Golf’s roots in Saudi Arabia grew from mixing sand and oil. It was the late 1940s when American expat executives working for Saudi Aramco, the kingdom’s budding oil giant, needed somewhere to play. Turns out, that’s tough in the desert, so sand was blended with oil to create a surface that mightn’t vanish in the wind. Eventually, 18 holes were carved. Rolling Hills Golf Club, the kingdom’s first course, opened in 1948 in the middle of Aramco’s campus in Dhahran, an oil town in eastern Saudi Arabia. In those nascent days, players carried a patch of artificial turf from which to hit shots.
Golf and Saudi Arabia. Never exactly a natural fit.
Yet, eight decades later, the country is home to 14 courses. It’s also, today, the unlikeliest disruptor imaginable in the sport. In earmarking a reported $2 billion from its $620 billion Public Investment Fund (PIF) to back LIV Golf, the Saudis have sent the professional game spiraling into its most tumultuous period in modern history. The PGA Tour is threatened. The DP World Tour is threatened. The game’s four majors, along with the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, are caught somewhere in the middle.
Numerous notable pros have joined LIV, including 10 of the top 50 ranked players in the world. They’ve done so with varying degrees of explanation, but no matter what’s been said publicly, the ultimate draw is one and the same — massive payouts, generational wealth.
But there’s been a price. In addition to questions surrounding their professional futures and eligibility to play majors, along with wavering popularity and fleeing sponsors, all involved with LIV have faced the oft-repeated assertion that the entire venture is a form of “sportswashing.” The theory goes that Saudi Arabia is using golf (among other things) to overshadow perceptions of its place in the modern world. The common refrain is the same, keying on the country’s human rights record, ties to the 9/11 highjackers, restrictions on women, severe LGBTQ+ repression, the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other atrocities.
LIV is presently two events into an eight-event inaugural season. The next is slated for Friday through Sunday at Trump Bedminster (N.J.). At this time last year, this was all a distant rumor, one that many, including the PGA Tour, dismissed. That, it turns out, was a monumental misread.
Now LIV Golf is here and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Graeme McDowell, a major winner, four-time Ryder Cup participant and champion of the 2020 Saudi International, grappled with the criticisms aimed at himself and other LIV players in an early July interview with The Irish Independent. He described LIV as “a golf organization giving us a phenomenal opportunity.”
McDowell continued: “All the tenuous links to the things that these guys have allegedly done when we know that the links are, like I say, tenuous at best. It doesn’t mean everyone in Saudi Arabia is a bad person, you know what I’m saying.”
Tenuous links? Critics pounced on McDowell’s comment, just as they have most statements dispatched by LIV-bound golfers. A certain hyper-reactivity has existed on a daily basis.
On the outside, meanwhile, amid the ongoing rumor-chasing and moral critiques in the golfing world, those who’ve studied and reported on the Saudi kingdom over the years have watched on in fascination. They have their own thoughts on the cash behind LIV and what Saudi Arabia stands to gain.
Those voices, they present a different picture. It isn’t one of Saudi Arabia seeking to obscure or rewrite its reputation, but one representative of a motive that’s as old as time.
King-sized power and ambition.
I. “He controls it.”
The “Salvator Mundi,” estimated to date back to 1490–1500, went to auction in 2017. The painting depicts Jesus Christ, forward-facing, solemn; his right hand raised in benediction, his left holding a transparent orb. A mere 26 inches tall, the painting has been a sensation in the art world since surfacing at a 2005 auction in New Orleans. First believed to be a copy of a missing masterpiece, it was deemed as an apparent long-lost work of Leonardo da Vinci, eventually landing a starring role in an exhibition at London’s National Gallery. Though controversial, the “Salvator Mundi” was a treasure, described as the “male Mona Lisa.” As the only known privately owned Leonardo, it was purchased by a Swiss tycoon, then a Russian oligarch. Put up for auction by Christie’s in 2017, it was expected to draw a winning figure north of $200 million.
The bidding lasted 19 minutes. In the end, would-be buyers whittled down from three billionaires to one. Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture, reportedly serving as a proxy for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, submitted the winning bid of $450 million, shattering the previous record for a single painting at auction ($179 million for Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger” in 2015).
Never mind that some experts argued the Leonardo isn’t actually a true Leonardo. Never mind that other critics find it plainly unimpressive. The “Salvator Mundi” was now property of the Saudi kingdom. In the years since, volumes have been written on the Saudi’s intentions with the piece and its location at any given time. It was at one point reported to be hanging aboard “The Serene,” a $400 million superyacht owned by Prince Mohammed, creating utter panic among conservationists.
But why, you might ask, would the ruling family of a monarchy in the center of the Islamic world spend a half-billion dollars on a painting of Christ?
“They didn’t buy that painting because the Saudis suddenly developed an interest in Italian Renaissance art,” says Graeme Wood, a staff writer for The Atlantic and lecturer in political science at Yale. “It was because they’re a wealthy country and wealthy countries have great art. A Leonardo is the type of thing a billionaire has.”
Meanwhile, the art world remains disconcerted by the Saudi’s purchase and what the painting’s future holds.
Prince Mohammed, commonly known as MBS, operates with the goal of Saudi Arabia not merely being a disruptor, but being a global exemplar of wealth, those who’ve studied and covered the Saudi monarchy explain.
Of course, a kingdom so powerful would buy a Leonardo. Of course, it would buy a half-billion-dollar yacht. Of course, it would buy a $300 million French chateau. Of course, it would buy a controlling share of a massively popular (and expensive) Premier League team.
And, of course, it would finance a revolutionary golf league unlike anything the world has seen.
When it comes to LIV, such financial aspirations stem directly from the pool from which it’s pulled. The Saudi Public Investment Fund, currently valued at roughly $620 billion, was Prince Mohammed’s ultimate priority.
And if you do not understand the PIF and MBS, you cannot truly understand how LIV came to be.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz tabbed Prince Mohammed as his successor in 2015. MBS was, at the time, a 29-year-old mystery man. As the seventh of King Salman’s sons, he was a surprise pick, but in short time rose to power and redefined the kingdom’s direction. A 2018 tour of the United States marked his ultimate emergence on the world stage. He met with Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Tim Cook and Richard Branson. He brokered arms deals with President Donald Trump and visited with three former U.S. presidents. He visited Starbucks with Michael Bloomberg. He sat for interviews with multiple U.S. publications. He hung out with Oprah Winfrey. Skepticism gave way to possibility. Time, while featuring a posed portrait of MBS on its cover, considered: “If it works, bin Salman’s putative revolution could transform one of world’s most retrograde autocracies from exporter of oil and terrorist ideology into a force for global progress.”
Upon taking over as the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed quickly prioritized transforming the country’s oil-dependent economy into one of diversified investments. The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund was of utmost importance. Prince Mohammed, the chairman of the PIF, put his closest allies, including his personal banker, Yasir al-Rumayyan, in positions to oversee the kingdom’s investments. Billions of dollars were poured into it.
Whereas the common label “Saudi money” is often cited as the source of LIV’s backing, it’s a misnomer of sorts. The PIF is patently separate from, say, personal investment funds operated by individual billionaires in Saudi Arabia. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, for instance, created Kingdom Holding Company, which has held stakes in all varieties of international companies — Amazon, AOL/Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, Ford, Proctor & Gamble, McDonald’s, Apple, Disney, etc. That, technically, can be considered “Saudi money.” But it’s important to distinguish between that and the Public Investment Fund. While the PIF holds stakes in many of those Saudi-based investment funds (the result of Prince Mohammed once jailing the wealthiest Saudis in a five-star Ritz-Carlton for upwards of months to take his cut), there’s a distinction.
“The idea behind a sovereign wealth fund is that it’s money that’s made from natural resources, generally, that’s used kind of like an endowment,” says Ellen R. Wald, author of “Saudi Inc.,” an exhaustive look at the royal family and the country’s ascent as the world’s key oil producer. “They invest it and the state makes money off those investments. That can be used toward the budget and things like that.”
That’s how national wealth funds typically operate. Kuwait and Iran, for instance, have national oil companies that sell petroleum and pump money into the state coffers. But Wald explains that when it comes to the PIF, Saudi Arabia’s state-oil company, Saudi Aramco, sells the oil, makes the money, then pays taxes, dividends, fees and royalties to the Saudi state and finances the PIF.
Valued at $150 billion in 2015, the Public Investment Fund managed assets valued at $360 billion by 2020. That same year, al-Rumayyan, governor of the PIF, told Barron’s the kingdom strategically decided the COVID-19 pandemic was an optimal time to aggressively deploy funds into the U.S. and other global markets. Two years later, the PIF’s 2022 value has ballooned to $620 billion, making it the fifth-largest sovereign fund in the world. Prince Mohammed says those net assets could reach $2 trillion by 2030, per Bloomberg.
Over the years, the PIF has purchased stakes in a variety of investments — Uber, Boeing, Facebook, CitiBank, Disney, Berkshire Hathaway, Electronic Arts, and plenty others. In October, it made waves by taking control of the famed Newcastle United Football Club.
When defining the PIF to the outside world, Saudi officials have long claimed it operates autonomously and is guided by an investment panel. That was the rationale presented to the Premier League during the Saudi’s takeover of Newcastle. The claim was strongly contested.
Today, once again, it’s a distinction drawn by many involved with LIV. There’s a strong desire to dispel any notion that Prince Mohammed is peeling dollars off his billfold to finance the golf league.
“They say MBS doesn’t run the PIF, per se, but at the same time, he’s obviously heavily involved,” Wald says. “Technically, it’s separate government money, separate from the monarchy and from MBS’ personal fortune, and all that. So, on paper, there’s separation, but the PIF is owned by the government and the king is the head of the whole government. He controls it.”
Prince Mohammed’s trip to the Unites States was in March 2018 and lasted 13 days. In October of that same year, Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist self-exiled in the U.S. for his criticisms of the kingdom’s human rights record, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain marriage documents. It was there, according to the CIA, that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered by assassins working on behalf of the crown prince’s regime. The murder drew international outrage. It also came amid growing reports and concerns of mass arrests of Saudi activists, clerics, intellectuals and businessmen. The MBS publicity tour was officially over.
II. “Why have a sports team when you can have a whole league?”
In 2016, as part of his aim to diversify the economy from total oil dependence, Prince Mohammed announced the creation of Vision 2030, an array of far-reaching initiatives to strengthen Saudi Arabia in the modern world. It sought to 1.) establish the country as “the heart of the Arab and Islamic worlds,” 2.) bolster the PIF into “a global investment powerhouse” and 3.) reimagine the country as a global hub.
Vision 2030 is, in part, a tourism play. If Saudi Arabia is going to be a worldwide player, it has to, by some measure, open itself to the world. In the past, the only tourism to Saudi Arabia was religious pilgrimage to the holy sites. Prince Mohammed sees Dubai’s successful transition from a nondescript fishing port to an epicenter of wealth as aspirational.
In the push to increase Saudi Arabia’s viability, sports was earmarked as an area to flex its financial muscle. Money was allotted for Formula One races, eSports and gaming, a partnership with WWE and other ventures.
While Vision 2030 is technically financed by the country, the PIF has its own long-term strategy within that. One major pursuit was a pet project of MBS’ right-hand man atop the PIF.
“Al-Rumayyan’s big thing is golf,” says one individual who has long studied Saudi leadership and requested anonymity. “He’s obsessed. … He cares more about golf than anything in the world.”
A state-sponsored organization, Golf Saudi, was given a significant place in Vision 2030. Created in 2018, it spawned aggressive course construction projects and “grow the game” initiatives. Al-Rumayyan was appointed as the organization’s first chairman.
His other positions? Governor of the Public Investment Fund and Chairman of Saudi Aramco.
In recent years, Majed Al Sorour, a former professional footballer who climbed the Saudi power ranks, emerged as chief executive of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation through the formation of LIV. He also now serves as director at Newcastle United since the kingdom’s £300 million takeover of the club. Al Sorour is also an adviser to the Public Investment Fund.
Speaking in February 2020 of the PIF’s venture into golf, Al Sorer said “for us to build courses, that’s the smallest part, that’s the easy thing.” His sights, and the sights of the Saudis, were set much higher.
Some point to sportswashing — the notion golf can renovate outside views of Saudi Arabia. But there’s more to it.
“To be at a certain level, and be seen as having such wealth and power, one of the ways they’re doing that is simply by spending obscene amounts of money to make themselves appear like they’re among (the world’s greatest wealth managers),” Wald says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if (LIV) is more for their image, not in terms of sportswashing, but instead to create the image of, ‘We’re on the level of CitiBank and BlackRock and all these fancy fund managers.’ That’s my impression of it.”
This is what makes LIV inherently different. It’s not the PIF taking a stake in an existing company or wealth fund. It’s not Prince Mohammed using his personal fortune to buy Renaissance art or a yacht.
It is, instead, a creation born directly from the PIF. It’s one of 48 companies spawned by the fund over the last six years.
And it’s a creation aimed at status.
“When it comes to golf, there could very well be Saudis who love golf, play golf, follow golf, and who, as a point of pride, want to have their own golf league,” Graeme Wood says. “But make no mistake, it’s also because Saudi Arabia wants to have something that rich countries have. Why have a sports team when you can have a whole league?”
III. “They’re not my bosses.”
Wood recently sat with Prince Mohammed for two interviews for The Atlantic, becoming the first journalist granted such access in two years. A resulting April 2022 cover story explored complex dichotomies that exist. Some stark modernizations have come in Saudi Arabia under Prince Mohammed’s leadership. He’s catered to entertainment desires of a population that skews under 35. He’s lifted restrictions on women’s right to drive. He’s stifled the infamous Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a quasi-police unit that for decades enforced Islamic doctrine with severe force.
Yet the country undeniably remains a restrictive monarchy. Prince Mohammed rules with, as Wood wrote, “a reputation for ruthlessness” and a penchant for “creating a climate of fear unprecedented in Saudi history.” Human rights advocates point to the jailing and alleged torture of activists, journalists and dissidents. They point to years of bombings ravaging Yemen. They point to the nonexistence of LGBTQ+ rights. The list goes on. In March, Prince Mohammed’s regime carried out a mass execution of 81 detainees.
Speaking to those who cover and study the Saudi kingdom, they see no differentiation between the kingdom overseeing these actions and the one financing LIV.
“The separation that would exist in other countries that have more developed bureaucracies just doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia,” Wood says. “It’s much easier to draw a direct moral connection between the person who’s writing the check for LIV and the person whose money it is, who is MBS. I can see why people would console themselves with the belief that there’s only a tenuous connection, but the fact of the matter is, it’s an absolute monarchy. That’s all there is to it.”
How that’s judged is in the eye of the beholder.
In 2020, LIV Golf Investments was formed out of the PIF and hired golf legend Greg Norman as commissioner and CEO. It was Norman who uttered the mantra that set the tone for recent months of chaos: “Free agency is coming to golf, finally.”
Norman was an obvious LIV collaborator. The 67-year-old has long been known as much for his business interests as his major victories. His golf career spawned a personal empire including real estate, golf course architecture, a wine estate, restaurants, a clothing line, Wagyu steaks, an amusement park, so forth. Moreover, in 1994, Norman challenged the PGA Tour’s dominion by developing an exclusive World Golf Tour that would host 40-player made-for-TV events with massive purses. The PGA Tour responded by rallying its players against Norman’s opposing tour and ended the fight before it entered the ring.
“They slayed the dreamer,” Norman told Washington Post writer Kent Babb.
Except they didn’t. Almost three decades later, Norman is back at it. Perhaps no individual in golf aligns more with LIV’s motives of power and ambition. Some believe this is all a personal vanity project and that he’s a useful pawn for LIV’s original organizers. Others see him as rightly blowing up the monopolists (his word) running the PGA Tour. Either way, he’s the face of the operation.
Norman’s answers to LIV’s ties to the Saudi crown?
“They’re not my bosses,” he told Sky Sports in May. “We’re independent. I do not answer to Saudi Arabia. I do not answer to their government or MBS.”
Maybe that’s indeed the case. However, if where the PIF ends and the Saudi regime begins is a gray area for experts, how is that not the case for LIV?
Typically, one works for whoever writes the checks.
And when it comes to LIV, those checks come from the Public Investment Fund.
IV. “Is that a simple explanation?”
In the endless debate over vilifying or justifying LIV Golf, proponents of the oft-described “rebel tour” point directly to President Joe Biden sitting with MBS on the Saudi crown prince’s home turf this month. Emerging images of a fist-bump between the two represented an about-face from Biden’s admonishment of Saudi Arabia throughout the 2020 presidential campaign. The meeting between president and prince came amid spiking gas prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two leaders also reportedly covered topics ranging from advancing the kingdom’s ceasefire with Yemen, lifting restrictions on Saudi airspace, the U.S. assisting in 5G deployment in Saudi Arabia and more.
The relationship is … complicated. Saudi Arabia has mostly been an American ally for 75 years, dating to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz launching the Saudi-American partnership in 1945. Everyone interviewed for this story mentioned the United States’ long history of doing business with not only Saudi monarchs, but other autocrats, as well.
However, in the here and now, and amid Prince Mohammed’s budding rulership, things are more complex than ever.
As LIV sets course to its next season stop — this week at Trump Bedminster — yet another wormhole arises. In April, The New York Times reported Prince Mohammed overruled concerns voiced by the PIF’s panel of investors about the risks of investing in Jared Kushner’s newly formed private equity firm, Affinity Partners. With Prince Mohammed’s prompting, the PIF ended up taking a $2 billion stake in Affinity. According to the Times, Kushner, the son-in-law of former President Trump, played a primary role in “the Trump administration’s defending Crown Prince Mohammed after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that he had approved the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi.”
Now, LIV, financed by the PIF, is heading to a course owned by Trump. It will do so again in late October when the season-ending team championship heads to Trump National Doral Miami.
Controversy, as LIV is exceptionally used to, will follow. Families and advocates of those who died on 9/11 have been vocal in their contempt for the former president’s arrangement and are planning demonstrations in New Jersey this week. Undeterred, Trump has defended hosting the tour. He’s also encouraged PGA Tour players to defect to LIV, saying they should “take the money now.”
Meanwhile, golf fans remain spinning adrift in the daily churn of news, still trying to understand what to make of all this.
It isn’t easy, and some experts offer a reminder to be cognizant of certain biases that can exist, whether overtly or covertly.
“At the end of the day, when Americans, or people in the west, in general, think of Saudi Arabia — or any Arab county or Muslim country — it’s often through the lens of Islamophobia,” says Russell Lucas, an associate professor of international relations and domestic politics and cultures of the Middle East at Michigan State University.
“Is that a simple explanation of why people are against being involved with the Saudis?” Russell continues. “No. Saudi Arabia, as a state, has significant human rights violations. It does not treat its own citizens with due process and, with the Khashoggi case and others, it’s obviously doing that beyond its own borders, as well. So, on one hand, you want to stop for a second. Are we reacting to this particular country and these particular leaders out of racism? On the other hand, we can easily find examples of things where, no, we wouldn’t want to be treated like that as individuals or live in a state that’s like that.”
V. “Golf could help them.”
Like the Saudi kingdom’s pursuit of power and ambition, LIV, named as an acronym for the Roman numeral for 54 (representing how many holes are played in the tour’s events), is unrelenting in its pursuit of two things: players and leverage.
Some of the reported deals are extraordinary — nine-figure, multi-year contracts for the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. But, hey, what’s $125 million for a recent Masters winner like DJ when your angel investor dropped a half-billion on a Leonardo that ends up in the cabin of a floating mansion.
But then there are player additions like the recently acquired Henrik Stenson. The 46-year-old is ranked 171st in the world and hasn’t finished in the top 30 of a major since 2019. He is, though, symbolic of the disarray LIV is capable of creating. Stenson was previously named European captain for the 2023 Ryder Cup and said he was “fully committed to the captaincy and to Ryder Cup Europe.” In March, he acknowledged signing what amounted to a non-compete contract.
That contract is now in tatters, replaced by Stenson’s deal with LIV. His haul is in the neighborhood of £40 million, according to multiple European outlets, a figure undoubtedly driven by the value of severing his captainship. The Ryder Cup, in the meantime, is facing what feels like an existential crisis.
LIV is forcing its hand, as is the business model. Its invested $300 million into a partnership the Asian Tour to potentially access world ranking points in golf’s subjective model of international grading and offer its players additional playing opportunities.
The PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, meanwhile, have refused cooperation while also acknowledging they cannot compete with LIV’s payouts. The PGA Tour, on top of it all, is now ensnared in a Justice Department investigation into anticompetitive behavior against the rival tour. A breaking point could be nearing.
In hindsight, golf’s institutional bodies were jarringly susceptible to an attack from the flank, as long as someone had the ambition to do so. That’s exactly what the PIF has. As one close observer with knowledge of the inner workings of the fund noted, “Al-Rumayyan convinced MBS that golf could help them raise their profile internationally.”
That appears to be the end game here.
But primary questions linger. What’s an acceptable return on investment for the PIF and the Saudi kingdom? And when do they want it? The tour has no TV deal, limited sponsors and offers readily available promo codes for free tickets to its tournaments. Is profitability plausible? Can it coexist with the game’s traditional tours? Will it be recognized by the game’s institutions as legitimate?
Two billion from the PIF has already been earmarked for LIV. Billions more are potentially coming. Everyone interviewed here agrees that money is an investment, not a ploy for misdirection. As Lucas says, “It can’t lose money forever. The whole point of the investment fund is to invest and get returns. At the same time, there are also non-monetary benefits that could be coming. Are those quantifiable?”
We don’t know. Some days, it seems like LIV’s model is wholly unsustainable and could be sacked in a few years. Other days, it seems like the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have already lost, and LIV is here to stay.
The answer, in truth, resides not on the course, but in a kingdom.
(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic; photos: Charlie Crowhurst, Jamie Squire / LIV Golf / Getty Images; Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)