‘Marry me or I’ll kill you’: The Saudis own pro golf, and pro golf owns the Saudis?


Charlie Crowhurst/LIV Golf

June 12, 2023

So what are we to think of the melodrama that’s now playing out in professional golf with the announcement that the PGA Tour is partnering with Saudi Arabia? There’s a lot we are still learning, but in the meantime, is the proper reaction relief, disappointment or anger? The answer may be equal portions of each.

Based on what we do know, here’s a primer to channel your emotions:

1. While crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was doing a few good things in Saudi Arabia leading the Middle East into the modern world and respecting human rights, he also had a Washington Post journalist killed and dismembered. (These facts should be in the first paragraph of every story until enough good things are done to move it to the second or third or fifth paragraph, but it likely will be there throughout our lifetime.)

2. It’s unclear how exactly this happened, but forensic evidence indicates Greg Norman, who long held a grudge against the PGA Tour, sold the idea of owning pro golf to Yasir Al-Ramayyan, the head of the world's second largest sovereign investment fund. (Imagine how the news would have played out differently if the buyer was the world's largest sovereign fund, owned by Norway.)

3. Saudi Arabia should have been focused on reform at home, but instead Al-Ramayyan made a decision to dismantle an iconic sports league. This wasn't like buying a soccer team. Forgive our bias; golf is a sacred trust. Just as easily it could have been the NBA or the NFL, given the enormity of money involved, but Al-Ramayyan targeted the PGA Tour for a hostile takeover. Maybe you could argue it played well in his home country, not in America.

4. Clueless as to how toxic the Saudi regime is viewed, and unencumbered by share-holder activism, Al-Ramayyan threw stupid amounts of money at individual players to woo them away from the PGA Tour. Second-rate pros were offered $100 million or more, the equivalent of “two times Steph Curry.”

5. The PGA Tour should have met with Al-Ramayyan at the outset, but (1) the presence of Norman made that inconceivable, and (2) it probably wouldn’t have mattered once Al-Ramayyan was fed the fantasy of owning pro golf.

6. “Marry me or I will kill you” was the proposition the PGA Tour commissioner faced. In the geopolitical world, it’s the same deal Putin proposed to Ukraine and China to Taiwan.

7. What could commissioner Jay Monahan do? He made missteps, but his fate was always sealed: Facing a competitor with unlimited resources, Monahan doubled his players’ purses and bonuses and entered into costly litigation. He invoked the 9/11 Families, played the morality card and inflicted as much PR pain as possible. In the end, he was negotiating with a gun to his head.

8. Behind the scenes, pros wondered where the money was coming from. Either the PGA Tour was in “the best shape it’s ever been” or it had only a couple of years of cash to keep going. The Saudis lost two key court decisions in London and San Francisco. Everybody’s emails would be open to discovery and the House of Saud might have to testify. That ain’t gonna happen.

9. Enter Jimmy Dunne, friend of Rory and Wall Street rainmaker with a unique 9/11 connection. He went around Norman and struck a deal directly with Al-Rumayyan. Saudis guarantee billions to be spent. Norman is a dead man walking. Monahan falls on his sword and declares himself a hypocrite.

10. Uh-oh, they didn’t tell the players before the announcement. Rule No. 1 in sports and entertainment: Take care of the Talent. They forgot to take care of the Talent. (Note: The tour is lousy at communicating.) They handled Congress and the Department of Justice clumsily, too—the whole plan might get tossed back for an anti-trust mulligan.

11. Promises are now being made to make the loyalists whole again, compensating the good guys for not having taken the LIV money. The only solution seems to be giving equity in the new company to players divided by stature into A-, B- and C-class grants and barring the defectors for life from getting any stock. This assumes the valuation will grow, but when it comes to money, the Saudis can make anything happen. As a friend who does business over there says, “You have to remember, $100,000 to us is a million to them, and a million to us is a billion to them. Never be afraid to ask for more money.”

12. I'm speculating now: Eventually Monahan gets cut a check, too, and the search for a new commissioner will begin. An elder captain of industry (think the LPGA’s Charlie Mechem a generation ago or the USGA’s Joe Dey two generations ago), he of sound character and impeccable reputation, untouched by this mess, offers a fresh start.

Postscript: The Saudis may own 49 percent of the still-to-be-named World PGA Tour, but they get first option on further investment and approval of outside investors. That sounds like controlling interest, even though they’re outnumbered on the board. (See Howard Milstein and Jack Nicklaus). TPC Riyadh breaks ground. The First Tee of Jeddah launches. The World Golf Hall of Fame moves to Mecca. Charity returns as the tour's leading money winner.

The Saudis now own pro golf, but pro golf now owns the Saudis. No more Khashoggis presumably. If there are, it will all collapse. Best case scenario: Middle East modernizes incrementally and golf saves the world. But that’s the cockeyed optimist in me.

The other side is that golf’s forever changed now. Like the beautiful box in Greek mythology that Zeus gave to Pandora. “This is a special gift. Don’t ever open it,” she was told. When curiosity opened the box, all the evils flew into the world until it was slammed shut with only one evil remaining—hope. It’s not much or it’s everything, but hope is what professional golf has left.