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In The Saudi Rain Of Money

A new golf tour financed by Saudi Arabia is currently tearing up the traditional sport. Many players have changed – and make a fool of themselves at press conferences.

"I don't know if you can ever forget about human rights. You shouldn't. But you shouldn't let that limit you too much." That's what Martin Kaymer said, the former German number one in golf. It's the Rhinelander's attempt to justify his participation in the LIV Golf Invitational Series. This new tournament series, which kicked off in St Albans near London on Thursday, competes with the established PGA Tour, which Kaymer and some colleagues have said goodbye to.

Now, breakaways are nothing new in professional sports per se. In golf, however, a whole sport was torn apart by Thursday at the latest. This is due to the financier of the new series of competitors, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) from Saudi Arabia, the financial arm of the government there. The PIF acquired the English football club Newcastle United a few months ago and wants to play in other sports as well. This has already been achieved in golf.

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However, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been criticized for serious human rights violations and not least the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was killed by a special squad at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and his body was never found. It was later said that Khashoggi died in an "unsuccessful attempt to arrest him". When asked about Khashoggi's murder, Greg Norman, a former golf pro and the boss of the new series, said: "Everyone makes mistakes." You have to learn from these mistakes and do better in the future.

Norman did not help the participants in any way with his statements. As elegantly as the pros usually swing their clubs on the green, they currently appear clumsy at press conferences. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood were asked if there was any place in the world where they would not play, for example for Vladimir Putin. They just stammered. "The Khashoggi thing was reprehensible," said Graeme McDowell . But: "We are proud to help Saudi Arabia if they want to use golf to get where they want to go."

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It is clear where Saudi Arabia wants to go with its involvement in sport. The royal family around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to beautify its own image internationally. Salman presents himself as a liberal reformer who does not subject everything to the dogmatic principles of the Salafist movement. In terms of foreign policy, he ended the Qatar blockade last year and initiated at least public reconciliation on the Arabian Peninsula.

Professional sport is the perfect complement to political action. The royal family is aware of the initial headwind that there is when investing in football teams, Formula 1 races, boxing matches or now golf tournaments, but is just as certain that the outrage will subside over time and a kind of normalization will begin. In this regard, Saudi Arabia has learned a lot from Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Mohammed bin Sajed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates, has long been regarded as Crown Prince Salman's mentor. With his involvement with the English soccer champions Manchester City, he has managed to secure a permanent place in western top-class sport. The unloved neighbor Qatar achieved something similar with Paris St. Germain.

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This "sportswashing" works analogously to the greenwashing of industrial groups. The positive images of the sport are intended to distract from any misconduct and improve the country's image. The well-known athletes with their fans worldwide serve as advertising characters. Even if the Saudi sponsors have not provided participants in the LIV Golf Invitational Series with a speaking slip, golfers are expected not to be overly critical of Saudi Arabia.

The participants receive compensation for their expected PR problems. According to media reports, US golf legend Phil Mickelson has received $200 million for leaving the PGA, for which he was active for 30 years. In February, in an interview with the author Alan Shipnuck, Mickelson described the Saudi donors as "scary" and pointed out their "terrible record" in terms of human rights, but that doesn't stop the Gulf veteran from getting caught up in the rain of money place. Ironically, Mickelson had recently fallen out with the PGA and accused it of "disgusting greed".

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The PGA is by no means infallible. The golf scene has long been demanding more exciting television broadcasts and changes to the schedule. There have also been unsuccessful spin-off attempts in the past, driven in part by Greg Norman in the 1990s. The Australian is now making another attempt and trying to exploit the weaknesses of the PGA.

The start on Thursday made that clear. Instead of a starting field of 150 players, only 48 competed in so-called shotgun mode. This means that everyone went onto the lawn at the same time, which meant that the transmission didn't take as long as usual. Interactive elements for the viewers are also integrated and are intended to make golf appear more modern.

For its part, the PGA never tires of criticizing the new rival series. While Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García have prophylactically waived a tour card for the PGA, other participants in the LIV Golf Invitational Series are now being suspended by the PGA. Possible legal disputes could follow. The fact that the established organizers are by no means morally untouchable is made clear by the fact that the PGA European Tour has co-organized a golf tournament in Saudi Arabia in recent years under the name PIF Saudi International and that the North American players have been given the freedom to participate. So the Gulf wanted to do business with the Saudi super-rich, but now they are making for a historic change in the sport.

Because the financial resources of Saudi Arabia are almost unlimited. The start of the new series is endowed with 25 million dollars in prize money, the last one still gets 120,000 dollars. Martin Kaymer said: "There's no need to deny that finances also play a role at LIV Golf."

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