A year ago, the idea that Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy with few golf courses, scant public interest in the sport and a notorious human rights record – could suddenly leap to the top of the global golf hierarchy seemed impossible. Now, the new company will be chaired by Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, or PIF.
Most observers explained the surprising merger with a simple principle: Cash is king. As professional golfer Rory McIlroy put it, “At the end of the day, money talks.”
PIF, an investment fund with more than US$700 billion in Saudi government money, can certainly wield immense influence.
But even PIF’s deep pockets may not be deep enough to achieve the Saudi grand vision of bringing golf to the Arab masses.
An ambitious vision
The fund’s venture into golf, according to Golf Saudi, a division of PIF, is part of a broader economic growth plan aimed at reducing the country’s reliance on oil and enacting sweeping societal and lifestyle transformations.
One of the driest nations in the world hopes to build new golf courses, “spread the sport of golf among the Saudi society” and “enhance the Kingdom’s position in the game of golf locally and internationally,” as Golf Saudi noted on its website.
The organization has outlined the country’s grand plans for growing the game: 250,000 Saudis trying golf in 2023, 135,000 kids playing it in school by 2025, 23 new courses built by 2030 and 37,000 registered golfers by 2040.
If you build it, will they come?
The strategies for achieving these goals – state funding for new infrastructure, school programs, ambassadors and global golf clout – involve a top-down economic approach.
But as I argue in my recent book, “Emerging Sports as Social Movements,” such an approach to sports often falls short.
Similar cases in the U.S. point to an uphill battle for Saudi golf promoters. Heady predictions about emerging American sports have been just as optimistic – and potentially flawed – as those coming out of Saudi Arabia about golf.
Lacrosse was once the poster child of fast-growing sports in the U.S., but the number of players declined from 2.1 million in 2015 to 1.8 million in 2022, according to the Sports Business Research Network.
The same data source dubs pickleball the fastest-growing sport in America, but its total number of players is tiny compared with dozens of well-known sports and recreational activities in the U.S., and its quest for mainstream status will likely encounter stumbling blocks, despite having wealthy benefactors and celebrity sponsors like NBA superstar LeBron James.
In recent years, cornhole, drone racing, mountain biking, disc golf and ax throwing have established professional leagues, appeared on ESPN and attracted major corporate sponsors. But they haven’t achieved anywhere near the participation levels, fandoms or cultural foundation that football, basketball, baseball, or hockey possess in the U.S.
Meanwhile, soccer, as the joke goes, is America’s sport of the future — and always will be.
What money can’t buy
The kingdom’s plans for growing golf resemble its efforts to promote soccer. Lured by the promise of making fortunes, some of the world’s best-known soccer players, including the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and French sensation Karim Benzema, have joined the Saudi Pro League.
Soccer, however, is already the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi national team has been competitive in Asia for decades and has qualified for six FIFA World Cup tournaments. Its run in 2020 included a stunning victory over Argentina, the eventual winner.
In contrast, programs to develop professional golf talent in Saudi Arabia are still in an early stage of development.
The history of sports is filled with stories of visionary business people taking big financial risks to grow their sports.
But emerging sports are more like social movements than business enterprises. Like social movements, sports rarely experience substantial, sustained growth unless countless individuals and groups come together, create a community, share an identity and foster a culturally meaningful sporting experience.
With vast oil wealth, Saudi Arabia showed the world how easy it is to buy a seat at the table of an elite sport. It appears equally poised to construct a new golf infrastructure at home. And yet, even if it built a string of world-class courses from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, golf still may not bloom in the desert without a golf culture and the one thing money alone cannot buy: a love of the game.
Josh Woods does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.