High-level defections! Tiger Woods and Jared Kushner! Lawsuits and blacklists! Is the new LIV league a way to reward players, or the vanity project of a despot, or something else?
When a professional golfer wants to pass along a rumor, he’ll tell you that he heard it “on the range.” The pro driving range conjures a serious place where serious men who abide by dress codes and honor systems tweak swing paths and spin rates, but this impression is incomplete. The range, the one location where everyone in the sport gathers, is also golf’s back room. Pre-round chat may concern course conditions, or who is sleeping with whose wife. Recently, the range has been preoccupied by one topic. Since late last year, representatives of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the multibillion-dollar investment vehicle for the kingdom, have been quietly recruiting players for a new super-league that they hope will rival the P.G.A. Tour. They were calling it LIV; the name derives from the Roman numeral fifty-four, to denote what they consider “a perfect score in golf,” and is pronounced as in “live large.” LIV life was lucrative. The Saudis, who’d devised a twelve-team league, planned to spend two billion dollars, much of that on guarantees for players. “You’d hear numbers,” a longtime golf manager told me. “You’d hear ‘a hundred million’ a lot.” Tiger Woods was said to have declined a package valued at seven to eight hundred million dollars. One line I heard often on the range this summer was that there are only three types of pro—those who’ve taken Saudi money, those who are thinking about taking Saudi money, and those who aren’t good enough to be offered Saudi money.
Most outsiders first heard about LIV in February, from Phil Mickelson, one of the P.G.A. Tour’s biggest stars and most consistent critics. “They’re scary motherfuckers,” Mickelson said of the Saudis, in an interview with the golf writer Alan Shipnuck. He said he viewed LIV as a vehicle for Saudi “sportswashing”—a front for the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as M.B.S., to launder his reputation. He also recognized it as useful leverage. He went on, “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” Shipnuck published the story on a golf Web site during the Genesis Invitational, in Los Angeles. (Observers on the range noticed that, all at once, the players stopped hitting and took out their phones to read.) Mickelson issued an apology to those he offended, to LIV’s executives, and to his business partners. He began an indefinite leave from the Tour. A few golfers reached out to him and didn’t hear back. Reports surfaced that he’d accepted an offer from LIV worth roughly two hundred million dollars.
By August, professional golf had cleaved into warring camps. The dispute felt deeply personal. LIV gobbled up players. Tour shunned defector. Defector sued Tour. Strange occurrences were interpreted for signs of rancor: players walked in other players’ lines on the green—accidental etiquette breach or intentional snubbing? Unusual penalties were levied against the LIV-leaning. I heard stories of LIV types being blacklisted at clubs in Jupiter, Florida, or run out of St. Simons Island, in Georgia.
Greg Norman, the former star player whom LIV had hired to be its C.E.O., was particularly reviled. “He lived in Jupiter for thirty-five years,” a golfer told me, on the practice green. “He cannot join a golf club in our area. No one will have him.” It was suggested that defectors were hard up for cash. Mickelson was known, through Shipnuck’s reporting, to have gambling losses totalling tens of millions of dollars. “I think he was desperate,” one old hand confided. (Mickelson has acknowledged a gambling problem but says he is financially secure.)
Generally, the players who cared most about prestige and legacy aligned with the P.G.A. Tour. Its tournaments offered history and gravitas but no guaranteed income; you earned what you won in prize money. Golfers viewed it as the American-individualist ideal—“the purest form of meritocracy,” one golfer said. But the fault lines were idiosyncratic and difficult to untangle from old resentments. Whether a person stayed or left could be explained by some combination of political leaning, culture-war affiliation, sensitivity to peer pressure, and, most of all, naked self-dealing. “They don’t really care what the Saudis’ interest is,” the old hand told me. Sometimes it was a matter of a personal grudge. Did Woods stick with the Tour to protect his records or to snub Norman? They’d been at odds since at least 2006, when Woods moved to Jupiter without giving Norman a heads-up. (Last year, Norman sold his Jupiter spread for fifty-five million dollars to Leslie Wexner, the mogul with ties to Jeffrey Epstein.)
By the Tour Championship, LIV had poached enough players to be viable. It had signed a couple of stars (Dustin Johnson, reportedly for a hundred and twenty-five million dollars), some aging has-beens (Ian Poulter, twenty to thirty million), and a handful of lower-ranked players (Pat Perez, ten million, lump sum; “I got it all,” he told Golf Digest. “It’s fucking incredible”). Six more were rumored to be defecting after the tournament.
The enormous sums had a way of revealing priorities even to the players themselves. Johnson told friends he had rebuffed LIV offers until he couldn’t anymore. “A lot of guys say D.J. isn’t smart—he’s street smart,” the golfer Davis Love III said. “He told me, ‘I got to a number where I’m willing to take the consequences.’ ” One day at East Lake, while practicing his chipping, Max Homa, a firm Tour loyalist, said that his strategy was to avoid temptation entirely. “I got an e-mail,” he told me. He didn’t read it. “I don’t want to know. My wife told me if I got offered x she’d kill me if I said no.”
Loyalties could be fluid. When I asked Rory McIlroy, a prominent Tour loyalist, whether players had misled him about LIV offers, he laughed and said, “Yes. Everyone’s turned quite cynical.” Homa added, “It’s like high school. People are lying to your face. ” Reliable intelligence was essential. One needed to know whom to trust, and, if the winds shifted, when to jump, and for how much. Billy Horschel, another golfer committed to the Tour, confided that he’d cultivated a network of caddy informants, but then most of them jumped to LIV, too. The longtime manager told me, “A lot of these players are talking against LIVpublicly. Privately, they’re trying to get a deal.” He went on, “Players are being shunned, threatened, threatened to be shunned. I thought golf was supposed to be ‘We call infractions on each other, we have rules, we’re gentlemen.’ All of a sudden, they’ve turned into animals.”
Golf has always been about money and power, but in Saudi Arabia it literally came with the oil. The country’s first courses, and almost half its current ones, were “sand courses” improvised from the desert landscape by the Americans who helped build Aramco, the state petroleum giant. There was no grass, so golfers carried around little squares of artificial turf to hit from. A woman is said to have killed a sheep with an approach shot. (She had to pay the shepherd.) The ingenuity required just to complete a round was almost inspiring. Landmarks moved with the wind. Balls could be red. Greens were brown. Reading them was tough; camels stomped across. Putting, at least, didn’t require the turf mat. To maintain the requisite firmness and speed, the greens were slicked with oil.
Today, Saudi golf operations are within the purview of Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the wealth fund and the chairman of Aramco. Rumayyan is polite, with wavy black hair and well-cut suits. In 2015, he was running a bank when M.B.S. offered him a job as an adviser. Later, M.B.S. named him head of the fund. Terms were not discussed. “You will do it,” M.B.S. said. An American analyst who has dealt with Saudi officials told me that Rumayyan “is known as being sort of obsequious.”
Under Rumayyan, the wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund, “became the vehicle for M.B.S.’s ambitions,” the analyst said. The fund controls some six hundred billion dollars, with investments in businesses, like Live Nation (half a billion), Uber (three and a half billion), and SoftBank’s Vision Fund 1 (forty-five billion). Aramco provides a large part of the P.I.F.’s liquidity. The fund operates professionally, with internal structures and board votes, but personal preferences occasionally preside. Carla DiBello, a former reality-television producer and onetime friend of Kim Kardashian turned strategic consultant, has become a go-between. Rumayyan paid more than three hundred million dollars to acquire the English soccer club Newcastle, after meeting with her aboard M.B.S.’s megayacht, Serene, in 2019. When the deal hit a snag, according to news reports, M.B.S. texted Boris Johnson personally: “We expect the English Premier League to reconsider.” It did, and Newcastle supporters, thrilled with its wealthy owners, celebrated outside the stadium wearing tea towels as kaffiyehs.
In 2018, Rumayyan appointed a high-school friend, Majed Al Sorour, to be the C.E.O. of the Saudi Golf Federation. Both men are golf obsessives. (Each claims a twelve handicap.) They began asserting their presence in the golf world. At the Masters one year, according to a person familiar with the conversations, they asked about renting Augusta National’s clubhouse to host a meet and greet for top golfers. “You can’t just do that,” the person said. Sorour, a big-biceped, aviator-wearing former soccer player, also began searching for investments. He told me recently that he’d approached the P.G.A. Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan. “What I said to him is I have a budget of over a billion dollars that I’d like to invest in the Tour,” he said. “I got no response.” (Tour officials deny that they were approached with such an offer.) Eventually, the P.I.F. agreed to help bankroll the new Premier Golf League, which would have star-laden fields, three-round tournaments, shotgun starts (in which all the players start at the same time, on different holes), and, most radically, a team format. When that fell through, in 2021, the Saudis decided to go it alone. “It is, for all intents and purposes, the same format that we devised,” the P.G.L.’s founder has said.
The Saudis’ budget, however, was notably bigger. M.B.S. isn’t known to play golf (he prefers Call of Duty and pickup basketball), but a person who has communicated with him told me that an investment so large would typically require the board’s sign-off, and M.B.S. chairs the board.
LIV’s first event was in London, in June. The purse was twenty-five million dollars, the largest ever in golf. (LIV’s championship, in late October, in Miami, will be double that.) The league held a launch party to introduce its teams. (“With one eye on younger fans, Fireballs has an anarchic, fun, and exciting identity which embodies golf at its wildest!” a presenter said.) Mickelson resurfaced, bearded, in a leather jacket, and looking, in his general gloominess, like a divorced dad. He played in the pro-am with Rumayyan. He was heard exclaiming, “Great shot, Your Excellency!”
The next day, Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, moderated a press conference, having been hired by LIV. The golf media, by then, were in open opposition to LIV, which they viewed as the vanity project of a despot. The scene was exhilarating in its uncomfortableness—tanned men in funny pants answering moral and geopolitical questions for which they were clearly unprepared. (Earlier, Norman, when asked about the persecution of gay people in Saudi Arabia, responded, “I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”) A golfer was asked if he’d play in a tournament hosted by Vladimir Putin. “I don’t need to answer that,” he said. Another, Talor Gooch, said, “I’m not that smart. I try to hit a golf ball into a small hole.”
Bafflingly, defenders insisted that LIV was a kind of humanitarian organization. Mickelson said, “I have seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history.” Examples were not given. Maybe the LIV adherents were just adopting golf’s ambient self-regard. It made for some strange utterances. Graeme McDowell lamented the regrettable “Khashoggi situation,” and then added, “If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be . . . I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.”
The golf establishment, with its Traditions Unlike Any Other, its country-club morality clauses, its doffing of the caps before the shaking of the hands, was unaccustomed to such greed and dysfunction, or, rather, to their public display. A common cry was that LIV was unfit for a gentleman’s game. This is a sport whose major victories are accompanied by gauzy paeans to character. The customs recall an era of a kinder, more genteel conservatism. It would be considered crude to point out that they’ve also been great for business.
At East Lake, where you could visit the Comcast Business Pavilion before hitting up the corporate hospitality chalets, I spoke with Peter Cannone, the C.E.O. of Demand Science (“the official B2B sales pipeline generation sponsor of the PGA Tour”), who explained to me that advertising with the Tour was the ideal way to reach America’s C-suite. Tom Fanning, the C.E.O. of Southern Company, which sponsors the Tour Championship, told me, “Golf, more than probably any other sport, is notable for behaviors and values that transcend the sport—sportsmanship, character, charity, honesty, hard work.” Of LIV, he went on, “I’m not sure what ideals they represent. We don’t have any interest in associating with them.” Depending on one’s vantage, this was either standard marketing or its own kind of reputation-laundering game. A sport that long excluded Blacks, Jews, and women, and with a standard share of avarice and misbehavior, had turned itself into the image of nobility—an ideal advertising vessel.
The Tour itself began as a breakaway league. For decades, the touring pros, among them Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, split tournament revenue with the “club pros,” who gave lessons and sold merch. It was like having Aaron Judge hit against the hot-dog vender and then share the paycheck. In 1968, Nicklaus led a rebellion. Palmer was on the fence—he made millions selling his brand of golf clubs to the club pros—but he eventually joined. (Nicklaus, who once said that golf wasn’t more diverse because “Blacks have different muscles that react in different ways,” and who himself does golf business in Saudi Arabia, is still held up by Tour loyalists as the paragon of the gentleman golfer.) Today, the Tour has no owners, and the golfers vote on the board. It functions as a players’ collective, at least in theory.
As in any quasi democracy, the complaining began almost immediately. The players’ beefs are legion: too many tournaments, too little freedom, restrictive media rights, purses too low, purses too evenly distributed, purses not evenly distributed enough, a hesitancy to take up N.F.T.s. At its heart, the grumbling concerns money and power. The stars want a bigger cut, and they probably deserve it. The rank and file, as a longtime golf writer told me, “always assume they’re getting fucked over.” (One agent pointed out, “I think we’re on a collision course for a union.”) Mickelson has claimed that the Tour is sitting on huge cash reserves that it should be giving out to players like him. (The Tour brings in about a billion and a half dollars a year, and roughly half gets disbursed as prizes and bonuses.) He has proposed cutting membership to just thirty golfers, and once spent an entire round pitching the golfer Brandel Chamblee on the idea. “He was totally oblivious to the fact that would eliminate my job,” Chamblee has said. The notion wasn’t new. In 1994, Greg Norman, then the world’s best player, attempted to start a parallel league, comprising the top players. The P.G.A. Tour, using Norman’s unpopularity, rallied to kill it; the players themselves, led by Palmer, refused to join. “I felt backstabbed,” Norman said recently.
LIV offered an alternative for the stars, without whom the Tour would collapse. This was what Mickelson meant by leverage. “Someone was bound to try this,” McIlroy told me. “The Tour has become quite complacent.” It has mostly stuck with the same format and hasn’t attracted a younger audience. Still, he went on, “I’ve always thought that the changes could have been made from within, instead of, honestly, from Greg Norman having a thirty-year vendetta.”
The Tour considers LIV an existential threat. “They don’t want to coexist,” Davis Love III told me. But the Tour has taken solace in LIV’s actual product, which it views as a joke. On the range, LIV is compared to a member-guest at a mediocre country club.
Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, in New Jersey, on the week in July that it hosted LIV’s third tournament, experienced an outbreak of norovirus, according to a person familiar with the club. “It’s like food poisoning,” the person told me. “You throw up.” (A spokesperson for the club denied this account.) In Trump, LIV has found an enthusiastic partner. Trump loathes the P.G.A. of America, which had planned to hold the P.G.A. Championship, one of golf’s four majors, at Bedminster this year but cancelled after January 6th. It’s unclear if he knows that the P.G.A. of America and the P.G.A. Tour are separate entities. In any case, LIVscheduled two of its eight tournaments at Trump properties, including its championship, and Trump has returned the favor. “I think LIV has been a great thing for Saudi Arabia, for the image of Saudi Arabia,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “The publicity they’ve gotten is worth billions.”
Before the July tournament’s first round, with hands washed, I stopped by a protest against the event, staged by families of September 11th victims. I met with Dennis McGinley, whose brother, Danny, a father of five, was an equities trader in the south tower. “I was on the phone with my brother before the second plane hit,” McGinley said. “He was crying, he was praying for the people next door that were jumping out the window. I have been haunted by that for twenty-one years.” He experienced LIV as a betrayal. “I just want accountability,” he said.
I headed over to the course, which was lined with signs that said “DON’T BLINK” and “GOLF BUT LOUDER.” LIV wants to appeal to a younger audience with a faster-paced game. Golf being golf, the rounds still run five hours, so the league has curated the fan experience. Tournaments double as concerts; the Chainsmokers were scheduled to perform. In the “fan village,” I encountered a break-dancing troupe and a clown making balloon animals.
I went looking for Ivana Trump’s grave. The family had buried her on the grounds the previous week. It struck some people as strange. Who would want to spend eternity at her ex-husband’s golf club? On Twitter, rumors circulated about how the property was, technically, a cemetery, which would eliminate the club’s obligation to pay state property, income, and sales taxes. (NJ.com contacted tax experts who pointed out that this would be true for roughly .026 per cent of the grounds.) But the tax-shelter theory only fed other hypotheses about Trump and LIV that had made the rounds: that it was a money-laundering scheme, or that LIV was a front for Trump to share nuclear secrets with the Saudis—Julius Rosenberg with a 9-iron. In Atlanta, one high-ranked golfer pulled me aside and said, “This thing runs much deeper. Who knows what’s going to come out of Mar-a-Lago, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s all intertwined.” Not far from the driving range, where Trump and Rumayyan were hitting alone, I found Ivana’s headstone on a parched patch of grass. It looked out over the first tee box.
Afterward, I followed Mickelson’s group with a sportswriter. He told me that reporters in the media tent had been playing a game of “What’s your number?” That is, what amount of money would compel them to quit their jobs to work for LIV? The consensus was somewhere between one and five million dollars.
The crowds were sparse. Some holes had a dozen spectators; tickets were reselling for a dollar. One perk was that you could get right up next to the golfers. It has been pointed out that LIV seems to appeal to a certain type of golfing personality—“a rogue’s gallery of assholes,” as the golf writer Elizabeth Nelson put it to me. There was Mickelson, and Bryson DeChambeau, who was so polarizing on the Tour that his colleague Brooks Koepka once promised free beer to fans who heckled him. Also: Koepka himself, who complained about LIV at this summer’s U.S. Open, and then defected, joining DeChambeau, the day after the tournament. (When asked what had changed, he replied, “Just my opinion, man.”) The golfer Patrick Reed, who has never been popular—his fellow Georgia alum Kevin Kisner once told Golf Digest, of Reed’s college teammates, “I don’t know that they’d piss on him if he was on fire”—joined, too. He subsequently sued several reporters for defamation. (One commentator mused, “LIV needs a public investment fund to sportwash its association with Patrick Reed.”) An agent told me, “The Tour is milquetoast white guys. I think LIV is going for the W.W.E. model.” (The W.W.E. is big in Saudi Arabia. “There’s a lot of pent-up male energy,” a frequent visitor to the kingdom explained.)
The energy in Bedminster was of the unpent variety. LIV, or Trump, or some combination of the two, had attracted an interesting crowd, part maga rally, part high-school lacrosse party. Behind the tenth green, I saw a guy watching porn on his phone. A middle-aged man wore a shirt depicting the Twin Towers wrapped in the flag and the words “20TH ANNIVERSARY, WE WILL NEVER FORGET.” I asked him if it was a protest. “You’re, like, the third guy to ask me that,” he said, looking perplexed. “I’m just wearing it so nobody forgets.”
As the weekend went on, the crowds grew in size and rowdiness. The golf did not appear to be the primary concern. Someone had on a Trump hockey jersey adorned with fake bullet holes. Another guy wore a hat painted with the image of a vape pen and the words “COME AND TAKE IT.”
At the final round, on Sunday, I started to follow the lead group but heard a roar from the sixteenth tee and detoured. The hole was a par-3. The tee sat in front of the clubhouse, where Trump was holding court on a patio: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Caitlyn Jenner, Eric, Donald, Jr. Tucker Carlson showed up to belly-laugh at Trump’s jokes. Rumayyan and Sorour stopped by periodically. Several hundred spectators were there, just staring. “This is actually Christmas,” one said. “Pelosi for prison!” another yelled. Young women began tossing Budweisers into the crowd, prompting scuffles. Someone said, gleefully, “This would never happen on the P.G.A. Tour!” The previous day, Trump had arranged for a microphone. “You wanna do a rally?” he said. “We will make America great again! They’re not doing a very good job of it right now!”
Players were still coming through and teeing off, but the crowd hardly noticed. “Where the heck’s all the golf at?” someone yelled, to laughter. It was difficult to tell if the indifference owed to Trump’s all-consuming presence or to the fact that the product was kind of rinky-dink. There was little of the tension that makes golf compelling. The team scores were hard to follow. The LIV names and logos—Crushers, Smash, the anarchic and fun Fireballs—were, as my colleague David Owen put it, “created by an advisory group of fourth-grade boys, apparently.” LIV’s chief operating officer, Atul Khosla, told me that the team names were largely provisional. The Australian pro Cameron Smith didn’t care for Punch Golf Club and planned an overhaul; Mickelson had ideas for the Hy Flyers. “We view ourselves very much as a startup,” Khosla said.
The players appeared to delight in the Trumpiness. As each threesome arrived at the tee, they removed their hats and shook Trump’s hand. Broadly speaking, affinity for Trump helps explain the Tour-LIV divide. Professional golfers vote Republican as reliably as any voting bloc; in 2004, Golf Digest polled thirty-four Tour golfers and found not one Kerry voter. But, as in the G.O.P., the Tour has its factions.
LIV appeals to the golfers who once identified with the white working class, or to the merely resentment-prone. “Guys who grew up a little hardscrabble, didn’t have country clubs to play at, that fought tooth and nail to play on the Tour, they say, Look, I’m gonna get what I can get,” the manager Mac Barnhardt told me. The P.G.A. Tour, meanwhile, is for the élite, the club crowd that likes to think there are things more important than money. Of course, it’s easier to look down on cash grabs when your cash was grabbed for you generations ago. The savvier golfers also have images to protect; rarefied dignity sells Rolexes and lands Goldman Sachs sponsorships. Nelson, the golf writer, told me that, if LIVembodied Trumpism, “the P.G.A. Tour is not Abraham Lincoln, it’s Mitch McConnell—the power structure that says, Well, I don’t disapprove of élitist destructive behavior, but this is bad for business.”
Exceptions can be found on both sides, and, despite the exodus, the Tour is not wanting for Trump voters. “That’s what’s been so satisfying—seeing these guys who had no problem with Trump torching the rule of law when it was the Constitution, all up in arms now that Trump is doing the same to their golf tour,” one golf writer told me. I talked to a player (described by the writer as “to the right of Attila the Hun”) who said, of Trump, “It’s forced us into a very odd, odd spot. It’s hard to handle. ”
The final holes in Bedminster lacked any drama. Henrik Stenson won the individual competition by two strokes. A few people clapped politely. Many failed to notice at all. “It’s so dope,” a young man in a pink polo and a MAGA hat remarked. “There are so many hot bitches here.” The Chainsmokers, citing an unspecified illness, pulled out of the post-round concert.
Trump knows from upstart sports leagues; in 1983, he paid millions for a team in the United States Football League, which collapsed two years later. Such efforts typically seem vain, even ridiculous, right up until they succeed. For every Continental Basketball Association, there is an American League. An established league is just a stunt that stuck around. The conventional wisdom is that LIV, as a sportswashing exercise, doesn’t care enough about golf to establish itself. But what if this misconstrues what the Saudis want?
David Schenker, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, was in charge of U.S. policy and diplomacy in the Persian Gulf region from 2019 to 2021. He’s also a golf nut, with a fourteen handicap. “This is the intersection of my personal and professional lives!” he told me recently, of LIV. Schenker believes that LIV is best understood in the context of Gulf geopolitics: the budding rivalry between the Saudis and the Emiratis.
M.B.S.’s stated goal is to diversify the economy and wean it from oil, a program he calls Vision 2030. The P.I.F. aims to spend forty billion dollars a year to bolster new Saudi industries—coffee production, electric cars, tech. One main objective is for Riyadh and Neom, a megacity being built on the Red Sea, to supplant Abu Dhabi and Dubai as the region’s de-facto capitals. Schenker said, “There was this picture, perhaps mistakenly, that M.B.Z.”—Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi—“was sort of a mentor to M.B.S. But Saudi Arabia increasingly sees itself as the leader.” M.B.S. has plans to double Riyadh’s population in the next decade. The kingdom will require companies that conduct business with state institutions to establish a regional headquarters in the country. The problem has been that a desert with no cinemas or alcohol, and with a religious police force that harasses women, is not very attractive.
To appeal to the Dubai-inclined, M.B.S. has lifted a ban on cinemas, courted music festivals, and reined in the religious police. A ski resort is in the works. Schenker and others predict that M.B.S. will legalize drinking in some form when he assumes the throne. The centerpiece of his plans is Neom, which he has described, privately, as Dubai but better. According to the Wall Street Journal, he envisioned sand that glows in the dark and an artificial moon; canals for swim-commuting have been mentioned. The project, which is expected to consume half a trillion dollars, is a money pit; according to Bloomberg, Neom’s C.E.O. displays a graphic that former employees called the “wall of shame,” showing department heads who failed to spend enough. But other developments, elsewhere on the Red Sea and around Riyadh, are farther along. Included in the plans is an amenity that the Saudis believe will draw wealthy Westerners: golf.
To build a grass course in the desert, the first thing you need is sand. Saudi Arabia, which now has eight grass courses, is planning to build as many as sixteen more in the next four years. Each requires ten thousand or so dump-truck loads of sweet sand, which provides a better base layer than desert marl. Over the sand goes grass; the Saudis grow heat-tolerant strains in a giant nursery outside Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, so golf officials plan to irrigate the courses using recycled wastewater.
LIV serves as an advertising campaign for the new industry. “You can’t deny that even the controversy has inserted the Saudi name into golf,” a Saudi consultant close to the government told me. “I think they’re getting exactly what they hoped for.” He said that he had scheduled his first-ever golf lesson for the next day: “I’m getting with the program, as they say.”
Most people who study or work with the Saudi royal family are skeptical of the sportswashing motive. One person who has been in contact with M.B.S. said that the crown prince has given up on trying to fix his reputation in the West. “He’s not that naïve,” the person said. After LIV’s launch, Khashoggi and 9/11 have been talked about more, not less. Schenker believes that establishing Saudi Arabia as a golf destination is LIV’s main aim. Joseph Westphal, the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2014 to 2017, agrees. “This idea that this is sportswashing is completely ridiculous,” he told me. Of course, another way of looking at the situation is that LIV is engaging in sportswashing of a different kind, one that the Tour is familiar with. The goal isn’t to clean reputations so much as to use them for profit.
A Saudi LIV executive I spoke to maintained that LIV was a legitimate business. Few outside the company see profitability as likely. “There’s no way to underwrite making money on what they’re doing,” a person involved in the Premier Golf League talks told me. On the other hand, one persistent characteristic of P.I.F. investments is abundant optimism. “These are people who have huge ambitions,” the person in contact with M.B.S. said. “The ambitions are really to make a shitload of money for the country. And also showing up the other Gulfies.” But, he allowed, “maybe their ambitions aren’t commensurate with reality.”
Over Labor Day weekend, LIV held its next tournament, the LIV Golf Invitational Boston, at a club outside Worcester. Early in the week, I’d become friendly with a club member named Frank McNamara, a U.S. Attorney during the Reagan Administration and a father of twelve. “I’m pro-LIV and pro-life!” he said. As Saturday’s round started, he walked over with a man he wanted to introduce.
The man wore pink pants and aviators. “They called me a scary motherfucker!” he said, laughing. It was Majed Al Sorour, the C.E.O. of the Saudi Golf Federation. He had a genial bearing, but seemed bothered by some of the press coverage. Unprompted, he said to me, “We don’t kill gays, I’ll just tell you that.” (As recently as 2020, an activist advocating for equal rights for L.G.B.T. people in the kingdom was arrested and tortured.)
I walked with Sorour up the first fairway. Compared with Bedminster, the crowds were dense. Everyone seemed excited for the golf. “At the end of the day, look at this,” Sorour said, in front of the green. On the range, I’d noticed an unusual esprit de corps among the players, almost a rakishness. “They feel like pirates in a way,” David Feherty, a golf analyst who jumped from NBC to LIV, told me. (Feherty, perhaps, felt like one, too. When I asked him why he’d joined, he replied, “Money.”) Maybe it was the shorts—on the eve of the tournament, the players had voted overwhelmingly to ditch golf’s long pants, which are required on the Tour. Sorour said he would’ve voted otherwise, but he didn’t object. “Democracy’s O.K.,” he said. “Sometimes!”
Shortly before the tournament’s start, the golf world had reached a tentative stasis. The remaining P.G.A. Tour stars had held a players-only meeting in August, before a tournament in Delaware; it was organized by Woods and McIlroy, who’d become convinced that the Tour’s executives weren’t acting forcefully enough to protect it from LIV’s incursions. Woods wasn’t playing, but he flew in on his Gulfstream. “It tells you how much he despises Greg Norman,” the old hand told me.
Twenty-three players attended the meeting, in a conference room at the Hotel duPont. They sat around a U-shaped table. According to one attendee, a handful were mulling LIV offers. In the course of three hours, the group went through a long slide presentation. Players asked questions, but, ultimately, everyone agreed to the plan advanced by Woods and McIlroy. Afterward, they followed up with Monahan, the P.G.A. Tour commissioner, who quickly adopted it. The top golfers committed to playing in more tournaments. The Tour agreed to add four “elevated” events with purses of twenty million dollars; to guarantee annual earnings of half a million dollars; and to expand a bonus pool that awarded millions more to the stars. All but one of the players who attended stuck with the Tour. When I talked to McIlroy after the meeting, I asked him if it had been difficult to spurn the potential for hundreds of millions from LIV. (Before LIV, he’d also declined to play in Saudi tournaments, citing moral objections.) “I’m gonna make a shit ton of money here, that’s the thing!” he said.
In Massachusetts, after a round, Mickelson, who has mostly avoided interviews, told me with a smirk, “It’s great that they magically found a couple hundred million. That’s awesome.”
The changes meant that the player exodus was likely to stabilize. Sorour and I retreated to a private suite beside the eighteenth green. He sat on a couch, his arms spread on the cushions, and said, “We have many players who want to come in now. But I need to protect my people.” He felt a sense of loyalty to the early adopters. The first ten had signed before LIV had announced its launch. Another group had been ready to sign. Then Mickelson made his comments about the “scary motherfuckers,” and the league, suddenly, was on the brink of folding. Sorour told me, “I called the boss”—Rumayyan—“I said, ‘Everyone’s walking away. Do you want to do it, or not?’ ” Sorour told Rumayyan he had a plan: “Get the biggest mediocres, get the ten that we have, get you and I, and let’s go play for twenty-five million dollars.” Rumayyan decided to press ahead and announce the launch immediately.
Sorour said the P.I.F. had funding for LIV through 2025. By then, he imagined, they would begin to cash out by selling off ownership in their twelve teams. The franchise model is how LIV plans to recoup its investment. Sorour envisions owners building home golf courses, like a stadium for a football team. LIV had given certain players equity stakes in their teams. (Some of the reported compensation figures, such as the seven to eight hundred million allegedly offered to Woods, included equity and potential sponsorships. Of the Woods offer, Sorour said, “It’s not straight-out money. I never offered him that money, not even close to that.”) There have been conflicting reports about the valuations that LIV puts on its teams, which consist of four players: a hundred million, half a billion, a billion. Sorour told me it would vary by team. Outside LIV, the numbers are treated skeptically. McIlroy told me, “People have to remember, golf is a niche sport. All you’re getting is four golfers. And I get it, some M.L.S. teams are worth seven hundred million dollars. But it’s all tied to the economics of the league, and right now that league doesn’t have any economics.”
LIV’s biggest problem is television rights. At the moment, it streams its events on YouTube for free. Broadcasters and streamers have consistently turned down LIV. One TV executive, citing a “long, mutually beneficial relationship with the P.G.A. Tour,” told me, “Our strategy is we always want the best. LIV doesn’t rise to that level.” Ed Desser, a former lead negotiator for the N.B.A.’s media deals, said that LIV’s reputation would drive away broadcasters, and that its audience wasn’t large enough to make any significant revenue. Sorour told me, “If it was up to me, I’d make it in-house.” He seemed to envision a LIV channel, like the N.F.L. Network. According to a liv spokesperson, Jared Kushner, whose private-equity firm received two billion dollars from the P.I.F., has spoken with a broadcaster about LIV. Late last month, the golf writer Eamon Lynch reported that, after internal lobbying by Lachlan Murdoch, Fox was planning to allow LIVto buy airtime on the network. (LIV issued a statement calling the reporting “incomplete and inaccurate.”)
LIV’s other pressing issue is that its tournaments don’t yet earn golf ranking points, making it more difficult to qualify for the majors. There was speculation that the Masters might ban LIV players. “For now, the majors are siding with the Tour, and I don’t know why,” Sorour said. “If the majors decide not to have our players play? I will celebrate. I will create my own majors for my players.” He went on, “Honestly, I think all the tours are being run by guys who don’t understand business.”
Sorour got up and went to a railing overlooking the eighteenth green. It was difficult to deny that the weekend of golf had become exciting. Even Mickelson, who’d played miserably since joining LIV, walked up to the green shooting under par. “Finally,” Sorour said. “Maybe he needed shorts all along.” The players smiled and chatted on the course. As Harold Varner III, the latest LIV addition, had walked past the suite, Sorour leaned over the railing and shouted jokes. If nothing else, LIV had created a counterpoint to the Tour’s American-individualist mythos—a sort of Saudi dream. For the players, it looked like a weekend outing among buddies.
The next day, during the final round, the individual competition went to a three-person playoff—the first in LIV history. The gallery around the green was twenty people deep. Dustin Johnson, who’d already won more than five million dollars in his first three tournaments, smoked a long eagle putt way too hard, but it banked off the back of the cup and in, for the victory. The first reaction of his defeated opponents was to burst out in laughter. Everyone was rich, happy, and having fun.
All Rights Reserved for Zach Helfand