Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Battle for the Soul of Golf

| Aug. 09, 2022

A Saudi-sponsored tournament shows why China and other rising powers will struggle to replace established global institutions with their own.

There are lots of things one might say about the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf tour, a blatant attempt to "sportswash" the kingdom's shaky public image. The new initiative has roiled the ranks of professional golf, though its initial events haven't drawn much of a crowd. Although the Saudi initiative may never manage to compete with the Masters Tournament, it illustrates the obstacles that new challengers face when they try to compete with an established order. Indeed, one sees similar forces impeding China's efforts to supplant the present array of international institutions with ones that are better suited to Chinese preferences.

For those of you who don't pay any attention to sports, the LIV Golf tour is a new set of golf tournaments backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. It has enticed a number of famous professionals to enter its events by offering big upfront payments to established stars, promising big purses to the winners, and guaranteeing that all participants will take home a sizable paycheck even if they finish dead last. In response, the PGA Tour and other prominent golf organizations (including the R&A Association, which operates the British Open) have declared that those who join the LIV tour will be ineligible for existing tour events.

Although the PGA's decision raises some interesting legal issues, here's why I think the LIV tour faces an uphill battle: It has gobs of money from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, but it has no history. It sponsors no iconic tournaments that golfers have dreamed of winning ever since they were kids and that fans look forward to every year. Golf is a sport that venerates tradition, and the LIV tour has none. As former U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm put it: "I want to play against the best in the world in a format that's been going on for hundreds of years."

The LIV tour's novel format (54 holes versus 72, with no cuts and guaranteed payouts) is also at odds with golfing history and offers no obvious advantages for fans. Its events will also include a somewhat artificial team format, but it's hard to imagine that this arrangement will generate the kind of intense interest that surrounds international team competitions like the Ryder Cup. And it's not like the participants are suddenly playing a more interesting version of the game—it's essentially the same product but without access to iconic courses, such as Augusta National or St. Andrews. The existing PGA tour has TV coverage sewn up; plenty of corporate sponsorship; and extensive connections to existing satellite tours, college athletic programs, and the vast network of professionals working at golf clubs in the United States and elsewhere.

The new tour also suffers from terrible optics. Saudi Arabia wants the new tour to help people forget about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi nationals who conducted the 9/11 attacks, but 9/11 families and others concerned with the kingdom's human rights record are going to bring this forward every time the players tee up. Instead of hiding past atrocities in a deep sand trap, the new tour gives critics endless opportunities to keep these issues front and center and forces otherwise apolitical golfers to try to avoid or change the subject, usually unconvincingly....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Battle for the Soul of Golf.” Foreign Policy, August 9, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt