NORTH PLAINS, Oregon. The Saudi government-backed LIV Golf Invitational series hits the United States on Thursday as it continues to shake up a stylish sport with a slogan that promises: “Golf, but stronger.” Except this probably isn’t the kind of noise his followers had in mind.
Some are vehemently opposed to holding the three-day tournament at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, about 20 miles northwest of Portland. Disapproval came from politicians, a group of 9/11 survivors and family members, club members who resigned in protest, and at least one club board member who spoke out. Critics have denounced what they describe as Saudi Arabia’s attempt to use sports to soften the West’s perception of its dismal human rights record.
Portland is the first of five LIV tournaments (a Roman numeral referring to the 54-hole format) to be held in the United States this year. The newly formed tour, with its lucrative prize money and eight-figure entry fees, has quickly become a threat to the long-established PGA Tour, as prominent players such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka have joined the Saudi effort.
The Portland tournament will take place while local anger is still simmering over the 2016 death of Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old high school student who was killed while crossing a Portland street by a driver traveling nearly 60 miles. per hour. A Saudi community college student, facing felony manslaughter and hit-and-run charges in Smart’s death, removed a tracking device and disappeared before trial, apparently returning home with the help of Saudi officials.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has been aggressively seeking justice for Smart and pleading with the White House to hold the Saudis more accountable. He has criticized the LIV golf tournament, backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, as an attempt to cleanse the country’s human rights reputation, a tactic known as sports laundering.
“No matter how much you cough, you can’t erase” that reputation, Wyden said in an interview. Referring to Smart’s death, he added: “The Saudis could not have chosen a more insulting and painful place to hold a golf tournament.”
Teri Lenahan, the mayor of tiny North Plains, population 3,440, signed a letter with 10 other area mayors objecting to the LIV tournament, though they acknowledge they can’t stop it. Some members of Pumpkin Ridge have resigned in protest.
Some relatives and survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks have planned a news conference for Thursday to discuss what they called the golfers’ “willful complicity” in taking money from a country whose citizens included 15 of the 19 hijackers.
Critics of the tournament point out that US intelligence officials concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, ordered the murder and dismemberment of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018; whereas 81 men were executed in Saudi Arabia in a single day in March, calling into question the impartiality of its criminal justice system; and that Saudi women did not receive driving permission until 2018 after a long-standing ban and must still receive permission from a male relative to make many decisions in their lives.
“I really felt like it was a moral obligation to speak up and say that we can’t support this golf tournament because of where the funds are coming from to support it,” Lenahan said in an interview. “The problem is that the Saudi government publicly executes people, oppresses women and considers them second-class citizens. And they killed a journalist and dismembered him. It’s disgusting.”
Escalante Golf, a Texas firm that owns the Pumpkin Ridge course, did not respond to requests for comment.
The LIV tournament will continue, playing in a realpolitik context. As a candidate, President Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for Khashoggi’s murder. But Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia in mid-July, seeking, among other things, relief from the oil-rich kingdom over rising gasoline prices in the United States.
Indeed, human rights issues often take a backseat to financial and marketing concerns in international sports. China, for example, was named to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and the 2008 Summer Games. And the NBA does solid business there. A recent ESPN report said that owners of the league’s top teams have more than $10 billion invested in China.
The creation of the LIV tour has resurfaced longstanding questions about the moral obligations of athletes and their desire to compete and earn money.
Generally speaking, Wyden, who briefly played college basketball, said the Saudi approach is “really part of an autocratic playbook.” He continued, “They come in and try to bribe everyone, they buy their silence,” thinking that “something someone is going to be mad about on Tuesday, everyone is going to forget on Thursday.”
The Portland tournament will feature $25 million in prize money, including $5 million for team play and $4 million for the individual winner.
At press conferences here, golfers recognized the financial appeal of the LIV tour. And they said they respected various opinions about their participation. Some downplayed human rights issues, while others, such as Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, said they felt golf could be a force for good.
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The launch of the new Saudi-funded LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about the moral obligations of athletes and their desire to compete and earn money. This is what you should know:
“If we can help any country or anywhere in the world, that’s what we’re going to do,” Garcia said.
Pat Perez, a journeyman American golfer, candidly said that playing golf and being able to spend less time on the road while participating in the LIV series was his “only concern.”
“I understand the issues that they are trying to bring up, and they are horrible events, but I am here to play golf,” Pérez said. “That’s my job.”
Koepka, previously the No. 1 golfer in the world and a two-time US Open and PGA Championship winner, called Perez’s comments “pretty spot on,” saying, “We’re here to play golf.”
2020 US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau was asked if he was concerned about the origin of prize money at LIV events. DeChambeau said he believed golf “is a force for good, and I think as time goes on, I hope people see how good it’s doing and what it’s trying to accomplish, rather than how bad it is.” it happened before. He ”he continued:“ I think moving on from that is important ”.
Pumpkin Ridge board member Andy McNiece, acting strictly in an advisory capacity, has been unable to move forward.
Escalante Golf, the club’s owner, seems interested only in the money to host the LIV tournament, McNiece said in an interview. As he told other reporters, McNiece said Escalante sold his own honor, the Pumpkin Ridge honor, and, “in a weird way, they’ve sold part of my honor, and I don’t like it.”
He said he plans to visit the field to see the tournament setup, but he won’t watch the competition. He has given away his four tickets for each of the three days to others. That way, McNiece said, “LIV doesn’t get any money from them.”