News of the PGA Tour/DP World Tour/PIF merger may feel as though it broke, or was brokered, very much out of the blue. But the power, money and tastes driving golf’s evolution have continually migrated westward. The emerging primacy of Saudi influence is merely the next link in a recurring, fascinating, often jarring historical chain.
In 1880, for example, it would have seemed absurd and laughable to Victorian Brits that their game would, in just 40 years’ time, grow to be so dominated by America, Americans, their wealth and their so obviously colonial tastes. But that’s exactly what happened, and though this dynamic first applied to tournament play – all but one of golf’s major championships were developed and eventually hosted here – it was quickly extended to formats of play (medal, not match), course design (parkland, not links) and ball size, among other things.
Starting in the 1990s, the money and predilections that fuel golf’s ceaseless evolution began to veer still farther west, from North America to Asia. Another 20 years from now, it’s entirely possible, even plausible, that the game’s center of gravity will shift accordingly, as it once shifted from the U.K. to the U.S. This merger of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and PGA Tour is only the latest evidence of Asia’s rise. The women’s game, it could be argued, is already centered in East Asia – home to most of the game’s finest competitors, its most lucrative corporate sponsorships, and tournament purses.
Had someone advanced this eventual state of affairs to American golf observers in 1980, they too would have considered it laughable and absurd.
Indeed, if someone had suggested it Monday, June 5, 2023, the scenario would have been dismissed as both fanciful and heretical. But here we are, poised at the precipice of another massive shift to the west.
There remains a sizable cautionary twist for all of us to consider – here in North America, at least. British, then American, then Asian hegemonies – in the golfing context – were all fueled, at first, by the champion golfers they produced, then by the sheer number of casual-and-largely-well-heeled golfers who played the game. They bought equipment, read the golf publications, then traveled the region/world playing the game. Eventually corporate decision-makers recognized televised tournament golf specifically as a means to reach these wealthy consumers.
Neither Saudi culture specifically nor the Arab world writ large has yet produced these dominant players, nor any trace of any sizable golfing zeitgeist. Anywhere. Their influence in the sport has proved almost exclusively bought and paid for. What’s more, it would take no more than the wave of Mohammed bin Salman’s hand, or the drawing of his final breath, to wipe it all away – all of the golf ventures, his country’s courtship of international soccer stars and events, its substantial Formula One investments, etc.
Our collective shock of the past two weeks is largely the result of our sudden realization that great change is upon us. Even if we recognize the broader historical perspective, golf’s latest westward expansion can’t help but engender further uncertainty. If that precarity doesn’t give us pause – if it doesn’t give pause to advertisers and investors in this new combined venture – it should.
Hal Phillips, formerly the editor of Golf Course News, is managing director of Mandarin Media Inc., which represents clients in golf, property and hospitality sectors worldwide. Dickinson-Moses Press published his latest book, Generation Zero, in July 2022. He lives in Auburn, Maine.
Ross Kinnaird, Getty Images