Arnold Palmer would have opposed LIV Golf

The new golf league is the latest example of ‘sportswashing’


Courtesy of Wake Forest

A statue of golf legend Arnold Palmer stands outside the Arnold Palmer Golf Complex on the campus of Wake Forest University on Tuesday, October 15, 2013.

Ashlyn Segler, Staff Columnist

On Manchester Plaza April 7, the Wake Forest Traditions Council passed out cake squares, Arnold Palmer iced teas and chambray blue t-shirts that depicted “The King” himself. The celebration marked the 12th annual “Arnold Palmer Day,” a holiday created to honor the esteemed alumnus widely regarded as one of the greatest and most charismatic players to ever grace the game of golf. 

As tradition dictates at Wake Forest, students gathered together in celebration, sipping leisurely on their Arnold Palmers, enjoying the warm April weather and dancing to a nostalgia-inducing playlist of oldies.

More than 240 miles away, in Augusta, Ga., 88 players teed up for the first round of the 2023 Masters Tournament. This year’s competition marked the 87th anniversary of the tournament, an event esteemed for its unique traditions. Winners of the Masters — Palmer included — are awarded one of the club’s trademark “green jackets” as well as a lifetime invitation to return to the tournament. 

As tradition dictates on the Augusta National Golf Club, patrons gather together in celebration, savoring sweet Georgia peach ice cream sandwiches, appreciating the backdrop of bright pink azaleas and following their favorite golfers.  

On the other side of the world, in Saudi Arabia, the reality is much less idealistic and much more violent, with golf intervening as a proposed medium for mitigation. Amidst many human rights violations by the Saudi government, including forced disappearances, mass executions for nonviolent offenses, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture by government agents and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion and sexuality, the Saudi government funded a new golf league called “LIV Golf.” 

As tradition dictates in Saudi Arabia, hope for the improvement of human rights remains bleak. 

The Saudi-backed LIV Golf league has been widely criticized for “sportswashing” since its conception in 2021. Sportswashing, a form of propaganda, occurs when any group, government or institution uses a sport as a medium to enhance their reputation and distract from other less favorable histories or attributes. 

Although the term itself is relatively new, the practice is not. The 1936 Summer Olympics, hosted under Nazi rule in Berlin, Germany, is one of the most infamous cases of sportswashing. More recent examples include the 2008 Summer Olympics and 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted in Beijing, China, as well as the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups hosted in Russia and Qatar, respectively.  

So with dreams of renovating their global reputation, the Saudi government turned to golf. 

Although LIV golf faced initial opposition by many players on the PGA tour — prominent golfers such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Keopka have since switched over to compete in the LIV league. Enormous purses, guaranteed paydays and comparatively lighter schedules have enticed many. However, many longtime fans of golf have criticized LIV players for accepting Saudi salaries of “blood money.” 

At this year’s Masters tournament, the game received attention as LIV players teed up to compete alongside PGA members. But amidst the azaleas of Augusta National, a daunting question loomed: what will tradition dictate in the era of LIV golf? 

Golf has a rich history of tradition, and unlike the athletes in many other sports, golf players’ careers can last decades. This fosters an experience where fans of golf can follow their favorite players for years throughout their career- which is why it was especially upsetting for many golf fans to watch as fan-favorite golfers traded in their integrity for a higher paycheck, despite any subsequent implications for human rights.

It’s difficult to digest the idea that players you’ve followed and cheered on for their entire career would sellout to a bankroll of blood money. Sports cannot excuse the injustices committed by the Saudi Arabian government, and golfers given the opportunity to play on the LIV tour should respond with an easy rejection. 

But still, inevitably more players have continued to leave the PGA tour for the LIV league. After fan favorite golfers like Ian Poulter and Bubba Watson left for LIV, the golf world was left grieving. 

But “The King” himself left behind a legacy many golf fans still look to for hope. 

Although Palmer won seven Majors (four Masters tournaments, two British Opens and the U.S. Open), was a two-time PGA player of the year and was the first golfer to accumulate $1 million in career earnings, his legacy extends far beyond what he accomplished on the fairways and greens of many PGA tournaments.

Palmer grew the game of golf with his charisma and kindness. A traditionalist at heart, he never strayed far from a fierce loyalty and love for the game. Even after passing away in 2016, his legacy lives on through the work of the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation and the philanthropic benefits of the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament hosted each spring at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando.

Considering his distinct character and reputation, it’s safe to say Palmer would have stood in fierce opposition to the LIV league. The threat that LIV poses to golf’s cherished traditions and competition would have been enough to dissuade him, but the Saudi blood money would have been more than enough to make him a critic.

So with each year that passes, each cake square shared on the lower quad and each ice cream sandwich melted in the Georgia heat, the game of golf may change substantially. But by looking at Palmer’s legacy and remembering the deep respect that the former Demon Deacon had for the love of the game, I hope that golf fans will still continue to oppose those that choose to leave for LIV and uphold the traditions that define the game we love.