Golf merger shows Saudis now the biggest players in global sport

While before Saudi largesse was reserved for mostly European sports, the golf merger gives it tacit control over one of the oldest entities in American sport. And it could pave the way for future ownership of other North American sport properties.

Foothold in North American sport could lead to other acquisitions, expert says

A group poses for a photo.
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, left, of Saudi's Public Investment Fund, with Greg Norman, far right, commissioner of LIV Golf. (Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Well so much for the moral high ground. So much for the PGA Tour and many of its players spending the better part of the last year taking a stand against LIV Golf, a breakaway tour funded by Saudi Arabian oil money.

It was less than a year ago that PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was reminding people about Saudi Arabia's role in 9/11, desperate to stem the exodus of star players being lured by massive paydays to the big bad LIV tour.

"I have two families that are close to me that lost loved ones," Monahan said at the time. "My heart goes out to them, and I would ask that any player that has left, or that would ever consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?"

Monahan suspended more than 30 PGA Tour members who chose to join LIV, including some of the sport's biggest stars and past major champions like Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson.

Many of the PGA's biggest names rallied around Monahan, in what became a perceived battle of good versus evil, one that some framed as one of America's old sports institutions against an oil-drenched nation trying to gloss over its deplorable human rights record through sport, often referred to as "sportswashing."

Players rallied around Monahan and embraced the fight, nobody more so than Rory McIlroy, who railed constantly against the nascent tour and what it was doing to the game.

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The golf world is being upended again as the PGA Tour and its European counterpart, the DP World Tour, announced plans to merge with rival, LIV Golf — the Saudi-backed upstart that poached top players like Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman with the promise of massive paycheques.

Well, it turns out that behind what many thought was a nasty and acrimonious divorce, the couple was actually secretly in counselling.

Fast forward to this week and there was a smiling Monahan sitting side by side with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is financing LIV Golf.

The two announced that LIV and the PGA Tour would unify and form a yet to be determined bigger enterprise. With its $600 billion in assets, PIF will be the new outfit's leading investor. In the meantime, it will become the premier investor in the PGA Tour.

"I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite," Monahan told reporters. "Anytime I said anything, I said it with the information that I had at that moment, and I said it based on someone that's trying to compete for the PGA Tour and our players. I accept those criticisms, but circumstances do change."

So what did change? Money obviously. And lots of it. This out-of-the-blue deal saves the PGA Tour from burning through untold millions fighting a variety of legal battles against a foe with limitless resources. It also provides the Tour and its players with a life-changing financial shot in the arm.

Even McIlroy is not naive to this fact.

WATCH | Rory McIlroy says he feels like 'sacrificial lamb':

Rory McIlroy left feeling 'somewhat like a sacrificial lamb' in wake of PGA Tour merger

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Duration 2:32
Professional golfer Rory McIlroy says he still has confidence in Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, adding that he thinks the future of the PGA 'as a whole' is looking brighter in the wake of the newly announced deal. But he says there are still questions about how things will work, and what the change means for professional golfers.

"The Saudis want to spend money in golf and it's not going to stop. How can we get that money into golf and use it the right way?" McIlroy said Wednesday in Toronto, site of this week's RBC Canadian Open.

"It's hard to keep up with people who have more money than anyone else. Whether you like it or not, the PIF is going to keep spending money in golf. At least now the PGA Tour is going to control how that money is spent."

Still, there are deep wounds that may never heal, especially among players like McIlroy who thought they were part of something bigger.

"I told Jay 'you have galvanized everyone against something and now they are our partners,'" McIlroy said of the messaging of the past year. "It's hard for me to not sit up here and feel somewhat like a sacrificial lamb and feeling like I've put myself out there and this is what happens."

Saudi Arabia has spent the last decade pursuing, acquiring and hosting major international sporting events and showering billions, through PIF, on some of sports biggest stars.

For example, a Saudi-led consortium acquired the Premier League's Newcastle United soccer franchise and lucrative contracts have attracted stars like Cristiano Ronaldo to play for club teams in Saudi Arabia. Saudi interests have also invested heavily in Formula One racing and the country is rumoured to be a potential host for the 2030 World Cup.

Critics have labelled these investments as so-called sportswashing in an attempt to distract the nation's treatment of women and minorities, and its well-documented contempt for human rights.

But long-time Saudi watchers say it's part of a bigger strategy.

"It's about much more for Saudi Arabia. It's about power in international politics," said Stanis Elsborg, an analyst at Play the Game, an initiative to promote democracy and transparency in international sports. "People have discussed Qatar in the last couple of years, but Saudi Arabia is just on another level. If they want something, they usually get it. In the end, it is about money and it is about power.

"The rulers of Saudi Arabia have seen how easy it is to invest in the world of sport. There are not that many critics and they come with a lot more money than we have seen from Russia or even China. Saudi Arabia is the new player in the world of sport."

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A strong Canadian contingent will be teeing it up at the Oakdale Golf & Country Club in Toronto this week.

But even Elsborg acknowledges that this is different. While before Saudi largesse was reserved for mostly European sports, this merger gives it tacit control over one of the oldest entities in American sport. And could pave the way for future ownership of other North American sport properties.

"This is a game changer because what we are seeing now is Saudi Arabia buying one sport," Elsborg said. "They will kind of own the world of golf in the next couple of years.

"When we saw LIV announced, players and the PGA were very critical. Now, where are they going to play? They have to take part in the PGA Tour."

Even those like McIlroy, the face of the PGA's stand against Saudi intrusion and all of its human rights baggage, is resigned to the quickly altered golf landscape.

There is no moral high ground left to stand on. And even if there was, it wouldn't matter.

"Would you rather have one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds as a partner or an enemy? At the end of the day, money talks and you'd rather have them as a partner," he said.

"I've made my peace with it. I've seen what's happened in other sports and businesses. I've just resigned myself to the fact this is going to happen. How do you keep up with people who have more money than anyone else?"


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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