Sport

‘A money grab’: Rory McIlroy denounces Saudi-backed breakaway golf tour

Rory McIlroy has led the backlash against a breakaway golf tour that has shot back to prominence two weeks after football’s European Super League’s stunning collapse. McIlroy likened the scheme to a “money grab” while Amnesty International again castigated Saudi Arabia’s “sportswashing” attempts.

Saudi Arabia hopes to entice the world’s best players away from the PGA and European tours, with combined financial incentives that run into billions, but there is rising and audible resistance. “I’m very much against it,” McIlroy said. “I don’t see why anyone would be for it.”

The European Tour certainly is not. All but confirming that anyone signing a deal with the Saudis would lose their Ryder Cup rights, the European Tour’s chief executive, Keith Pelley, said: “We are aligned with the PGA Tour in opposing, in the strongest possible terms, any proposal for an alternative golf league.”

After the Guardian revealed the PGA Tour’s commissioner, Jay Monahan, promised suspensions and lifetime bans lie in wait for anybody who agrees to join the new tour – which has a proposed launch date of September 2022 – McIlroy weighed in.

“They first contacted me back in 2014,” he said. “So this is seven years down the line and nothing has really changed. Maybe the source of the money has changed or the people that are in charge have changed, but nothing has happened. No sponsorship deals, no media deals, no players have signed up, no manufacturers have signed up. There’s been so many iterations.

“You go back to what happened in Europe with the European Super League in football. People can see it for what it is, a money grab, which is fine if what you’re playing golf for is to make as much money as possible. Totally fine, then go and do that if that’s what makes you happy.

“I’m just speaking about my own beliefs; I’m playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships and to win the biggest tournaments in the world. I honestly don’t think there’s a better structure in place and I don’t think there will be.”

Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson are among the high-profile players targeted in the breakaway plan.

Criticism of the Saudi scheme extends beyond golf, owing to the kingdom’s much-publicised human-rights violations. Felix Jakens, head of priority campaigns and individuals at risk at Amnesty International UK, said: “It isn’t just the similarity with the European Super League that may cause consternation among golf fans and the wider public, it’s the fact that once again Saudi Arabia appears to be going full throttle with its sportswashing efforts.

“From boxing to football and grand prix, Saudi Arabia is sinking vast sums into sport as part of a strategy to ‘rebrand’ the country.

“The authorities in Riyadh clearly hope that a glitzy Saudi-backed golf tournament will help shift attention away from their jailing of peaceful activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, the grisly state-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in neighbouring Yemen.

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“While all the talk at present is of possible sanctions for players who might join a breakaway Super Golf League, golfers should also consider the effects of Saudi sportswashing and their role within it.”

Seth Waugh, the PGA of America’s chief executive who is also in charge of the US PGA Championship, said: “We are in full support of the PGA Tour and the European Tour regarding the current ecosystem of the professional game. We strongly believe the current structure is both highly functional and in the best long term interest of the game that our members work so hard to grow every day. We will be putting the final touches on the strongest field in golf next Monday and look forward to showcasing the best in the world alongside the PGA ‘Team of 20’ that so proudly represent our 28,000 PGA Professionals at Kiawah in two weeks.”

Mike Davis, chief executive of the United States Golf Association, which is responsible for the US Open, added: “The USGA is very proud of its longstanding partnership with the PGA Tour. We greatly appreciate everything the Tour does to create a global platform for the game’s elite players, which introduces millions of fans to the game.”