They said it was about principles, but it was always about money.
Despite vows from the leaders of the PGA Tour that they would not permit their game to be sullied, men’s professional golf is now in thrall to Saudi Arabia, a nation engaged in a full-tilt attempt to distract the public from the abuse of its citizens through the glitz, gloss and worldwide appeal of sports.
Human rights, it turns out, are a bore, and an obstacle. “Sportswashing,” as it is known, is powerful and effective.
That’s the message between the lines of the merger between the once venerable PGA Tour and what until Tuesday was its insurgent competition — LIV Golf, born just last year and fueled by billions from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign investment fund, which the oil-rich kingdom uses to gild its global image.
Profit is what matters most. Above all. That is the message.
It reigns over the morals, values and traditions that the PGA Tour, now swaddled in rank hypocrisy, trumpeted during a seemingly fierce but apparently phony conflict that pitted the biggest names in golf against each other.
“It’s my job to protect, defend and celebrate” the PGA Tour, Jay Monahan, the outfit’s commissioner, said approximately one year ago, after announcing that any golfer who played for LIV would be ostracized by his circuit. The tour simply could not associate itself with the nation known for rights abuses and presumed to be behind the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and the other golf stars who joined LIV were branded defectors and pariahs. Human rights formed the sturdy moral foundation of the PGA Tour’s stand.
Asked about protests against the LIV tour from families of Sept. 11 victims angered by the role Saudi Arabia is said to have played in those attacks, Monahan pantomimed his empathy, saying, “My heart goes out to them.” He asked golfers who had left for LIV tournaments or were considering it a rhetorical question: “Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”
Those comments look like disinformation now. The high-minded fight is over (unless the PGA Tour policy board, which was kept in the dark, declines to ratify the deal). With the merger, which also includes the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour), men’s professional golf as we know it will be an artifact of history.
The governor of the Saudi investment fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, now is set to become chairman of the board of a worldwide umbrella company so new it has not even been given a name.
The merger is about sports, yes, but also about power and values in the world.
In Saudi Arabia, citizens do not enjoy the right to free assembly. The legal system is not independent. Due process is a farce. To speak against the government is to risk being jailed, tortured or killed.
When Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post, dared to speak against the repressive state, he was lured to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A United Nations report described how he was drugged and cut into pieces.
Who did it? According to the C.I.A., thugs operating on orders from Mohammed bin Salman — the crown prince who oversees everything in his kingdom, including the investment fund that will wield enormous influence over world golf.
The United States has its own moral failings, plenty of them, and has since the nation’s founding. But we confront them publicly. We protest. We march. The press speaks up. We vote.
Plenty of golfers and fans will block out the seamy side of this story and look purely on the bright side. The new tour hopes to make golf more global, more accessible, less fusty and more exciting. The same golfers ostracized by many of the sport’s star players and banished from the regular PGA Tour upon leaving it — including Mickelson, the chief renegade, and Koepka, recent winner of the a major tournament, the P.G.A. Championship — could return to the fold.
And indeed, none of that can be bad for fans — or sponsors.
But to look only on the bright side is to condone the hypocrisy.
This is as disruptive a move as the sports world has seen in a long while — arguably, ever. In the American context, the N.F.L. and American Football League combined forces in the 1960s. The N.B.A. and American Basketball Association joined in the 1970s. But at the time, those moves did not affect global sport, nor provide cover to oppressive nations.
This makes those mergers look like tiddlywinks.
Get used to a world in which the Middle East, with its many authoritarian governments, is a dominant player in sports.
Qatar’s hosting of the men’s World Cup in 2022 was an example of unseemly truths scrubbed clean by a thrilling tournament seen around the world. The golf merger gives the staging of that event some company.
Significant competitions in golf, tennis, auto racing, and mixed martial arts, to name four, have been hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for some time now. The N.B.A. plays exhibition games in the region.
The Saudis are hardly done: They’re bidding for soccer’s 2030 World Cup and using their wealth to attract expensive talent to their national league. Cristiano Ronaldo now plays for Al-Nassr. On Tuesday, the French striker Karim Benzema joined another Saudi team, Al-Ittihad, for a nine-figure contract. Lionel Messi — who already has a contract to promote tourism in the kingdom — could be the next to sign on.
“We are interested in all sports,” al-Rumayyan said in a television interview on Tuesday. Not just golf. Not just soccer or basketball. But “many other sports,” he said.
It’s not hard to imagine the Saudis further engaging the N.B.A., offering billions to purchase N.F.L. teams or even financing the sponsorship of college athletes. Nor is it hard to imagine the L.P.G.A. Tour coming into the fold.
The PGA Tour presented itself as the guy who calls a penalty on himself if he accidentally moves his ball a quarter-inch. Turns out it was the guy who makes a double-bogey and marks it down as a par.