Phil Mickelson was cheered by fans as he strolled to the opening tee at an exclusive private golf course outside London earlier this week. But despite being one of the sport’s most skilled and best-selling players, he no longer wears any of his sponsors’ logos.

He has bigger financial backers these days. Lefty is known to be competing in a new tournament from LIV Golf Investments, an independent league that has the potential to upend golf’s status quo. It is financed by at least $2 billion from Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion sovereign wealth fund. With a total prize of $250 million, it is the most valuable reward in the game.

$200 million in fees rumor This week at a private club in Hertfordshire, Mickelson brought his global fan base and credibility with the prize money paid out by the kingdom’s public investment fund. He declined to comment on his contract, a figure that has not been confirmed.

Players have been criticized by activists for accepting huge fees as the new alliance is backed by a country that has faced Western criticism for its poor human rights record, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and military operations in Yemen.

Mickelson himself has previously called the Saudis “horrible bastards involved.” “We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi has a poor record on human rights. They execute people there because they are gay. Knowing all this, why should I even think about it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the way the PGA Tour works. Mickelson’s involvement was so controversial that he only confirmed his attendance last week.

The controversy is the latest sign that Saudi Arabia’s oil fortunes are shaking up global sport, following the PIF-led £305m takeover of Premier League football club Newcastle United last October, which has taken a stake in the group that owns McLaren Motorsport Equipped and sponsored by the national oil company Aramco, the Formula 1 car is now racing in Jeddah.

PIF’s investment is aimed at reducing the Saudi economy’s dependence on oil and supporting Riyadh’s plans to modernize the conservative kingdom. It’s not the only energy-rich Middle Eastern country investing in sports. Qatar is hosting this year’s FIFA World Cup, Qatar Sports has invested in French football champion Paris Saint-Germain, and Abu Dhabi Royal Sheikh Mansour owns English football champion Manchester City.

But some activists have accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in a “sport baptism” to improve the country’s image. “Saudi Arabia is trying to use the good reputation of the world’s most beloved sports star to cover up its human rights record of brutality, torture and murder,” said Lucy Ray, a spokeswoman for human rights group Grant Freedom.

Simon Chadwick, a professor of Eurasian movement at Elyon Business School in Paris, acknowledged the “possible reputational and image advantages of working with the world’s top golfers”, but pointed to the wider reasons for Saudi Arabia’s investment in LIV.

“The country is encouraging people to play golf, especially women, as the government is looking to bring about positive social change,” he said. “Additionally, there are tourism targets; the Riyadh government wants to attract tourists to buy more and more golf courses in Saudi Arabia.”

Before his election, US President Joe Biden vowed to treat the kingdom as a “untouchable”. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing energy crisis led Washington to reconsider, as the Biden administration urged the world’s largest oil exporter to increase crude output.

In a press conference ahead of Thursday’s release, some players offered awkward answers to justify their participation. “I don’t condone human rights violations at all,” Mickelson said. Others are having a hard time saying whether they will participate in the contest organized by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Players practice before the Centurion Club’s LIV Championship. Participating golfers have been suspended from the established PGA Tour © Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to concerns about Saudi involvement, the new league presents a serious challenge to the PGA Tour, the main home for most of the top players. Irish golfer Rory McIlroy said this week that LIV would “destroy the game” and that “a lot of cash” was the motivation for many players’ betrayal.

The PGA Tour, which has warned golfers that participating in independent events without a license could result in suspensions, has suspended Mickelson and 16 other LIV players. LIV called the ban “retaliatory.” Of those 17 players, 10 have resigned from their PGA memberships.

Meanwhile, baseball caps and jerseys sold by the Centurion Club hint at LIV’s business goals. They feature names like Fireballs, Crushers, and Iron Heads—denoting a newly formed team or franchise that is at the heart of their plans.

Golf already has events where players represent teams rather than individuals, such as the Men’s Ryder Cup and Women’s Solheim Cup.

But LIV’s goal is to create a team similar to an F1 car, with a championship that is not only the best driver, but also the top team. It has said it also wants to follow the example of the Indian Premier League, which has attracted institutional investors.

Unaffected by long-term TV deals, LIV is also free to use its media rights, analysts said. Its opening match is streamed live for free on YouTube and Facebook.

Still, the lack of sponsors and the large bonuses paid to players mean it could take a long time for PIF to realize a return on investment, analysts said.

More players follow Mickelson. “The ultimate money [ for players] It’s too good to be discounted here,” said one senior athletic executive. “When they see what these guys are doing, there’s going to be more players going through the picket lines. “