Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 20, 2022

The PGA And European Tours’ Useful Idiots

The peripatetic caravan that is the PGA Tour rolls into the Coachella Valley this week for the start of its midwinter West Coast Swing, four tournaments in California sandwiched around the Tour’s annual bacchanalia, the Waste Management Phoenix Open.  The northernmost stop on this part of the schedule will be on the Monterey Peninsula, where in two weeks members of the world’s preeminent men’s golf tour will tee it up for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.  The tournament traces its roots to the 1930’s, when the entertainer and avid amateur hacker Bing Crosby began gathering his Hollywood friends and some touring pros for a weekend of golf and partying.  Over the decades most of golf’s big names, from Snead and Hogan to Nicklaus and Watson to Woods and Mickelson have claimed victory at the event once affectionately known as Crosby’s Clambake.

But despite the tournament’s long history, the challenge of Pebble Beach Golf Links, and the staggeringly beautiful setting, the field at this year’s AT&T will be noticeably weaker than in recent years.  That’s because nearly two dozen golfers, including many instantly recognizable names from both the PGA and European Tours, will be eleven time zones away playing at the PIF Saudi International.  Golf fans are used to a tournament sponsor slapping its name on an event and are equally adept at ignoring the best efforts of corporate marketing departments, as evidenced by the fact that for many followers of the sport, the two tournaments mentioned in the first paragraph will always be simply the “Phoenix Open” and “Pebble Beach.”  But in this case, the sponsor’s name tells all, for PIF stands for Public Investment Fund, the official investing vehicle of Saudi Arabia’s government.

Created in 1971 to invest the oil-rich kingdom’s wealth, the PIF is headed by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of a notoriously authoritarian regime.  He and the government he heads have been condemned by human rights groups for crackdowns on activists within the country, for vocally supporting China’s repression of its Uyghur population, and, most brazenly, for authorizing the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  While many of the PIF’s investments are kept hidden, the fund has begun devoting some of its money to sportswashing, the practice of using our games, whether through sponsoring events, hosting them, or even team ownership, to improve one’s image or at least divert attention from actions that range from unsavory to heinous.  Last year, in the face of strong public opposition, the English Premier League approved the sale of Newcastle United to a consortium led by the PIF.  Now the fund has stepped in to support a golf tournament that was in trouble after it was dropped from the European Tour’s schedule.

While professional golfers have considerable freedom to choose where and when they play, both the PGA and European Tours require members to receive permission to play elsewhere if doing so conflicts with a tournament on their home tour.  Initially both PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley said they would not grant releases, mainly because of the PIF’s funding of LIV Golf Investments, the Greg Norman led effort to create a rival global golf tour.  But both ultimately backed down rather than force a confrontation with several stars.

Fans should thus not look for the likes of Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson or Bubba Watson when they tune into the action at Pebble Beach.  Nor will Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood or Shane Lowry be playing either there or at that week’s European Tour event.  They will all be among two dozen American and European pros teeing it up at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, on the Red Sea coast.  They will not be there because of the history of a tournament that did not exist until 2019, nor because of the event’s purse, which is less than sixty percent of the money at stake at Pebble.  They are instead being lured by appearance money – cash paid to them simply for showing up – a practice forbidden at PGA Tour events.  The amount of such payments is never disclosed, but one can be assured that the PIF is offering a lot more than just plane tickets and free hotel rooms.

When DeChambeau and Lowry were asked about the propriety of lending their imprimatur to the PIF and Mohammed bin Salman, both begged off by saying they were “not politicians.”  That hollow excuse, which would surely be echoed by all their compatriots, is as true as it is obvious, but ignores the equal truth that anyone can make a political statement.  Even those, no make that especially those, who for the sake of a fatter bank account willingly play the part of useful idiot.

This is not a plea for ideological purity, for none of us are pure.  We all make moral judgments every day, and no doubt each of us sometimes falls short.  AT&T, the sponsor of the PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach event, has like many major corporations been neck deep in controversy at times.  Most recently, a Reuters report revealed that AT&T was the driving force and major financial backer behind OAN, the radical fringe cable network that has yet to meet a rightwing conspiracy theory too extreme for it to promote.  And while the Saudi event is underway the European Tour will be playing for the third week of four in a row in the various constituent territories of the United Arab Emirates, a nation not known for its openness or commitment to equality.

One may choose to condemn an event because it is played in a repressive country or sponsored by a company with a poor record of corporate responsibility.  But those examples of sportswashing are laughably amateurish compared to the PIF and Mohammed bin Salman’s cynical use of cold cash to make a consummately evil record simply disappear.  

It is, in the end, a contest between principle and profit.  In sports, as in life, there are noble stories of the former winning the day.  But the alternative result is far more common.  The triumph of greed is, after all, a tale that goes all the way back to that ancient account of what one man was willing to do for thirty pieces of silver.


  1. I could not agree with author more. What drew many to the game of golf was the strict personel responsibility for observation of the rules and respect for the traditions. Like baseball which is the topic of the author, golf seems to have lost its way or rather the participants of the game have been blinded by the alure of money. As baseball is losing its place as the natuional pasttime, so golf will lose its positions as the game of gentlemen and women.

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