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SportsGlobal issues

Trump celebrates, Amnesty concerned after LIV, PGA merger

Stefan Nestler | Chuck Penfold
June 8, 2023

Golf's PGA and the Saudi-bankrolled LIV series have patched up their differences and are set to strike out on a common path. For Amnesty International, it's just the latest example of Riyadh's sportswashing strategy.

Phil Mickelson putting
Phil Mickelson was the highest-profile golfer to jump to the Saudi-bankrolled LIV Golf circuitImage: Peter Foley/UPI Photo/Newscom/picture alliance

"I recognize that people are going to call me a hypocrite. I accept those criticisms. But circumstances do change. I think that in looking at the big picture and looking at it this way, that's what got us to this point."

Those were the words with which Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA (Professional Golfers' Association of America) Tour, announced to the world that the sport's most prestigious series was merging with its bitter upstart rival, the Saudi-bankrolled LIV Golf.

Also joining forces with the PGA and LIV in a newly created entity is the mainly Europe-based DP World Tour.

The announcement, made on Tuesday on the fringes of the Canadian Open in Toronto, was a shocking about-face from a man who in recent months had taken a strong stance against golf pros who had joined LIV.

Just one year ago, the PGA announced that it had banned 17 players who had competed in the LIV Golf League from taking part in its own tournaments until further notice. The most prominent among them was Phil Mickelson.

One of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds

The "circumstances" that Monahan referred to appear to be purely financial.

"Today is a very exciting day for this special game and the people it touches around the world," said Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF).

"We are proud to partner with the PGA Tour to leverage PIF's unparalleled success and track record of unlocking value and bringing innovation and global best practices to business and sectors worldwide."

While the level of investment was not disclosed, it was obviously high enough to change Monahan's mind. The fund manages total assets of more than $600 billion (€560 billion).

The PIF is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Salman, who, in his own words, aims to modernize the country and make it less dependent on oil revenues with his "Vision 2030" development plan.

Investments in national and international sports are a major part of his plan, and golf is just the latest addition to its portfolio. The PIF owns a majority stake in the country's four top football clubs, enabling it to sign some of the sport's most prominent names.

Ronaldo and Benzema, but no Messi

Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Saudi club Al Nassr at the start of 2023, where he is reported to be earning around €200 million annually. France's star striker Karim Benzema recently left Real Madrid for a princely payday at PIF club Al-Ittihad.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo is said to be earning around €200 million at Al NassrImage: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

In 2021, the PIF also acquired a majority stake in English Premier League club Newcastle United.

Al-Hilal, also financed by the PIF, reportedly offered former Barcelona and PSG superstar Lionel Messi an annual salary of around €400 billion. However, the Argentine World Cup champion announced on Wednesday that he had agreed to terms with David Beckham's Inter Miami of Major League Soccer in the United States.

Human rights violations

Human rights organizations have long accused Saudi Arabia of investing in sports with the sole aim of deflecting attention from a record of human rights abuses in the country – a practice popularly known as sports washing.

Felix Jakens of Amnesty International UK said the move to merge LIV with the PGA meant the PIF had effectively bought control of the highest level of international golf.

"They'll be expecting a return on that investment, and that will involve pushing a positive narrative about Saudi Arabia rather than talking about its terrible human rights record," Jakens said.

In its latest annual report, the human rights organization accused Saudi Arabia of human rights violations including unfair trials, torture in prisons, mass executions and discrimination against women.

Survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack and families of the victims said they were "shocked and deeply offended" by the deal. 

"Saudi operatives played a role in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and now it is bankrolling all of professional golf," 9/11 Families United said in a statement.

Exorbitant sums

Saudi Arabia has already been splashing the cash around through the LIV Golf League, which began play as the LIV Golf Invitational Series in 2022. They've lured golfers away from the PGA with prize money, far exceeding that on offer on the PGA Tour, as well as sometimes exorbitant entry bonuses.

The biggest name to jump to the new tour, Phil Mickelson, is said to have pocketed $200 million. LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, an Australian former world No. 1 player, has indirectly confirmed that the circuit once offered Tiger Woods more than $600 million to sign up for the rival circuit. Woods declined and has criticized the players who have joined LIV. The now 47-year-old golfing legend has not yet commented on the deal between the former rivals.

Donald Trump on a golf course
Few could be happier about the golf mega-merger than former US President Donald TrumpImage: Seth Wenig/AP Photo/picture alliance

'Beautiful and glamorous deal'

Not so Donald Trump. The former US president, who has thrown his hat into the ring for the 2024 Republican Party nomination, praised the deal effusively.

"GREAT NEWS FROM LIV GOLF. A BIG, BEAUTIFUL, AND GLAMOROUS DEAL FOR THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF GOLF. CONGRATS TO ALL!!!" the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social.

Last summer, faced with the "inevitable merger," Trump had advised professionals to pounce: "If you don't take the money now, you will get nothing after the merger and only say how smart the original signees were," he said.

The Trump clan have long maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly through his son-in-law and former presidential advisor, Jared Kushner. Greg Norman has also described himself as a friend of Trump's. Among the 2023 LIV series are three tournaments at golf courses owned by the former president.

Perhaps the new deal will also lead to a thaw in the at times strained relations between the Trump and the PGA. Afterall sometimes mutual fiscal interests can spark new – or renewed friendships.