Golf came to Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. American expats, working in the nascent oil industry, brought their clubs with them and made courses in the dunes. They worked out that if you sprayed oil onto a patch of sand and then packed it down, you could make a vaguely puttable surface. ‘Occasionally, a herd of camels ambles over our greens,’ one engineer wrote for Aramco Weekly. ‘The terms “fairway” and “rough” employ a distinction that is theoretical only.’
Today, Saudi Arabia wants to take over the sport. The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is trying to poach the world’s top golf players to play in its new competition, the Super Golf League (SGL). This year, there will be eight tournaments, in England, America, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. (Players teeing off from the kingdom’s pristine Royal Greens club, flanked by the Red Sea, can recoup for the next event in the competition in the clubhouse’s cigar lounge or billiards room.) Each tournament in the SGL will have a $25 million prize fund, and players have been offered up to $100 million to sign up. It’s a long way from playing around on oil slicks in the sand.
The Super League plan has upset golf’s traditionalists, who don’t like the idea of the Saudis moving in on their lucrative turf. The PGA Tour, who run professional golf in the United States, and the DP World Tour, the European equivalent, have both just banned their members from playing at the Saudi league’s first event, taking place next month at Hertfordshire’s Centurion Club. ‘You know, it’s like, if you want to go, go’, huffed Justin Thomas, the world number eight. The Saudis, everyone says, are ‘sportswashing’ – laundering their reputation and normalising their human rights abuses by hosting a major golf competition.
That’s undoubtedly the case. But that’s not the only reason the Saudis want to shake up the sport.
For one, the project is personal. Yasir al-Rumayyan, who runs the PIF and is a close friend of MBS, is a huge golfing fan. He plays off a decent handicap of 12, and has been trying to force his way into the sport for years. He’s friends with Sergio Garcia, who has 36 tournament wins in his career and who once ranked number two in the sport, and the American Phil Mickelson, another former world number two. Al-Rumayyan has apparently earmarked $2 billion to make his new competition work. To him, the new venture is more than just business.
Al-Rumayyan has taken a personal interest in another of the PIF’s sporting investments: Newcastle Football Club. Newcastle was set for relegation when the PIF took over, but al-Rumayyan, as chairman, has already given them over £90 million, more money than any team in Europe during the January transfer window. Now, Newcastle are fourteenth, and well in the clear of the relegation zone; out of 20 teams in the Premier League, only three have had a better record since the New Year. In April, al-Rumayyan went to watch Newcastle play Crystal Palace. After a 1-0 win, he gave a speech in the dressing room (unusual) before trying to have a kick around on the pitch with his co-owners. He even attempted a rainbow flick. Next season, Newcastle will play in a green and white away kit – clearly modelled on the Saudi national team jerseys.
The new golf competition will also help the Saudis get one over on Qatar. The two countries are battling for supremacy in the region, and see sport as a major playing field. Both countries hosted a Formula One Grand Prix last year and in 2019 Qatar held the World Athletics Championships, while Saudi Arabia put on the Antony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz rematch. When Qatar holds the World Cup later this year, ‘all roads will lead to Doha for three weeks’, one figure close to the Qatari and Saudi governments put it. Saudi Arabia wants a major competition of its own.
For now, though, it looks like Big Golf has won the day. Greg Norman, the zany ex-pro who is fronting the new league, says just 19 of the world’s top 100 golfers will be playing in the SGL’s first event on 9 June. Cash alone clearly wasn’t enough to entice more to join. Rory McIlroy says the competition is ‘dead in the water’.
You might think the SGL is doomed. Because if this is simply an exercise in Saudi sportswashing, and it hasn’t worked, the country can easily walk away and find an easier (and, respectfully, perhaps a more popular) sport to exploit. I doubt it though. Al-Rumuyyan jokes that playing golf in the Saudi deserts has left him with one particularly useful skill to get out of a tight spot: ‘I’m really good in bunkers.’