West Virginia governor and Senate candidate Jim Justice just became the latest Republican to directly profit from the Saudi attempt to gain unprecedented influence over U.S. professional golf.
LIV Golf, the league that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth vehicle launched in 2021, is hosting a high-profile tournament this weekend at The Greenbrier, a storied, family-operated resort owned by Justice. By drawing fans and national attention, the arrangement has lucrative implications for both the Saudi-backed tour and the estate.
Multiple lawmakers and watchdog groups have warned about the effect of the sudden influx of Saudi funding through the golf campaign. They worry that it will suppress criticism or scrutiny of the kingdom, particularly over its appalling human rights record and policy moves like collusion with Russia to sustain high oil prices. The PGA Tour, historically America’s marquee golf organization, made similar arguments for months — then agreed this summer to form a merger with the Saudis that is now under investigation by Congress and the Justice Department.
As a senator — if he defeats Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) next year — Justice would likely weigh in on Saudi-related issues like weapons sales regularly, given strong congressional interest in the U.S.’s relationship with the kingdom.
The governor has refused to sell the Greenbrier or place it in a blind trust, raising ethical concerns about how business there might influence his policies or create the appearance of a conflict of interest. In dealing with the prospect of the Saudi-backed LIV, he’s demonstrated the fuzzy boundaries between his public office and his private property: In 2022, Justice met with Greg Norman, LIV’s CEO, at the Greenbrier and repeatedly made public remarks defending Saudi intervention in golf and the possibility of LIV hosting an event at the resort.
Owner of The Greenbrier Jim Justice speaks to the crowd during the final round of the Greenbrier Classic held at The Old White TPC on July 5, 2015, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
“At the end of the day, Saudi Arabia is our ally. We should be proud of the fact that they are just that,” Justice said last August. He described the country’s move into professional golf as a chance to “juice it up and make it better.”
Representatives for Justice did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
The move mirrors the way LIV has benefited from the country’s best-known GOP figure, former President Donald Trump. LIV has held multiple tournaments at Trump properties, and will later this year host its championship tournament at Trump’s Doral, Florida, property for the second year in a row. It’s unclear how much money Trump and his clubs may have received from the tournament — Trump has said the courses receive a rental fee, and characterized the money that changed hands as “peanuts.”
“They have unlimited money, and they love it. And it’s been great publicity for Saudi Arabia,” Trump told USA Today of LIV. He said he did not believe that LIV’s choice of Doral to host the events were in return for his pro-Saudi policies as president.
Meanwhile, skeptics of the Saudi golf endeavor continue to highlight how it would boost the kingdom’s influence in the U.S. and encourage the practice of using sport to distract from alarming behavior and cultivate soft power, a move sometimes referred to as “sportswashing.”
This weekend is an especially jarring moment for fans of golf at the Greenbrier, which previously spent years hosting PGA Tour events.
“Greenbrier golf has been a huge part of my life … But I cannot support this LIV event and will not attend,” Stephen Baldwin, a former state senator in West Virginia, told HuffPost via email.
He described playing for the Greenbrier, volunteering there during multiple tournaments and still using a Greenbrier golf bag to play. Baldwin’s father worked there for most of his career, he noted.
But he believes it will ultimately be a clear mistake to associate with LIV “because it dishonors the game.”
“I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to go see famous golfers, but I won’t participate in sportswashing to cover up the Saudi anti-freedom record,” wrote Baldwin, who was the top Democrat in the state Senate before losing his seat last November.
Legislators plan to continue probing the deal between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund this fall.
Last week, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) of the Senate subcommittee on investigations renewed a request for the head of the Saudi fund to testify before Congress.
“The agreement with PGA Tour appears to be only one element of [the fund’s] efforts at increased commercial engagement with the United States,” Blumenthal wrote. “Much about [the fund’s] U.S. investments and future intentions remains unknown.”