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The Battle for the Soul of Golf

A Saudi-sponsored tournament shows why China and other rising powers will struggle to replace established global institutions with their own.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, look on from the second tee prior to the LIV Golf Invitational-Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, look on from the second tee prior to the LIV Golf Invitational-Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, look on from the second tee prior to the LIV Golf Invitational-Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28.

There are lots of things one might say about the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf tour, a blatant attempt to “sportswash” the kingdom’s shaky public image. The new initiative has roiled the ranks of professional golf, though its initial events haven’t drawn much of a crowd. Although the Saudi initiative may never manage to compete with the Masters Tournament, it illustrates the obstacles that new challengers face when they try to compete with an established order. Indeed, one sees similar forces impeding China’s efforts to supplant the present array of international institutions with ones that are better suited to Chinese preferences.

For those of you who don’t pay any attention to sports, the LIV Golf tour is a new set of golf tournaments backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. It has enticed a number of famous professionals to enter its events by offering big upfront payments to established stars, promising big purses to the winners, and guaranteeing that all participants will take home a sizable paycheck even if they finish dead last. In response, the PGA Tour and other prominent golf organizations (including the R&A Association, which operates the British Open) have declared that those who join the LIV tour will be ineligible for existing tour events.

Although the PGA’s decision raises some interesting legal issues, here’s why I think the LIV tour faces an uphill battle: It has gobs of money from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, but it has no history. It sponsors no iconic tournaments that golfers have dreamed of winning ever since they were kids and that fans look forward to every year. Golf is a sport that venerates tradition, and the LIV tour has none. As former U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm put it: “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

There are lots of things one might say about the new Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf tour, a blatant attempt to “sportswash” the kingdom’s shaky public image. The new initiative has roiled the ranks of professional golf, though its initial events haven’t drawn much of a crowd. Although the Saudi initiative may never manage to compete with the Masters Tournament, it illustrates the obstacles that new challengers face when they try to compete with an established order. Indeed, one sees similar forces impeding China’s efforts to supplant the present array of international institutions with ones that are better suited to Chinese preferences.

For those of you who don’t pay any attention to sports, the LIV Golf tour is a new set of golf tournaments backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. It has enticed a number of famous professionals to enter its events by offering big upfront payments to established stars, promising big purses to the winners, and guaranteeing that all participants will take home a sizable paycheck even if they finish dead last. In response, the PGA Tour and other prominent golf organizations (including the R&A Association, which operates the British Open) have declared that those who join the LIV tour will be ineligible for existing tour events.

Although the PGA’s decision raises some interesting legal issues, here’s why I think the LIV tour faces an uphill battle: It has gobs of money from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, but it has no history. It sponsors no iconic tournaments that golfers have dreamed of winning ever since they were kids and that fans look forward to every year. Golf is a sport that venerates tradition, and the LIV tour has none. As former U.S. Open winner Jon Rahm put it: “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

The LIV tour’s novel format (54 holes versus 72, with no cuts and guaranteed payouts) is also at odds with golfing history and offers no obvious advantages for fans. Its events will also include a somewhat artificial team format, but it’s hard to imagine that this arrangement will generate the kind of intense interest that surrounds international team competitions like the Ryder Cup. And it’s not like the participants are suddenly playing a more interesting version of the game—it’s essentially the same product but without access to iconic courses, such as Augusta National or St. Andrews. The existing PGA tour has TV coverage sewn up; plenty of corporate sponsorship; and extensive connections to existing satellite tours, college athletic programs, and the vast network of professionals working at golf clubs in the United States and elsewhere.

The new tour also suffers from terrible optics. Saudi Arabia wants the new tour to help people forget about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi nationals who conducted the 9/11 attacks, but 9/11 families and others concerned with the kingdom’s human rights record are going to bring this forward every time the players tee up. Instead of hiding past atrocities in a deep sand trap, the new tour gives critics endless opportunities to keep these issues front and center and forces otherwise apolitical golfers to try to avoid or change the subject, usually unconvincingly.

Professional sports leagues are like the two-party system: Once one is well established and fan loyalties have crystallized, competitors have a hard time breaking in.

It doesn’t help that some of the biggest names on the new tour (such as Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, or Bryson DeChambeau) aren’t the most likable athletes one might name, and the biggest name—Mickelson—has had his own ethical problems over the years. All of these players have their fans, of course, but it is impossible for them to avoid looking like mercenaries who decided to take the money and ignore the moral dilemmas involved. I’m not saying these guys have no moral compass whatsoever (or that everyone on the existing tour is a paragon of virtue); it’s just hard for them not to look like money is all that matters. Sports is built on hero worship—whether justified or not—and none of these guys look heroic.

Finally, it is worth remembering that professional sports leagues are like the two-party system: Once one is well established and fan loyalties have crystallized, competitors have a hard time breaking in. The American Basketball Association, United Football League, World Boxing League, and North American Soccer League all folded after a few years, and a recent attempt to replace the existing European football structure with an elite Super League collapsed in the face of fervent fan rebellion. Initiatives like World TeamTennis never came close to matching the enthusiasm and interest devoted to the Association of Tennis Professionals or Women’s Tennis Association tours or to major events like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. The American Football League is a partial exception to this pattern, but it survived by merging with the NFL in 1970.

So what does all this have to do with international politics and the efforts that China and Russia have made to adapt existing institutions to their liking or replace them with institutions of their own design?


The LIV case illustrates a key premise of institutionalist theory: Institutions tend to be sticky. Once established, an existing set of organizations and institutions can eventually acquire an enduring character simply be being around for a long time. In golf, winning one of the four major tournaments (the U.S. Open, British Open, Masters Tournament, and PGA Tour) has become the standard by which greatness is measured. It’s a completely arbitrary measure, of course, but that doesn’t mean that golfers and fans don’t take it very, very seriously.

Longevity can confer its own legitimacy: Look at how the United States and its European allies celebrate every big NATO anniversary and praise it as the most successful alliance in the history of humanity. Even institutions that no longer reflect the conditions under which they were created—like the structure of the United Nations Security Council—often prove surprisingly impervious to change or replacement.

Over the past couple of decades, China and Russia have tried to develop or reinforce a variety of alternatives to the various institutions and regimes that make up what is sometimes called the liberal rules-based order. These initiatives vary from rival security partnerships like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; nascent regional organizations like Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union; the mostly symbolic summits of the so-called BRICS countries, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa; and China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. One might toss in China’s Belt and Road Initiative too, though it is essentially a set of bilateral arrangements and not a new international institution.

Some of these initiatives—such as the AIIB—have been successful, but they haven’t supplanted existing institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, or even the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership that Japan spearheaded after the United States withdrew from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership. It’s not hard to see why: These other institutions still work reasonably well, and the alternatives created by China or others have yet to demonstrate that they perform better. The dollar’s continued dominance as the world’s reserve currency reinforces existing financial institutions and makes it even harder for alternatives to catch on.

In short, the existing set of arrangements endure because participating in them is still in most countries’ interest. There is no question that the United States has used institutions like NATO, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization—as well as the central role of the dollar and arrangements like the SWIFT financial payments system—to advance its own particular interests, and other states have been forced to go along with these arrangements because better alternatives do not exist.

Most major powers remain committed to the existing order and wary of Chinese-led alternatives, just as the more popular and respected members of the PGA tour have shunned the LIV tour.

But it is also true that other states—including China itself—have often benefited from these arrangements; they were not used solely to enrich the United States at the expense of others. Unless or until these arrangements collapse or China can construct something that is clearly superior, other states are unlikely to abandon them, just as most professional golfers are unlikely to leap to the LIV tour if doing so means they lose their slot on the PGA circuit.

Furthermore, most major economic and military powers remain committed to the existing order and wary of Chinese-led alternatives, just as the more popular and respected members of the PGA tour—Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, and Rahm—have publicly shunned the LIV tour.

To date, the states that have thrown in their lot with China or Russia are either relatively weak or not especially popular. If the states you count as close partners include North Korea, Belarus, Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran but not Denmark, Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, or most of the G-20, you’re not leading a particularly impressive parade. China’s increasingly heavy-handed diplomacy and dubious human rights conduct have also made others wary of getting too close to Beijing, as the EU’s decision to suspend a major investment agreement in 2021 illustrated.

Ironically, China’s efforts to build influence within existing international organizations have been more successful, as its campaign to influence the future of global digital infrastructure shows. By the same logic, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to use golf to whitewash its image might be more successful if it used its wealth to sponsor events within the tours that already exist in the United States, Europe, and Asia instead of engaging in a grandiose effort to create an all-new alternative. The success of Newcastle United—a Saudi-backed English soccer club—and the relatively mild political backlash against it suggests how well this strategy could work.

This is not to say that the LIV tour is doomed to fail or that China will never be able to construct a set of global institutions tailored to its own designs. If the PGA Tour falls on hard times or angers the golfers who are currently committed to it, the global landscape of the sport might be open for a new alternative even if it lacked the old order’s traditions. Similarly, if the present global institutions were to collapse entirely—as they did after the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II—the most powerful states that emerged from the rubble would be in an ideal position for a new round of order-building.

The lesson for the PGA Tour and those countries that remain committed to the current order is that keeping one’s own house in good working order is the priority—and more important than actively trying to thwart the rival structure. And at the risk of sounding like an idealist (if only temporarily), both examples are a reminder that moral considerations can sometimes shape how important actors respond—particularly when they are not forced to compromise their principles to survive.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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