clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Open Championship: R&A CEO drops Saudi bomb as potential future sponsor

Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, spoke about the PIF during his annual press conference ahead of The Open Championship

Martin Slumbers, The R&A, The 151st Open Championship
HOYLAKE, England — Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of The R&A speaks to the media during a press conference prior to The 151st Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on July 19, 2023.
Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF) has over $720 billion in assets and has invested heavily in golf over the past couple of years.

Their next big investment could be The Open Championship, golf’s oldest major played annually in the United Kingdom.

“The world of sport has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, and it is not feasible for the R&A or golf to just ignore what is a societal change on a global basis,” CEO of the R&A Martin Slumbers said Wednesday ahead of The Open.

“We will be considering within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have,” he said in response to whether they would accept the PIF as a sponsor of The Open.

Last year, the PIF launched LIV Golf. The Saudi-backed league paid hundreds of millions of dollars to PGA Tour stars to come join the circuit to give it notoriety.

That includes former major champions Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Bryson DeChambeau, among others.

Phil Mickelson, LIV Golf, England, The 151st Open
HOYLAKE, England — Phil Mickelson talks with fans on his way to the 3rd hole during a practice round prior to The 151st Open at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on July 19, 2023.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This year, on Jun. 6, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Governor of the PIF, and Jay Monahan, Commissioner of the PGA Tour, appeared on CNBC to announce to the world that the PIF and the PGA Tour had entered into a commercial partnership for the future of men’s professional golf.

Now a major championship may become involved with the PIF.

“We have a number of large corporate partners that help us make this thing happen,” Slumbers added. “I think the world has changed in the last year. It’s not just golf. You’re seeing it in football. You’re seeing it in F1. You’re seeing it in cricket. I’m sure tennis won’t be that far behind.”

The PIF purchased an 80% stake in Newcastle United of the English Premier League in 2021. Before that, Newcastle was a club reminiscing on its historic past while struggling in the present.

Now, with the PIF’s vast wealth and large investments, Newcastle is one of the top clubs in England.

The sovereign wealth fund has also invested heavily into Formula One racing, cricket, and the world tennis tour is reportedly next, per the Associated Press on Jul. 7.

Of course, Saudi Arabia has a long history of human rights abuses, subjugating women, and castigating homosexuality.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of the Sept. 11 attacks were also Saudi citizens, and the Saudi Kingdom allegedly ordered the dismemberment of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi too.

Despite this, the PGA Tour still entered negotiations with the PIF and struck a deal in the spring of 2023.

PGA Tour Policy Board Member Jimmy Dunne played a key role in these discussions, as did Monahan and Ed Herlihy, Chairman of the PGA Tour.

Ron Price, Chief Operating Officer of the tour, also lent a hand.

“All credit, I think, goes to Jimmy and to Ron, the way they handled themselves, and I was very impressed and glad I wasn’t sitting in their shoes,” Slumbers admitted Wednesday, alluding to the PGA-LIV Golf Senate hearing that took place Jul. 11.

“I do think that we have to have a sensible conversation about the long-term financial sustainability of golf, and that, as you say, came up over the last few months.”

PGA Tour, Jimmy Dunne, Ron Price, Senate Hearing
WASHINGTON — Chief Operating Officer of the PGA Tour Ron Price and PGA Tour Policy Board member Jimmy Dunne testify during a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Investigations hearing examining the business deal between the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia’s LIV Golf on Capitol Hill July 11, 2023. In early June, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf announced plans for a framework agreement to create a new global golf entity, which will be heavily funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Since the inception of LIV Golf, the four governing bodies that facilitate the major championships have stayed out of the fray that was the PGA-LIV schism.

Yet, Augusta National, which runs The Masters, the PGA of America, which runs the PGA Championship; and the United States Golf Association (USGA), which facilities the U.S. Open, along with the R&A, have all allowed LIV Golfers to compete within their tournaments.

Each of these governing bodies wanted to protect the integrity of their competitions by allowing anyone who qualified—often including past champions—to participate.

But what the recent year has done is elevate the four majors to a higher stratosphere.

They mean more because both PGA and LIV golfers can compete alongside each other.

Because of the PGA’s recent deal with the PIF, the R&A may see an opportunity to strengthen itself further as well.

“I want to make sure that we leave golf—when I’ve done my time—in a stronger position than it is,” Slumbers added. “Stronger position for me is more people playing golf. There are a hundred million people now playing golf. Never happened before.”

“I think every one of us who’s working in the sport has a responsibility to think like that, including in the business side of professional golf.”

Jack Milko is a golf staff writer for SB Nation’s Playing Through. You can follow him on Twitter @jack_milko for more golf coverage. Be sure to check out @_PlayingThrough too.