The International Relations of Saudi Arabia’s Golf Empire

As most of you know by now, the world of professional golf was rocked a few weeks ago when the PGA Tour announced an agreement to merge with the rival Saudi-funded LIV Golf. The lesser-known DP World Tour is also part of the deal, which will create a new entity tentatively labeled “NewCo.” Assuming the framework agreement gets finalized, the board of directors of the new organization will be chaired by Yasir al-Rumayyan, the head of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, but PGA executives will occupy a majority of the seats on its board. How this whole arrangement will shake out and its long-term effects on professional golf remain to be seen, especially now that the U.S. Justice Department and some American politicians are getting into the act.

Last year, I argued that the upstart LIV Golf faced an uphill fight against its venerable rival. Most attempts to create new sports leagues (e.g., the World Football League, the All-America Football Conference, North American Soccer League, World Boxing League) have been failures, especially when they were going up against an established institution. One reason—which seemed especially apt in the case of golf, a sport that thrives on tradition—is that the LIV tour had no history. It had no iconic tournaments played on fabled courses like St. Andrews or Augusta National, and no narrative featuring timeless moments of individual achievement. Golf fans love to talk about the past—Gene Sarazen’s legendary double eagle at the Masters in 1935, Corey Pavin’s exquisite 4-wood to the green at the 1995 U.S. Open, or Tiger Woods’s 15-shot victory margin at the Open in 2000—but the participants on the new tour cannot recount gripping tales of miraculous shot-making, cruel collapses, or triumphant comebacks. It could attract famous players, but it would take a long time before it could match its rivals’ monopoly on tradition. I didn’t think LIV was destined to fail—not with all that oil money behind it—I just didn’t think it would be able to supplant the PGA.

So does the unexpected decision to merge suggest I was wrong? I don’t think so. I was as surprised as anyone by the announcement—especially given the war of words between the two organizations over the past year—and the LIV tour wasn’t making much headway against the PGA, even though a prominent LIV golfer—Brooks Koepka—won one of golf’s four major tournaments a few weeks ago. Most top golfers had not defected to the LIV tour despite the financial incentives, respected pros such as Rory McIlroy remained critical of the endeavor, attendance at LIV events still trailed the PGA by wide margins, and it lacked the corporate sponsors and TV coverage that the PGA enjoyed. Like I said, it was facing an uphill battle.

So what did the Saudis do? Instead of continuing to back a second-best alternative to the PGA, they elected to absorb their rival instead. Their mantra seems to have been: “If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em.” And this was a brilliant move, because absorbing the PGA into a larger umbrella organization gives the new entity a direct connection to institutions, history, and traditions that go back more than a century. As for the PGA, signing the deal saved it from having to spend a lot of money countering its deep-pocketed rival.

Read the full piece in Foreign Policy.