The leader of the R&A, who only a year ago was among the fiercest critics of LIV Golf, did not rule out the possibility on Wednesday that the group, the British Open’s organizer, could someday accept money from Saudi Arabia’s 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 just ignore what is a societal change on a global basis,” Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, said at Royal Liverpool, where the Open will begin on Thursday. “We will be considering within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have.”
The wealth fund has lately surged to become one of the most prominent benefactors in sports, cumulatively spreading billions of dollars through golf and soccer and stirring speculation about where it might put its money next. Britain has been central to the wealth fund’s ambitions: In 2021, it purchased the Premier League soccer team Newcastle United.
The fund and its allies have insisted that the investments are intended to broaden the Saudi economy, but they have faced skepticism and fears that Saudi leaders are partly looking to use sports to rehabilitate their kingdom’s reputation for human rights violations.
Although Slumbers said last year that he was “very comfortable in golf globally growing,” he complained then that LIV’s Saudi-bankrolled model was “not in the best long-term interests of the sport” and “entirely driven by money.” Human rights abuses, he declared then, were “abhorrent and unacceptable.”
He appeared far less fearsome on Wednesday, even as he placed a limit on a potential arrangement with the wealth fund, or anyone else, and insisted that he was uninterested in a so-called presenting sponsor for the Open, which will be played in the coming days for the 151st time. (Rolex is the principal sponsor for next week’s Senior Open at Royal Porthcawl in Wales. Next month, the AIG Women’s Open will be contested at Walton Heath, near London.)
But asked directly during a news conference about the possibility of the wealth fund becoming “a partner,” Slumbers replied, “If I’m very open, we are and do and continue to do, talk to various potential sponsors.”
Slumbers’s receptiveness reflects the swelling fears among golf executives about the financial sustainability of the sport, whose prize funds have recently soared. The purse for this year’s Open is $16.5 million, more than double that of a decade ago. On Wednesday, Slumbers said prize money was increasing far faster than he and other executives had expected.
Some of the pressure swamping men’s golf could ease if the PGA Tour and LIV end what has amounted to an arms race for the world’s top players. The tour, the wealth fund and the DP World Tour took a step toward that last month, when they announced a plan to bring their golf business ventures into a new, for-profit company. The agreement, which the R&A is not a part of, may not close for months.
Slumbers said that the R&A, which, along with the U.S. Golf Association, writes the sport’s rule book, would “absolutely welcome an end to the disruption in the men’s professional game.”
He was much less eager for a partnership with former President Donald J. Trump, who has been one of LIV’s biggest boosters and has repeatedly asserted that the R&A is looking to return the Open to Turnberry, one of Scotland’s most spectacular courses. Trump purchased the property in 2014, five years after its most recent Open.
“We will not return until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the course itself, and we do not believe that is achievable in the current circumstances,” Slumbers said in the days after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump has nevertheless claimed since then that the R&A is looking to host another Open at Turnberry. Instead of acquiescing on Wednesday, Slumbers instead came close to repeating his 2021 statement.
“We’ve been very clear,” he said.