Saudi-backed LIV Golf is receiving a cold reception in Oregon, its first stop in the United States.
Next week, the series, which is paying huge signing fees for the likes of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, descends on Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in tiny North Plains, nestled in the hills west of Portland.
But the mayor of North Plains, as well as officials from surrounding towns, have written to the club’s owner, Escalante Golf, with concerns. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden speaks out against the tournament, and some members of the expensive club are also uneasy about the situation.
Opponents point to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, including the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But in Oregon, there is also anger over the 2016 death of Fallon Smart, who was a hit-and-run. She was 15 years old when she was killed on a Portland street.
Saudi student Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, who was in college in Oregon, was facing trial on first-degree murder charges when he removed a tracking device and disappeared. US authorities believe the Saudi government helped obtain a false passport and provided a private plane to travel back to Saudi Arabia. The case appeared in “60 Minutes”.
“It is wrong to remain silent as Saudi Arabia tries to clean its bloody hands in the fight for justice for Oregonians: Fallon Smart was killed very close to our home in southeast Portland, and the person charged with the crime , a hit-and-run, was, by all evidence, flown out of the country by the Saudis before he stood trial,” Wyden said in an interview with The Associated Press.
There are concerns that the event could bring protests to North Plains, a city of just 3,400 people. Tickets to the event prohibit fans from displaying political signs.
“We oppose this event because it is being sponsored by a repressive government whose human rights abuses are documented. We refuse to support these abuses by knowingly allowing the Saudi-backed organization to play in our backyard,” read a letter signed by the North Plains mayor. Teri Lenahan and 10 other mayors from surrounding cities.
Wyden accuses the Saudi government of sports laundering.
“It’s just a page in the playbook for autocrats who cover up injustices by misusing athletics in hopes of normalizing their abuses,” he said.
The event has also put the members of Pumpkin Ridge in a tough spot. Some decided to leave the club during the tournament, but it is unclear how many did.
“A lot of members are stuck between a rock and a hard place right now where politically they don’t see eye to eye at all,” said member Kevin Palmer of Beaverton. “But I also joined last year and I bet like $12,000, and if I leave I don’t get any of that money back.”
Greg Norman is CEO of LIV Golf Investments and the face of a circuit that aspires to rival the PGA Tour. The 48-man field in Portland will compete for $20 million in prize money for individual games and $5 million in team games, with 12 teams. The teams will be announced on Tuesday after a draft.
Johnson, who had been No. 1 in the world longer than any player since Tiger Woods, and six-time Grand Slam champion Mickelson were among the first big names to join. Since then, the Portland field has added Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed, all major champions, though none are among the current top 20 players in the world rankings.
The PGA Tour has suspended all members who competed in the first LIV event because they had no conflicting event pitches. Those from Portland will also be suspended when they play.
The tour typically awards three such pitches a year, just for overseas tournaments. It does not allow its members to compete in tournaments held in North America.
The Portland event takes place the same week as the John Deere Classic in Illinois.
“The PGA Tour, an American institution, cannot compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy golf,” PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan said last week. “We welcome some healthy and good competition. LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It is an irrational threat, not caring about return on investment or true growth of the game.”
The LIV tour consists of eight events this year, five in the United States. After the stop in Portland, the course moves on to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.
Texas-based Escalante Golf, which owns Pumpkin Ridge and another LIV series course, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We believe we have a moral obligation to take a stand and speak out against this event to protect the people we serve,” the mayors wrote in their letter to the company. “While our local jurisdictions may not be able to prevent this event, we stand united in expressing our concerns about the potential unwelcome risks, visitors, and damage this event could have on our communities.”