support these abuses by complicitly allowing the Saudi-backed organization to play in our backyard," the mayors wrote. "We oppose this event because it is being sponsored by a repressive government whose human rights abuses are documented."

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has long expressed dissatisfaction with U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, also expressed outrage about holding the event in his state.

Last week, he accused the Saudi government of sportswashing—trying to use sports to improve its reputation in light of human rights concerns.

He told the Associated Press that the event was "just a page out of the autocrats' playbook, covering up injustices by misusing athletics in hopes of normalizing their abuses."

"No matter how much [money] they cough up, they are not going to be able to wash away that reputation," he added in an interview with The New York Times.

The LIV has enticed big-name golfers from the PGA Tour to switch sides with record-breaking contracts and cash incentives.

"We have seen this new generation of authoritarian leaders seeing the importance of sports as a way to put the happiest possible face on their regime," Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, said on Amanpour and Company last Thursday.

According to Front Office Sports, the invitational series guaranteed Phil Mickelson at least $200 million and Dustin Johnson at least $125 million to play, far outpacing the career PGA earnings of legends like Tiger Woods ($120 million) or Rory McIlroy ($65 million).

In response, the PGA has called the tour "impure" and criticized the series for using money to bring unfair competition between the leagues.

"We welcome good, healthy competition," PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a news conference last week. "The LIV Saudi golf league is not that.

"If this is an arms race and the only weapons are dollar bills, the PGA Tour, an American institution, cannot compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars to buy the game of golf."

The PGA has also decided to ban every golfer who competed in the first LIV event in London and those who choose to tee up this week in Portland.

But at a news conference on Tuesday, Bryson DeChambeau, an eight-time PGA Tour winner who received $100 million to join the LIV series, defended his decision.

"From my perspective, we are golfers. We are providing entertainment globally and will continue to do so," he told reporters.

After mentioning that his earnings will help him better fund his charity foundation in Dallas and California, he added: "Golf is a force for good."

Stuart, Franklin, PGA, Tour, Missouri, 2018
Outrage has grown around the new LIV Golf Invitational Series as critics claim that the tour, powered by a sovereign wealth fund in Saudi Arabia, is being used for more than just entertainment. Above, Brandt Snedeker plays in the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on August 6, 2018, in St. Louis, Missouri. Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

He said about the Saudis' reputation, "as time goes on; hopefully people will see the good they are doing and what they are trying to accomplish, rather than looking back at the bad that has happened before."

While critics condemn the LIV, supporters argue that it holds a powerful institution (in the PGA) accountable while ushering in a new era of player empowerment and "free agency."

"It is landscape-changing. It is a potentially life-changing possibility for players," longtime golf agent Bobby Kreusler said of the opportunities the LIV could provide for golfers.

Before the LIV, the Masters was the most lucrative event on the golf calendar, with a total purse of $15 million in 2022.

But even regular LIV events will have a $25 million purse, with a $4 million winner's share. The events are shorter than the PGA Tour's (three days instead of four), and a season-ending team championship brings in a $50 million purse, according to sportswriter Robert Lusetich.

Even the last-place finisher, who earns nothing on the PGA Tour, will get a $120,000 payout after playing an LIV event.

"Competition is good," said Lee Westwood, a two-time PGA Tour winner (33-time European or Asian Tour winner) who previously said that he would be "stupid" not to take the money from the LIV.

He thinks another tour is good for the sport, and that it will force others to create more attractive terms for players.

"If LIV Golf helps the PGA Tour and the European Tour to provide even better playing opportunities and financially to support players even more, I think it's a win-win," he said.