Saudi Arabian support in golf set to cause controversy for years to come

THERE’S been a lot of talk about money in recent days what with Newcastle United being enveloped in the kind of gobsmacking riches you’d get if King Midas suddenly appeared at your house and started touching everything.

While the ability to turn all sorts of odds, sods, bits and bobs into gold would, I’m sure, have certain benefits, I always thought old Midas must have lived a fairly jittery existence due to those transformative powers bestowed upon him.

Imagine, for instance, the crushing, social awkwardness of being first in the queue at a finger food buffet laid on as part of George and Bessie’s 50th wedding anniversary at the bowling club and inadvertently turning the Vol-au-vents or cheese and pineapple hedgehog into solid, glistening clumps of inedible precious metal just as peckish guests were lining up with an empty plate behind you? What an excruciating palaver.

Forget the Midas touch, though. These days, it’s the Saudi shot in the arm that continues to get tongues wagging. The takeover of Newcastle is the talk of the Toon Army and beyond. In golf, meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian impact continues this week at the latest Aramco Team Series on the Ladies European Tour (LET) in New York.

With a prize fund of $1m, the lucrative Pro-Am contest is one of four such events on the LET while November’s somewhat clumsily titled Aramco Saudi Ladies International Presented by Public Investment Fund provides another enticing $1m date in the circuit’s diary. That Public Investment Fund, of course, is the same sovereign wealth thingamajig involved in the Newcastle purchase.

Given the vast scale of the operation planned at St James’ Park, the investment in the LET is hardly eye-watering in comparison but the influence continues to grow. Across the golfing board, the Kingdom’s tentacles are curled around various elements of the game. There are official male and female ambassadors sporting the Golf Saudi logo on their polo shirts, high-profile events take place on both the men’s and women’s tours and grassroots programmes are in place. Even Jack Nicklaus is jumping on the gravy train and designing a course there.

Talk of a Saudi-backed global super golf league, meanwhile, has never gone away while a recently sealed 10-year deal with the Asian Tour for the money-soaked Saudi International event gives the Kingdom more traction for its ambitions of world domination. It’s like a Bond baddie offering to “grow the game.”

Of course, behind all of this is the grisly shadow of human rights in an oppressive culture where torture and death are the price for dissent and basic human rights are routinely abused.

When it comes to issues surrounding morality, top-level sport will never be confused with Mother Theresa. Any areas surrounding conscience tend to be sacrificed on the altar of commercial realities. But when governments and global businesses do all sorts of deals with the Saudis, can we really expect a bunch of golfers to take up the role of moral arbiters?

Some have taken a stand, of course. English golfer Meg MacLaren, for instance, refused to play in the inaugural Saudi Ladies Championship last year “based on what I think sport is being used to do in Saudi Arabia.”

While MacLaren conceded she didn’t want to be seen as “lecturing” her fellow pros it was an honest and sincere approach from a golfer who often speaks her mind and doesn’t just trot out bland soundbites and platitudes. As an avid Newcastle fan herself, we don’t yet know her views on the weekend’s takeover. Presumably, she wasn’t cracking open the Broon Ale?

In the LET, the Saudis found a very amenable partner. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the circuit was in urgent need of more events and bigger prize funds as the schedule ended up being stripped to the bones like a stricken gazelle falling into a pool of piranha fish.

Outside the majors and the Women’s Scottish Open, the Aramco-backed events are now the most lucrative on the LET schedule. MacLaren is on the entry list for this week’s tournament and it will be her first appearance in the series. Unlike her male counterparts, getting the opportunity to play for a chunk of a $1m prize pot doesn’t come along every week on the LET. The Saudi sponsorship of it will, no doubt, sit uneasily with her views on the Kingdom and its ties with the game but she has her livelihood to think of too. It is a dilemma that will continue as the Saudi Arabian influence in golf, and sport in general, grows.

AND ANOTHER THING

Money talks. In fact, it doesn’t just talk it roars in your face. Traditionalists have been up in arms in some quarters about an overhaul of the first women’s major of year. As of 2023, what was the ANA Inspiration, held every spring at its long-standing home of Mission Hills in California, will be renamed the Chevron Championship and will move to Texas. The upside is that the purse will be inflated from $3.1m to $5m in a six-year deal while a network television deal has been agreed. I can’t imagine you’ll hear many players getting nostalgic about tradition if it means more money and more exposure for the women’s game?

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992