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Denis Walsh: Why was there no uproar about women’s golf’s alliance with the Saudis?

Ladies European Tour was floundering on the edge of oblivion until Aramco gave financial support

The Ladies European Tour [LET] lands at Dromoland Castle this week for the reawakened Irish Open. The coverage and the crowds will far outstrip the depth of the field and the richness of the purse, but it will be a sort of homecoming for Leona Maguire, after a momentous 12 months, and a short intermission from the mud-wrestling in the men’s game.

In its worldwide trawl for an audience, and its flat-out pursuit of a crust, the LET has already been to southeast Asia, Africa, Australia, the Middle East and all over Europe since February. Ireland is the 20th different country on its roster of hosts, and that number will reach 22 by the by end of the season.

The next tour stop after Dromoland Castle, though, captures where the tour has come from and what future it sees. The Aramco Team Series in the middle of October will be staged at a Donald Trump-run golf course in New York, and funded from essentially the same pot of Saudi money that bankrolls the LIV Golf Series, and a litany of other “sportswashing” projects.

Given the stink about Saudi money sloshing through the men’s game, and the hand-wringing about Saudi money buying Newcastle United, and the tormented conversations every time another major sports event is seduced by Saudi money and staged in the kingdom, why was there no uproar about women’s golf entering such an alliance? Was anybody paying attention?


That was part of the problem. The Ladies European Tour was floundering on the edge of oblivion because not enough people cared. They were stuck and open to bids. So, women’s golf, like so many other professional sports, plunged, eyes-open, into a moral maze, with no urgent concern about losing itself.

The Jack-Nicklaus designed links course at Ferry Point, where the LET heads next, is owned by the city of New York, but licensed to the Trump Organization. Not long after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol in January 2021 the then mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio — a Democrat — announced that he was cancelling Trump’s contract to run the golf course, and several Central Park concessions too. The mayor’s flight of conscience, though, was shot down in a Manhattan court. In this case, the letter of the law was on Trump’s side.

This year’s PGA championship, one of the four majors in the men’s game, was originally scheduled for Bedminster, a Trump-owned course, but after the insurrection the PGA of United States cancelled the booking and rerouted to Southern Hills. The LET, though, had no such compunction about cosying up to the Trump brand, no matter how radioactive it had become.

Their relationship with Aramco, the state-owned Saudi oil company, started when the LET was fighting for its life. In 2017 seven events were pulled from their schedule, and by 2019 they had just 20 tournaments, seven of which were co-sanctioned with other tours. The prize money was thin, and at some of the tournaments the world ranking points on offer were counted in single figures.

Whether the LET accepted the money from Aramco or not wouldn’t have impacted the pace of change. But they were desperate; so they took it. Was that a good reason? It was the worst reason.

When the pandemic decimated the 2020 season, reducing it to just a dozen tournaments, the backstop in their precipitous slide were a pair of events in Saudi Arabia at the end of the year — the first professional women’s sports events of any kind to be staged there. For the following season, Aramco signed up for eight tournaments to the tune of $5 million — a sum no greater than the inducement an LIV tout would offer a journeyman on the PGA Tour, but a life-sustaining amount for the LET.

Did they worry about the source of the money, about Saudi Arabia’s long history of human rights abuses, about its state-sanctioned murders, about its political repression, about its treatment of the LBGTQ+ community? To their mind, they couldn’t afford to. The tour was on its knees; nearly half of their members were making less than €20,000 a year in tournament earnings: they were desperate for a benefactor.

When the LIV Series gathered pace, peddling obscene amounts of money, supporters of the LET deal with Aramco were anxious to draw a distinction: it was the difference, they said, between greed and necessity. Which essentially meant that Saudi Arabia’s global image, and the sportswashing money, was being sent to a more desirable laundry.

Some of Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory laws against women have been relaxed in recent years. Women are now free to drive cars — even as some of the women who campaigned for this basic freedom are still imprisoned — and they can travel abroad without the permission of their male guardian. But women are still not allowed to marry, or live on their own, without male approval.

Sport seems to have opened up, a little. Until 2017, for example, women were not allowed to attend football matches; now there’s a women’s league. More than half of the sports federations in Saudi Arabia now have woman representation on their boards, in line with Vision 2030, a government plan designed to “banish outdated notions of women’s place in sport.”

Whether the LET accepted the money from Aramco or not wouldn’t have impacted the pace of change. But they were desperate; so they took it. Was that a good reason? It was the worst reason.