bad deal

Golf is officially the most anti-LGBTQ+ sport in the US after PGA partners with Saudi Arabia

Justin Thomas golfing in Malaysia.

When it comes to LGBTQ+ representation in American sports, men’s golf is far (very far) behind the others. There’s only ever been one out gay player on the PGA Tour, and an out golfer has never competed in The Masters, the sport’s most iconic tournament.

But this week, golf reached a new nadir when it comes to fostering a welcoming environment for gay players. The PGA Tour’s merger with the Saudi-backed league, LIV Golf, shows that LGBTQ+ inclusion isn’t on the sport’s radar… at all.

When LIV Golf launched last year, the leaders of the PGA Tour vowed they would never allow their sport to be sullied. Big name players who jumped to the upstart league–including Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson–were banned from PGA events.

With financial support from the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf used some of the richest contracts in golf history to lure decorated players over. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in golf is the latest example of the kingdom’s “sportswashing,” a practice in which malevolent international actors attempt to improve their reputations through funding sports teams and leagues.

In recent years, the Saudis have sponsored Formula 1 racing and gained ownership of a prominent English soccer team. (Saudi Arabia is also funding its own soccer league, and successfully recruited Cristiano Ronaldo. Soccer legend Lionel Messi, however, spurred the Saudis this week and signed with a Major League Soccer club.)

The merger between the PGA Tour and LIV is about one thing: money. The governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, will be the new company’s chairman.

PGA Tour players are reportedly livid about the deal, which came together in a matter of days. Rory McIllroy, who’s won four major championships, expressed his displeasure in a fiery press conference Wednesday.

“I still hate LIV. I hate LIV,” he said. “Like, I hope it goes away, and I fully expect that it does.”

For gay golfers, and gay golf fans, this partnership is a nightmare. Last year, PGA Tour legend and LIV commissioner Greg Norman was rightfully pilloried for his dismissal of Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record, and treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

“I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you,” he said in a Golf Digest interview.

While Saudi Arabia has made some strides towards modernity in recent years–women can drive now–LGBTQ+ Saudis still say they’re forced into exile. Homosexuality remains punishable by death in sharia law.

And now, one of the most powerful figures in the country will be chairman of the biggest golf league in the world.

That sends a clear message to LGBTQ+ people: you are not welcome on the green.

A couple of years ago, Masters winner Justin Thomas, one of the biggest stars in the sport, was caught uttering an anti-gay slur on the course. He issued a perfunctory apology, but that was it. There was no discussion of education, or ways to make golf more inclusive.

Over the years, gay golfers have spoken up about how they feel ostracized by the sport they love. One-time elite amateur golfer John Brooks penned an essay for Golf Digest expressing his feelings of alienation.

“Growing up, as I began to make sense of my sexuality, I had dreams of becoming the first ‘out’ male professional golfer,” he wrote. “But that didn’t happen. I never felt fully at ease within the golf community, which is strange to say because I really love the game.”

Pro golfer Kyle Winn, who publicly came out in 2020, said he thinks men view the golf course as a safe space where they can say hateful things that aren’t tolerated in public.

“It’s a place some people can congregate and use racist, misogynist and homophobic terms and get away with it because ‘they’re at a golf course,'” he said. “It just makes me sad that the golf industry has probably lost so many golfers and possible professionals who have been turned off by these unfortunate true stereotypes.”

When it comes to fostering LGBTQ+ inclusion in athletics, there’s no greater message than sports stars expressing their support for LGBTQ+ people. Look no further than MLB players Marcus Stroman and Julio Rodriguez, who recently showed major support for Pride.

NHL player Jon Merrill was also photographed in a “protect trans kids” shirt.

In an interview with Outsports, Fujikawa, the gay PGA Tour player, said it would go a long way if some of his peers spoke out about gay rights and inclusion.

“If the players on the PGA Tour were more outspoken about it, it would help our cause a lot,” he said. “But I think a lot of the players feel that it doesn’t really involve them, so being quiet is OK. I think a lot of them probably don’t care if someone is gay, but if we don’t talk about it the issue it doesn’t get resolved.”

With Saudi Arabia’s direct involvement, expect golf’s culture of silence to only continue. What a shame.

Scroll down for more reaction to the PGA and LIV merger, and what it means for LGBTQ+ golfers and fans…