By Atakan Uzun
The proposed Saudi-backed golf league has received considerable controversy in recent weeks. This threat of a breakaway league has been on the cards for the past two years. There are two entities trying to rival the tour: the Premier Golf League and a Saudi-backed golf tour. The PGL was the first of the groups to coalesce in 2020, backed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. However, the PIF—the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, which, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, has $580 billion in assets—eventually backed another entity in the newly formed LIV Golf Investments. LIV Golf aspired to have its own global professional tour, often referred to as the “Super Golf League.”
The PGL attempted to achieve a partnership with the European Tour but failed, with the Euro Tour eventually agreeing to a “strategic alliance” with the PGA Tour. Though the PGL still exists, and reportedly has reached out to the PGA Tour about forming a partnership, its prospects have faded with the emergence of LIV Golf. “If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they’re going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the [PGA] Tour,” Waugh said. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don’t know that we can be more clear than that. It’s a little murkier in our championship, but to play, from a U.S. perspective, you also have to be a member of the tour and the PGA of America to play in our championship, and we don’t see that changing.”
Arguably, the comments of the experienced Phil Mickelson attracted the most controversy, regarding the Saudi-backed league. . It emerged that in November 2021, commenting on Saudi Arabia and a proposed golf league, ‘we know they killed (Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson said. “They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?
Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape how the PGA Tour operates. “They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics but we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as (PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan) comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want (the new league) to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the (PGA) Tour.” Mr. Mickelson was seeking to use this as leverage against the PGA Tour, whom he has criticised on a number of occasions. In an interview with Golf Digest while playing in the PIF Saudi International, Mickelson speaks of the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed,” which was leading players to consider playing in the Saudi-backed league that reportedly offers larger purses, guaranteed pay-outs and 54-hole, no-cut tournaments.
“It’s not public knowledge, all that goes on,’’ Mickelson said. “But the players don’t have access to their own media. If the Tour wanted to end any threat, they could just hand back the media rights to the players. But they would rather throw $25 million here and $40 million there than give back the roughly $20 billion in digital assets they control. Or give up access to the $50-plus million they make every year on their own media channel.
“There are many issues but that is one of the biggest. For me personally, it’s not enough that they are sitting on hundreds of millions of digital moments. They also have access to my shots, access I do not have. They also charge companies to use shots I have hit. And when I did ‘The Match’ — there have been five of them — the tour forced me to pay them $1 million each time. For my own media rights. That type of greed is, to me, beyond obnoxious.” The PGA refused to comment on this matter.
Along with his comments on Saudi Arabia and its human rights abuses, Mickelson said, ‘he and three other unnamed players paid for attorneys to draft the proposed league’s operating plan. Mickelson also suggests that the league, which has the backing of LIV Golf Investments, is part of the Saudi government’s attempts at “sportswashing.” When this interview and the comments of Phil Mickelson became public knowledge, several players distanced themselves from the proposed Saudi-backed golf league, including Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Rory McIlroy, who initially, was a vociferous critic of Phil Mickelson and this proposed golf league.
In the wake of Mickelson’s comments, several of his loyal sponsors, including KPMG, Heineken N.V., and Amstel Light announced, they were cutting ties with the golfer. In summary, it appears that this golf league is over before it even begun. After Mickelson apologised for his comments and announced, he would be taking a break from golf for the immediate future, there are no high profile names, which have backed, joining the breakaway, Saudi-backed league. At this present moment, unless there are a severe change in circumstances, I cannot foresee this league, rivalling the PGA Tour, and becoming a viable league.
Golf Digest, 2022. Available at: https://www.golfdigest.com/story/saudi-golf-league-2022-primer.
Morning Read, 2022. Available at: https://www.si.com/golf/news/2022-phil-mickelson-saudi-golf-league-timeline#:~:text=Phil%20Mickelson’s%20interest%20in%20a,proposed%20Saudi%20Arabian%2Dbacked%20league..