Rich Harvest Farms, a lush private golf course near Aurora, might not seem like a natural setting for geopolitical intrigue and moral quandaries, but they will arrive as surely as the morning dew when the LIV Golf Invitational Series comes to Illinois in September.
The fledgling rival to the PGA Tour is attracting big names with big money and generating controversy to match. The series, which started Thursday at a course in England, is backed by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, and critics call it a textbook example of “sports washing” intended to gloss over the kingdom’s dismal human rights record.
Some scorn the events and those playing in them. The PGA on Thursday suspended 17 LIV participants from its tour, while USA Today columnist Christine Brennan accused Phil Mickelson, the best-known defector, of “going into business with murderers.”
LIV organizers, led by golf legend Greg Norman, retort that their tour is taking a fresh approach to the game and giving lucrative new opportunities to its players. Rich Harvest Farms says their event will showcase pro golf in an underserved part of the country and raise money for worthy causes.
“The opportunity to bring men’s professional golf to Chicago and support local charities was one we couldn’t pass up,” said Alex Kline-Wedeen, the course’s executive vice president of marketing.
It’s unclear how much fans will care about the politics once the series lands in Illinois. Chicago golfer Reid Politsch, who has volunteered at Rich Harvest Farms events, said locals hungry for big-time golf will no doubt be excited to see some of the game’s superstars up close.
He won’t be among them, though.
“It all comes down to where the money comes from,” he said. “That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Andrés Martinez of Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute said authoritarian regimes have long sought to associate themselves with sports for the same reason carmakers and beer brewers advertise during games: to win over fans.
Traditionally, he said, that meant hosting massive global events such as the Olympics or the World Cup, but more recently governments and state-owned companies have bought stadium naming rights, advertising on team jerseys or even the teams themselves.
Saudi royals were late to the path blazed by their peers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both heavily invested in soccer, but they’re catching up quickly. Just last year, the kingdom hosted its first Formula 1 auto race while its sovereign wealth fund bought Newcastle United, a once-proud English soccer team whose fans cheered their ultrarich new owners.
But what the Saudis are doing with the LIV series is something new, Martinez said.
“It’s more advanced in that you’re starting to see this split — setting up an entirely parallel system of competition where the rewards will be (so immense) that they’re disrupting and starting to overtake the traditional system.”
Saudi Arabia’s rising sports profile comes with considerable baggage. Human rights advocates say its government has performed mass executions, oppressed women, LGBT people and dissidents and committed war crimes during its military conflict in neighboring Yemen.
Most notoriously, U.S. intelligence concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, authorized a hit squad’s killing of U.S.-based journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul (bin Salman has denied the allegation).
“They’re scary (expletives) to get involved with,” Mickelson told journalist Alan Shipnuck before he joined the LIV tour. “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.”
His complaint that the PGA doesn’t fairly compensate its players is not an issue with the LIV tour. The Golf Channel said Mickelson is getting $200 million for participating — more than twice as much as he has made in prize money during his entire career — while other stars reportedly received their own nine-figure deals.
The payout isn’t the only thing that’s different. LIV events will feature a shotgun start, putting all 48 golfers on the course at once, and won’t have a cut line, so every player will compete throughout each 54-hole event. Participants will also be placed onto four-man teams that have names such as Fireballs and Niblicks.
Such novelties appeal to golf fans who told the Tribune that traditional events have gotten stale. Some called the uproar over LIV a case of selective outrage, noting that the PGA runs a tour in China and that another organizing body, the Ladies European Tour, holds events in Saudi Arabia.
“I think it’s impossible to ask a group of professional athletes to be held to a higher standard in terms of doing business or taking money (from) someone who has questionable ethics and dirty money when our own government does business with the same regimes,” said Cory Fanning, a golf fan from downstate Le Roy.
Paul Poast, an international relations expert at the University of Chicago, said the Saudis might be getting extra scrutiny because the LIV tour is upsetting the established order of an entire sport. But they might have calculated that the potential payoff is worth the heat, he said.
“It has a bigger footprint than just simply sponsoring a team, where people don’t even think twice about it,” he said. “That’s what I think the motivation is. It’s a way of getting a lot of the benefit (similar) to hosting an Olympics or World Cup, but being able to do it in a manner that’s more sustainable and long term.”
Kline-Wedeen deflected the Tribune’s questions about the LIV tour’s Saudi links, saying Rich Harvest Farms decided to host the event so it could contribute proceeds to several charitable causes, including the Kids Golf Foundation of Illinois, a caddie scholarship program and relief for Ukranian refugees.
He also said the event will return pro golf to the Chicago area, which local fans complain is routinely ignored by tour schedulers. Rich Harvest Farms has hosted plenty of college tournaments and one Solheim Cup, which pits professional women golfers from the U.S. against their European counterparts, but never a PGA event, Kline-Weeden said.
While a LIV stop scheduled near Portland later this month has generated local resistance — 11 mayors issued a letter decrying the event and warning of possible protests — Kline-Wedeen said that hasn’t been the case at Rich Harvest Farms, which is in Sugar Grove.
“The local community and government have been extremely supportive of this from the moment that we talked about doing it,” he said.
Sugar Grove Village President Jennifer Konen did not respond to a request for comment.
Martinez said sports washing might be reaching a turning point. He noted that the Women’s Tennis Association suspended events in China out of concern for the well-being of Peng Shuai, a player who disappeared from public view after accusing a government official of sexual assault, and that Gazprom, a state-owned energy company in Russia, had sponsorships canceled following the invasion of Ukraine.
“We’re seeing a growth of consumer awareness around many products we consume,” he said. “People are more prone to ask questions. What does that mean when it comes to sport? That’s a very intriguing question and what human rights activists are trying to impress upon people.”
But Andy Johnson, who lives in Chicago’s west suburbs and founded thefriedegg.com, a website about golf and golf course architecture, thought the LIV tour might avoid that fate.
He said its organizers have been savvy about recruiting golfers with big followings and scheduling events in golf-starved locales. As for protesters, he doubted many will want to trek to Sugar Grove, 45 miles west of Chicago.
Besides, he said, the public fury might well be spent when the tour reaches Illinois.
“Typically with sports washing, it fades away,” he said. “That’s the goal of the whole thing. The more tournaments they play, the more normal it’s going to become.”