Saudi money in golf: Tiger Woods is now saying what once made Phil Mickelson persona non grata

Wednesday afternoon, hours before his return to the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods sat before a bank of microphones and uttered a line that would have lit the golf world on fire just a couple years ago.

“Ultimately,” Woods said, “we would like to have PIF be a part of our tour and a part of our product.”

“PIF” is the Public Investment Fund of Saudi ­Arabia, the source and driving force of golf’s current bone-deep schism.

Funny how perception can change completely in just a few short years.

Two years ago, Phil Mickelson turned the golf world upside down with his thoughts about Saudi Arabia’s regime and its potential effect on the PGA Tour.

“They’re scary motherf*****s to get involved with,” Mickelson said, in what has become one of the most famous quotes in golf history. “We know they 𝓀𝒾𝓁𝓁ed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] 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.”

Six months later, as LIV Golf began operations, former U.S. Open winner and inaugural LIV member Graeme McDowell came under withering criticism for his answer to a question about how he could take money from a nation with documented human rights violations: “I think we all agree, the Khashoggi situation, that was reprehensible. No one’s going to argue that. But we’re golfers.”

The fury over the idea of Saudi money arriving in professional golf flared white-hot in golf media and Golf Twitter. The critics of LIV Golf invoked Saudi Arabia’s documented human rights abuses, condemning the entire LIV effort as “sportswashing” — an attempt to paper over a nation’s sins with the distracting spectacle of sports. Many players who remained with the PGA Tour bought into that line of reasoning, and so — publicly — did the Tour itself.

Around the same time McDowell made his comments, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan took aim at the source of LIV Golf’s funding, the Saudi Public Investment Fund. “I think you’d have to be living under a rock to not know that there are significant implications” to taking Saudi Arabia’s money, he said in an interview. “And I would ask any player that has left or any player that would consider leaving, have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?”

Now comes Woods, openly endorsing and advocating for PIF’s investment in the Tour. No apologies, no equivocations, no excuses … and no condemnation of Woods’ words. What was once radioactive is now the new normal.

Tiger Woods speaks during a news conference at Riviera Country Club, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Tiger Woods speaks during a news conference at Riviera Country Club, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

Throughout the entire LIV Golf drama, Woods was savvy enough to avoid making moral pronouncements on the Saudi regime or its investments. It’s no secret how much Saudi investment already runs through both sports and the greater world economy, and Tiger avoided taking any sort of stand that he might have to walk back … unlike the PGA Tour.

Compare that with Rory McIlroy, the only figure whose stature is comparable to Woods in the world of professional golf. McIlroy took a strident anti-LIV stance, only to find himself alone on an island when the PGA Tour negotiated a surprise cease-fire with PIF in June 2023. He was then forced into a reluctant, resigned compromise.

“You see everything else happening in the world, you see big private equity companies in America taking [Saudi] money — the biggest companies in the world,” McIlroy said last September. “There’s a lot of whataboutism and all that stuff, but at the same time, if this is what is happening, then the way I’ve framed it is that the world has decided for me.”

Compare that, too, with Mickelson — who, as it turns out, was right all along. Mickelson long thought the PGA Tour need to modernize the way it does business, but its leadership showed no interest in change. He realized the only way to force change was to use outside leverage. That force arrived in the form of LIV, that leverage came in the form of Saudi billions, and now the Tour has completely changed. Mickelson didn’t have the most artful way of achieving his goals, but he achieved them all the same.

Woods, as is his style, has played his own cards much closer to the vest, keeping to himself whatever moral or ethical reservations he may have about the Saudi investment. Wednesday, he kept his focus firmly on the economics of the deal, noting that the recent investment from Strategic Sports Group relieves short-term pressure on the Tour, and any Saudi money would be an enhancement.

“We’re in a position right now,” he said, “hopefully we can make our product better in the short term and long term.”

Saudi Arabia’s human rights history hasn’t changed between Mickelson’s comments two years ago and today. Its repressive policies remain in place, and its leaders remain determined to crack down on dissent. The families of 9/11 victims and other critics continue to speak out against Saudi Arabia and its ruling regime.

But money speaks even louder. Money changes minds, shapes worldviews. Everyone involved from the PGA Tour side is comfortable saying that out loud now.

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