NORTH PLAINS, Oregon. The second event of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour kicked off on Thursday, angering a group of families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and want the Saudi government to account for the terror attacks.
About 10 family members and survivors spoke at a small park honoring veterans in tiny North Plains, home to the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
“This event is nothing more than a group of very talented athletes who seem to have turned their backs on the crime of murder,” said survivor Tim Frolich, who was injured in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
The LIV Golf series, funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, made its first stop on US soil this week after a debut this month outside of London.
Carlos Ortiz took the lead Thursday with a 5-under-par 67. Dustin Johnson, the 2020 Masters winner, fired back. Pat Perez, Brenden Grace and Hideto Tadihara were within two shots of the leader.
The upstart series, spearheaded by CEO Greg Norman, aims to challenge the PGA Tour and has lured players with big signing bonuses and big prizes. But critics call the tour a “sports laundering” attempt to downplay Saudi human rights abuses, including the 2018 murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Locally, opponents point to the 2016 hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart. The Saudi national accused in the case cut off a monitoring device shortly before his trial and disappeared. US officials believe the Saudi government took him home.
And then there are the 9/11 families, who contacted some of the individual golfers involved in the tour but were not granted a hearing. The group produced an advertisement that has appeared on local television.
“These golfers who are sleeping with the Saudis should know what they are doing. I am ashamed of them. And to the golfers who say it’s just a game of golf: Shame on you,” said Brett Eagleson, leader of the group 9/11 Justice, who lost his father in the World Trade Center. “I invite you to live with the pain in our eyes, listen to our stories and walk in our shoes, listen to what we have to say about the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
At Pumpkin Ridge there was a notable police and security presence, including officers at the front gate. There were rumors of a designated protest area in one of the parking lots, but no one was sure where it was. Tickets to the event warned that fans could not display political posters.
Phil Mickelson, a six-time major winner and one of the main draws of the tour, had one of the biggest galleries on opening day. He was playing in a group with Charl Schwartzel, who lost the ball on his first drive of the day. Fans along the street said they believed he landed in a tree.
“There’s not much chance of seeing these guys in person in this area,” said spectator Will Knowles. “I stay out of politics.”
Because the event was played on two courses, it was difficult to control the size of the crowd and LIV Golf did not disclose attendance figures.
For golfers, part of the allure of LIV Golf is the money. In addition to hefty signing bonuses, the 48-man field competes for a $20 million purse, with an additional $5 million prize fund for a team competition. Schwartzel won the London event (and the team portion) and earned $4.75 million.
There is no cutoff and even the last place finisher wins a $120,000 payday. Organizers promise exciting events that they say will attract new fans: With an unexpected start and Rhianna blaring from a massive sound system near the green, the 54-hole tournament certainly had a different vibe.
In addition to Mickelson, who shot a 75, Majors Johnson winners Brooks Koepka (70) and Bryson DeChambeau (72) also joined LIV, which rhymes with “give,” and plays with the Roman numerals for 54.
The PGA Tour responded to LIV Golf’s challenge by suspending all active members who competed in the first LIV event. Those playing in Oregon will also be suspended unless they renounce their tour membership.