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‘For money alone’: Scotland’s home of golf takes swing at Saudi Arabian ambitions

As he prepared to tee off at the historic Old Course in St Andrews, the Scottish town known as the “home of golf”, Dominic Clemons was still digesting the shock tie-up that has handed Saudi Arabia enormous sway over the future of the professional game.

“I feel sorry for the guys who were loyal,” said the 20-year-old, referring to the players who resisted the hundreds of millions of dollars offered by LIV Golf, the oil-funded upstart launched in 2021 to shake up the ancient game, in favour of preserving its traditions.

The arrival of LIV Golf, backed by Saudi Arabia’s $650bn sovereign wealth fund, threw the elite level of the sport into unprecedented turmoil, as some of its biggest names signed up for the fortunes on offer.

Tiger Woods, one of golf’s most bankable stars, reportedly turned down a huge sum to join, but other leading players, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, signed up. Recriminations and lawsuits followed as the US PGA Tour and its European counterpart banned the rebels from their competitions.

Then, out of the blue on Tuesday, a deal was announced to combine the commercial activities of the US and European tours with LIV Golf, with the new entity chaired by Saudi powerbroker Yasir al-Rumayyan and bankrolled by the kingdom’s petrodollars. This left many complaining of a takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund rather than a commercial merger, although the PGA Tour will hold a majority of the voting rights.

The audacious Saudi move underscored how professional golf has become a global sport, hugely popular in the US and much of Europe, growing fast in Asia and played by hundreds of millions of people with little or no connection to its origins in Scotland.

But it remains an important part of the Scottish identity, particularly in St Andrews, a quaint east coast town where golf was first played during the Middle Ages and that lays claim to having one of the oldest courses in the world.

The historic Old Course — six others adorn the town — has hosted the Open, one of golf’s four “majors”, 30 times, more than any other, and players such as Jack Nicklaus, the late Seve Ballesteros and Woods have all navigated its feared 17th “road hole” to lift the Claret Jug.

Yet few in St Andrews were willing the give the sport’s new Saudi Arabian co-owner the benefit of the doubt. Gary Maxwell of Glasgow-based Ideal Executive Travel, who was showing clients around the town, struggled to reconcile the previous positions taken by the sport’s US and European bosses, that LIV Golf was an existential threat, with their sudden embrace of the organisation.

He concluded that the merger was “for money and money alone”, adding: “I’m not overly keen on it, golf should stay with its traditions.”

The PIF does have ambitious plans, as it seeks to gain acceptance of LIV Golf’s team-based format and marry it with the commercial appeal of the PGA Tour, which boasts blue-chip sponsorships and lucrative broadcast deals. The details will be thrashed out in the coming weeks, but the PIF could pump about $3bn into the new entity, people familiar with the matter told the Financial Times.

The Saudi golf drive comes less than two years after the PIF took a majority stake in English Premier League football club Newcastle United. That deal sparked accusations from human rights organisations that its vast sums were being used to soften the image of a country accused of human rights abuses.

The “sportwashing” label has been revived since the merger by those who say Riyadh is again using its wealth to buy up prestigious assets in an attempt to improve its image, this time on an even bigger scale.

Moraig Orton, 78, a St Andrews local who first picked up a golf club when she was a child, said recent events had reinforced her view that the professional sport had abandoned its roots. “Golf . . . has lost the idea of being everyone’s game,” she said.

Two other golfers, both members of an “80-plus ladies club”, were more forthright in their disapproval. “It’s a shame if the Saudis take it over,” said one, who preferred not to give her name. “Saudi Arabia’s history with human rights is just not good. St Andrews is inclusive of all genders and ethnic groups,” she added of the town.

Neil Coulson, chief executive of the St Andrews Links Trust, which runs the town’s seven courses, declined to comment on the merger, other than to say he welcomed “initiatives which develop and promote participation and growth of the game”.

But the shake-up was hailed by the organisation that runs courses owned by the former US president Donald Trump, including Trump Turnberry in Ayrshire, on Scotland’s west coast. Sarah Malone, executive vice-president for Trump International Golf Scotland, called it “the best news to come out of the golf world for a long time”.

It was not a view shared by Rebecca Roberts, who was visiting the Old Course to support her son Matt, a top amateur golfer who was preparing to play in the St Andrews Links Trophy tournament.

She was left pondering how the LIV Golf merger would shape the future of the game, particularly the repercussions for young golfers who have witnessed large rewards going to those who had initially decided to jump ship.

“You make a decision to walk away for financial gain . . . and then you’re the one sitting pretty,” she said. “I’m not sure this portrays the right message to the younger generation.”

Additional reporting by Samuel Agini in London

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