The R&A leader, who just a year ago was among the fiercest critics of LIV Golf, did not rule out on Wednesday the possibility that the group, organizer of the British Open, may one day accept money from the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund.
“The world of sport has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, and it is not feasible for the R&A or golf to simply ignore what a global social change is,” Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, said at Royal Liverpool, where the Open will kick off on Thursday. “We will consider within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have.”
The wealth fund has skyrocketed of late to become one of the most prominent benefactors in sports, cumulatively doling out billions of dollars through golf and soccer and sparking 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 soccer team Newcastle United.
The fund and its allies have insisted that the investments are aimed at expanding the Saudi economy, but have faced skepticism and fears that Saudi leaders are seeking in part to use sports to rehabilitate their kingdom’s reputation for human rights violations.
Although Slumbers said last year that he was “very comfortable with the growth of golf globally”, he complained at the time that the Saudi-funded LIV model was “not the best thing for the sport in the long term” and “totally driven by money”. Human rights abuses, he declared at the time, were “abominable and unacceptable.”
He seemed far less fearsome on Wednesday, even as he put a cap on a possible deal with the wealth fund, or anyone else, and insisted he wasn’t interested in a putative title sponsor for the Open, due to be played in the coming days for the 151st time. (Rolex is the title sponsor of next week’s Senior Open at Royal Porthcawl in Wales. Next month, the AIG Women’s Open will be held at Walton Heath, near London.)
But when asked directly during a press conference about the possibility of the wealth fund becoming “a partner,” Slumbers replied: “If I’m very open, we are and we do and we continue to talk to a number of potential backers.”
Slumbers’ receptiveness reflects growing fears among golf executives about the financial sustainability of the sport, whose prize funds have soared recently. The purse for this year’s Open is $16.5 million, more than double what it was a decade ago. On Wednesday, Slumbers said prize money was rising much faster than he and other executives expected.
Some of the pressure on men’s golf could be eased if the PGA Tour and LIV put an end to what has become an arms race for the world’s best players. The tour, wealth fund and DP World Tour took a step toward just that last month, when they announced a plan to turn their golf businesses into a new for-profit venture. The deal, of which R&A is not a party, may take months to close.
Slumbers said the R&A, which, along with the US Golf Association, writes the sport’s rulebook, would “welcome the end of the disruption in the men’s professional game.”
He was far less eager to partner with former president Donald J. Trump, who has been one of LIV’s most prolific boosters and has repeatedly asserted that the R&A seeks to return the Open to Turnberry, one of Scotland’s most spectacular courses. Trump bought the property in 2014, five years after his most recent Open.
“We will not return until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the field itself, and we do not believe that can be achieved under the current circumstances,” Slumbers said in the days after the 2021 riot on Capitol Hill.
However, Trump has since claimed that the R&A is looking to stage another Open at Turnberry. Rather than accept Wednesday, Slumbers came close to repeating his 2021 statement.
“We have been very clear,” he said.