Bunker Mentality on Saudi: Philanthropic Investment or Blood Money?

Mike Wilson
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Design by Ed Moynihan

This article featured in the January print edition of Irish Golfer Magazine.

For a nation boasting all of 14 golf courses, seven on grass and seven on sand, Saudi Arabia can scarcely lay claim to be one of the royal and ancient game’s natural homes or even a historical hotbed or, given its traditional societal limitations, an open and altruistic country hell-bent on setting-up a burgeoning and welcoming golf tourism sector.

But with Australian Greg Norman now tapping into the vast wealth of the sovereign wealth fund of a dubious regime with blood on its hands, the component parts of the men’s global golf jigsaw may be about to be thrown into confusion and chaos, starting with the US$5m Saudi International in February 2022.

And with the Saudi regime pumping up to US$10m into the troubled Ladies European Tour, those of a generous disposition might consider such altruism to be commendable, whilst others of a more cynical persuasion would be entitled to examine recent developments with a considerable degree of scepticism.

As one calendar year draws to a close and another professional golf season reaches its conclusion, both buffeted and on occasions battered by the curse that has been and continues to be COVID-19, another year for the world’s pro circuits dawns with both routine regularity, but also an unprecedented element of uncertainty.

And it’s not just the ongoing pandemic that is troubling the sport of golf at its elite end; the tectonic plates of the professional game are shifting perceptibly, even in a sport where the ebbs and flows of the various circuits are accustomed to the comings and goings of sports politics and commercial influences.

The 2021 report card would show that the all-powerful PGA Tour, the traditional honey pot primarily staged in the USA has ridden the waves of coronavirus with its customary strength, barely missing a beat as the best – and richest – golfers in the world have gone about their business contained in their ‘bubble,’ relatively cocooned from the stresses and strains inflicted on the real world by an unprecedented global health crisis.

Not so, the European Tour; never mind its shiny new, and now adopted name, the ‘DP World Tour,’ for the 49th and final year under its original moniker, the Wentworth-based circuit has been badly blown off course, mainly by Covid, losing big-money tournaments such as the Nedbank Challenge and the HSBC Champions, but also, for reasons hitherto unexplained, the Turkish Open.

Following a patched-up 2020 season in which the European Tour did well to keep the show on the road at all, courtesy of a series of low-budget ‘fillers’ to keep its members at least occupied, if not enriched as Covid-19 ripped through its schedule, the four ‘Majors’ and WGC events keeping its star performers playing for the big bucks they have become accustomed to, 2021, with the Ryder Cup, the Olympic Games and a partial recovery as the pandemic abated somewhat masked threatening storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

And an ever-closer tie-up with the PGA Tour, announced in late 2020 but not fully-effective until the 2022 season promised a ‘Landmark agreement [which] further enhances and connects the ecosystem of men’s professional golf through a number of areas, including global scheduling, prize funds and playing opportunities for the respective memberships.’

Meanwhile, far out east, the Asian Tour, the poor relation of professional golf – men’s and women’s – despite being set in the heart of the world’s economic powerhouse, found itself all-but wiped-out by the health emergency and its travel limitations.

Then, a bolt from the blue; the date, Monday 29th November 2021, an announcement out of Saudi Arabia that shook the conventions of men’s professional golf, the PGA Tour included to its very foundations, the launch by LIV Golf Investments, funded by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, along with Japanese finance house, SoftBank, of a new, 10-year US$200m agreement with the Asian Tour.
The press release boasted the new initiative would, “holistically improve the health of professional golf,” suggesting, “this is only the beginning,”

Arguably a much-needed lifeline for the Singapore-based circuit, cynics view it as a ‘flag of convenience’ under the stewardship of Australian golf magnate, ex-multiple ‘Major’ champion Greg Norman as the forerunner of the widely-trailed yet still undelivered Saudi-backed breakaway Super League, which has hung around in the ether, like a Sword of Damocles hanging over the conventional structures, threatening the status quo since the early 1990s.

Norman himself said, “LIV Golf Investments has secured a major capital commitment that will be used to create additive new opportunities across worldwide professional golf,” adding, “The Asian Tour is a sleeping giant and we share ambition to grow the series and unlock what we believe is significant untapped potential.”

Whichever it is, and only time will tell if Norman’s initiative is indeed a much-needed altruistic investment in the Asian Tour or a ‘Trojan horse,’ that will blow the upper echelons of men’s professional golf apart, this new dawn all kicks-off with the fourth staging of the catchily-named Saudi International Powered by SoftBank at Saudi Arabia’s only championship standard golf course, the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, King Abdullah Economic City between February 3-6, 2022.

For all LIV Golf Investments claims that their involvement “Represents one of the single biggest investments in the history of professional golf,” the ‘Great White Shark’s’ latest business venture looks suspiciously little more than a proxy for the salacious Saudi strategy, doing exactly what sharks are renowned for, moving in for a quick killing, taking out a defenceless victim led to believe the predatory beast is a toothless, altruistic ally.

The LIV Golf Investments publicity materials tell of, “10 ‘Marquee tournaments’ each year over 10-years, representing a total commitment of US$200m to support playing opportunities and prize money,” adding, “The series will be added to the Asian Tour schedule from 2022 onwards, with new events across Asia, the Middle East and Europe,” all of which sound positive.

But drill down, do the maths and you’ll find US$20m a year spread across 10 tournaments (one of which will carry a US$5m prize fund) is relatively thin fare; subtract staging costs, appearance money and management fees, and nine other events find themselves sharing a US$5m budget, just over half-a-million bucks plus sundry additional income and it’s far from the panacea of the fairways paved with gold.

In welcoming the new Saudi-backed initiative with open arms, Cho Minn Thant, Asian Tour Commissioner & CEO said, “Due to Covid-19, not a single shot has been played on the Asian Tour since the Malaysian Open on 7th March 2020 and we have all faced 19-months of uncertainty,“ adding, “The new partnership [with the Greg Norman-led LIV Golf Investments] will allow for a period of recovery and stability, followed by significant growth.

“We now plan to build on this and take things to a new level and further raise our profile, which will have a huge impact on the game in general in our region and indeed beyond,” insisted the Commissioner, but there are many who believe Norman and his Saudi backers have ulterior motives and view the Singapore-based circuit as a ‘Flag of convenience’ for their greater global ambitions.

“The final 30 [players] will be confirmed in January following a season-ending double-header in Singapore, with the likes of Jazz Janewattananond, Scott Hend, Gavin Green, John Catlin, Shiv Kapur, Wade Ormsby and Joohyung Kim,” chirps the media blurb.
But, with hefty appearance fees for the world’s leading stars including defending champion Dustin Johnson and 2020 winner Graeme McDowell said to range between US$1m – US$2m per player, the current field looks like something of a ‘Curate’s egg,’ with OWGR Top-10 players Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele as well as European Ryder Cup stars Henrik Stenson, Shane Lowry, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood and Ian Poulter all confirmed, along with Australian Adam Scott and US veteran Phil Mickelson.

But, conspicuous by their absence as the clock counts down to what is being billed as an epoch-changing tournament are current World Number 1 Jon Rahm, fellow OWGR high-flyers Collin Morikawa (#2) and compatriot Justin Thomas (#6), whilst – in the enforced absence of the indisposed Tiger Woods – the marquee name of Rory McIlroy (#9) is also missing, the Irishman, who once referred to the Saudi-backed enterprise as, “A money grab,” adding, “You go back to what happened in Europe with the European Super League in football.
“People can see it for what it is, a money grab, which is fine if what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible [that’s] totally fine, then go and do that if that’s what makes you happy,” continued McIlroy.

“I’m just speaking about my own beliefs; I’m playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world,” the four-time ‘Major’ winner concluding, “I honestly don’t think there’s a better structure in place and I don’t think there will be.”

Having initiated the Saudi International in 2019 and been its sole sanctioning partner for three years, the loss of the event – and the participation of so many of its marquee names in the 2022 tournament, will be a bitter pill for the European Tour to swallow, more so given the financial implications and the erosion of status in golf’s all-important pecking order, especially to its junior partner, the Asian Tour, with which it signed an open-ended, ‘Strategic alliance,’ as recently as July 2016.

And, despite filling the vacant dates with a rival US$2m tournament, the Ras al Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital over the same dates at the Al Hamra GC, Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE, Wentworth supremo Keith Pelley had already warned any of his members signing-up to the Saudi-backed initiative they risked losing their Ryder Cup rights, saying, “We are aligned with the PGA Tour in opposing, in the strongest possible terms, any proposal for an alternative golf league.”

But many believe Pelley’s bluff has been called by some of his most valued stars and that his Ryder Cup threat would prove both unenforceable and deeply damaging to Wentworth’s biennial magic money tree against the USA.

The new tournament is also a major blow to the once all-powerful PGA Tour, especially with so many of its marquee names following the money, and as it clashes directly with the prestigious US$8.7m AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am, the first sign of weakness and a major strategic and operational headache for Commissioner Jay Monahan, who had previously threatened immediate suspension and a possible career ban were they to be tempted to join any proposed rival Saudi golf initiative. And, although the single Saudi tournament falls some way short of the full-blown breakaway league previously mooted, the event, and the defection of leading PGA and DP World Tour players in direct contradiction to edicts issued from Ponte Vedra and Wentworth certainly puts the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.

Separately, months earlier, the apparently altruistic Saudi golf initiative has also stretched to support another of the poor relations of professional golf, the Ladies European Tour (LET), like the Asian Tour, consistently undervalued and until recently on its uppers, and yet the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has leveraged a series of nine events around the world each offering the impoverished LET a combined US$5m in prize money, unimaginable riches for the poor relations of world golf.

Women’s tournaments in London, New York, Spain and Jeddah between July and November 2021, jointly-sponsored by the Saudi national oil company Aramco and the national Public Investment Fund chaired by the country’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) were welcomed with open arms by the near-destitute LET, although cynics might argue the near US$10m total investment might have been more of a counterbalance to the traditional repression towards women which has only recently seen selected Saudi females entitled to drive a car, hold a passport and travel to the annual Haj religious festival in the holy city of Mecca without a ‘Wali,’ a male guardian.

The Crown Prince’s ‘liberalisation’ initiative called, ‘VISION 2030,’ which he claims would help Saudi Arabia to, “eradicate the remnants of extremism,” but with stoning still the penalty for adultery or homosexuality, and theft punishable with amputation of the offender’s right hand, the country’s new-found altruism is as curious as it is questionable.

The latest sporting cab off the Saudi Arabian rank is the recent acquisition of underperforming English Premier League (EPL) club Newcastle United, the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the regime’s corporate-sounding Public Investment Fund (PIF) taking an 80% stake in the reported £305m purchase from UK sports retail tycoon Mike Ashley and his Sports Direct retail empire, its chairman MBS reportedly passing the EPL’s ‘Fit and Proper Person’ test to get the deal over the line.

Meanwhile, for its part, human rights campaign group Amnesty International has branded the recent Saudi sports initiatives involving Boxing, Tennis and Formula 1 as well as Golf as, ‘Brazen sports-washing,’ of its human rights abuses, especially following the state-sponsored murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul on 2nd October 2018, to which US intelligence linked directly to Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the very sovereign wealth fund putting up much of the estimated US$15m budget for February’s men’s tournament near Jeddah.

That incident, even in isolation represents an indelible stain on the Saudi Arabian regime, its direct financing of a landmark potentially ground-breaking new era in men’s professional golf, and the ease with which a significant number of the world’s leading players have been recruited reveals that hard cash, petro-dollars and potentially blood money counts for more than human rights.

The acid test is likely to follow and the truth be found out in several stages; first, time will tell if the commitment to women’s golf will continue and increase over time, while, second, over the next 12 months it will be interesting to see just how the Asian Tour, the Saudi vehicle of choice for its bold men’s golf initiative benefits, or not, as the case may be; nine additional new million-dollar tournaments across the APAC region is a big ask.

Beyond that, the cynics may well be proved correct that, “Only the beginning,” means the start of Greg Norman’s great, long held pipe dream of an elite and exclusive world golf tour which will rent asunder the existing professional circuits as we have come to know them, with the very rich getting even richer and the rest left to squabble over the remains of the spoils.

As the House of Saud seeks to redefine itself in the eyes of the world with a naked power grab, whilst offering a flimsy chimera of altruism and standing up for golf’s underdogs at the Asian Tour, the harsh reality is that everything that glitters is rarely gold, while the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

As such, the probability is that the ethereal and to-date illusory World Golf Tour is the true, medium term agenda, an initiative which will do little to help golf’s post-pandemic recovery and even less to endear the professional game to its audiences or help ambitious, young and talented male and female golfers throughout the world to develop their craft and advance their careers with natural pathways to the very top of their sport.

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