The R&A leader, who just a year ago was among the fiercest critics of LIV Golf, has not ruled out the possibility that the group, the British open tennis organisation, could one day accept money from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
“The sporting world has changed dramatically in the last 12 months and it is not feasible for R&A or golf to ignore what is simply societal change on a global basis,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of R&A, at Royal Liverpool. It will open on Thursday. “We’ll look at all the criteria that we’re looking at all the options that we have.”
The wealth fund has recently risen to become one of the most prominent philanthropists in sports, amassing billions of dollars through golf and soccer and fueling speculation about where it might put its money next. Britain has been central to the wealth fund’s ambitions: in 2021, it bought Premier League football team Newcastle United.
The fund and its allies have insisted the investments are aimed at expanding the Saudi economy, but they have faced skepticism and fears that Saudi leaders are looking in part to use sports to rehabilitate the kingdom’s reputation for human rights abuses.
Although Slumbers said last year he was “very comfortable in the world-growing game of golf,” he complained then that the Saudi-funded LIV model was “not in the long-term best interests of the sport” and “paid entirely with money.” He declared at the time that the human rights violations were “abhorrent and unacceptable”.
He appeared less apprehensive on Wednesday, even as he put an end to the potential arrangement with the wealth fund, or anyone else, and insisted he was not interested in the so-called sponsor of the Open Championship, which will be held in the coming days for the 151st time. (Rolex is title sponsor of next week’s World Open at Royal Porthcawl in Wales. Next month, the AIG Ladies Open will be held at Walton Heath, near London.)
But Slippers was asked directly during a news conference about the possibility of the wealth fund becoming a “partner,” to which he replied, “If you’re very open to it, we do and we still do, talk to different potential sponsors.”
Slippers’ receptiveness reflects bloated concerns among golf executives about the financial sustainability of the sport, whose prize money has skyrocketed recently. The open purse this year is worth $16.5 million, more than double what it was a decade ago. On Wednesday, Slumbers said the prize money is growing much faster than he and other executives expected.
Some of the pressures sinking into men’s golf could be alleviated if the PGA Tour and LIV end what has been an arms race for the world’s top players. The tour, wealth fund and DP World Tour took a step toward that last month, when they announced a plan to bring their golf business ventures into a new for-profit company. The agreement, of which R&A is not a part, may not close for several months.
Slippers said the R&A, which, along with the United States Golf Association, writes the sports rulebook, “thoroughly welcomes an end to disruption in the men’s professional game.”
He was less than enthusiastic about the partnership with former boss Donald J. Trump, who has been one of LIV’s biggest boosters and has repeatedly confirmed that the R&A is looking to bring the Open back to Turnberry, one of the most exciting courses in Scotland. Trump purchased the property in 2014, five years after its last opening.
“We will not go back until we are convinced that the focus will be on the tournament, the players and the track itself, and we don’t think that is possible in the current circumstances,” Sleepers said in the days following the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol.
However, Trump has since claimed that the R&A is looking to host another tournament at Turnberry. Rather than acquiesce on Wednesday, Slappers instead came close to repeating his statement for 2021.
“We were very clear,” he said.