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Koepka hands LIV Golf — and Saudi Arabia — first major win

Kyle McKinnon
May 22, 2023

Brooks Koepka was subjected to booing for his participation in the LIV Golf tour, but the American's fifth major tournament title gave the new Saudi-backed tour a boost with the first major win by an active player.

Golfer Brooks Koepka completes his swing on the 18th tee of the PGA
Brooks Koepka, on the 18th tee of the PGA Championship's final round, became the first active LIV Golf player to win a major tournamentImage: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It was bound to happen. 

A player from the PGA's supremely wealthy golf league rival, the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf Tour, was eventually going to win one of traditional golf's major tournaments: the Masters, the British Open, the US Open or, as Brooks Koepka did on Sunday, the PGA Championship.

It was Koepka's third PGA title and his fifth overall major. But it was his first major since he was lured to LIV Golf. Cameron Smith won last year's British Open, but before he joined the LIV tour.

Koepka, on his fourth and final round of the tournament, shot a three-under-par 67 to win by two strokes over both Viktor Hovland and Scottie Scheffler. The two second-place finishers play on the PGA tour, which has banned LIV players from tour tournaments. The four majors are considered extraordinary tournaments in which any player can qualify by fulfilling the needed criteria.

The LIV tour has been controversial since its inception, primarily due to accusations that Saudi Arabia is using golf for 'sportswashing,' or trying to clean up its own human rights image globally by sponsoring athletic competitions and competitors.

LIV golfers were given massive bonuses, some — including Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson — reportedly over $100 million (€92.48 million) each, before they even swung a golf club in a LIV tournament. 

PGA tour players like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have spoken out in strong terms against LIV and those taking the Saudi money to play.

Golfer Rory McIlroy swings from the fairway at the PGA Championship
Rory McIlroy, who spoke out repeatedly against LIV Golf, finished tied for seventh on Sunday Image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

'A diversion'

Saudi Arabia "is pushing away from the narrative of its role in the war in Yemen, the murder of [journalist] Jamal Khashoggi, and the ongoing imprisonment and torture of innocent people for simply voicing an opinion," says Lucy Rae, spokesperson for Grant Liberty, a London-based human rights group focused on the Middle East and Pakistan.

"These shining sporting events that are backed by these huge sponsors, these sponsors then become complicit with those tortures within that region," she tells DW. "It's just a diversion to change the narrative ... about the abhorrent treatment of people within Saudi Arabia."

According toinvestigations now being updated by Grant Liberty, Saudi Arabia has pumped well over $1.5 billion into sports in recent years, including LIV Golf, football (think Ronaldo and Messi, European and now African football), racing (the Formula 1's SA Grand Prix), women's and men's tennis, boxing and numerous other competitions.  

At the PGA Championship, there was some degree of awareness that Koepka was from a rival league that had been shunned by the PGA itself, and by golfers like Tiger Woods who had reportedly been offered several times more than other golfers to bring their talents to the Saudi-funded tour. 

Koepka booed

"What I find really interesting is throughout the tournament, Koepka and others were booed by fans," says Professor Simon Chadwick, who lectures on sport and geopolitical economy at the Skema Business School in Paris. 

"It does rather raise the issue of who's being sportwashed. Is it external audiences? Or perhaps it could be internal audiences within Saudi Arabia itself. Or do we conclude that it's not working because people are still raising Saudi Arabian human rights and Saudi Arabian image and reputation in connection with, for example, LIV golf?"

Indeed, despite the rousing ovation Koepka heard on his last stroke of the tournament, he also heard catcalls and boos frequently during the PGA Championship's four-day event. 

"Whilst I understand this terminology of sportswashing, my own view is in terms of policy and strategy, certainly in Europe and North America, we need to realize that Saudi Arabia has got much bigger and much bolder ambitions than simply to convince us that they're good guys now," adds Chadwick.

Critics point to Saudi Arabia's abysmal human rights history, highlighted like never before by the assassination of Washington Post journalist Khashoggi, a Saudi exile, during Khashoggi's visit to the Kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018. Evidence suggested the killers had direct links to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As a result, bin Salman became a pariah in the West for several years, but has since entertained visits by US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron among others. 

"Saudi Arabia sees itself as being at the center of a new world order," says geopolitical economy professor Chadwick. "And so in many respects, what might happen in golf or in soccer or motorsport or wherever else is almost incidental. Sport is simply the means to an end rather than an end in itself.

"But I think the other thing that Saudi Arabia is really trying to do is to secure legitimacy in the minds of people across the world, because we know that high profile, very glamorous, iconographic sport tends to help people forget about things."

It's hard, Rae of the Grant Liberty human rights group told DW, but when it comes to Saudi-funded events, sports fans need to look away.

"I'm a big boxing fan myself but I have to refuse to watch those that individually take part within that region," she says, adding that, if no one takes a stand, creating change in Saudi Arabia will be impossible.

Koepka's win 'helps LIV'

Koepka wasn't effusive about the impact of his PGA Championship title on the LIV tour for which he competes. Before joining LIV last summer, he once barked at a reporter for asking how much money it would take to lure him away from the PGA Tour to the Saudi-funded LIV. But after winning on Sunday, he did offer a few thoughts.

"I definitely think it helps LIV," Koepka said. "But I'm more interested in my own self right now, to be honest with you. I'm out here competing as an individual at the PGA Championship. I'm just happy to take this home for a third time."

Well beyond the confines of the up-state New York golf club that hosted the PGA Championship, perhaps as far as Riyadh, the LIV League and its supporters were gloating. Validation, they determined, was theirs.

Edited by Matt Ford

Kyle McKinnon x