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Saudi-backed LIV golf series faces 9/11 protests as first tournament on US soil begins

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“Saudi Arabia is trying to whitewash its reputation with sports,” Sean Passananti, whose father was killed in the attacks, said at a news conference at the protest at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Oregon. “Instead of admitting their support and funding of Al Qaeda, they are trying to buy legitimacy through the honorable game of golf.”

Accusations of the Saudi government’s complicity in the September 11, 2001, attacks have long been the subject of controversy in Washington. Fifteen of the 19 al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four planes were Saudi nationals, but the Saudi government has denied any involvement in the attacks. The 9/11 Commission established by Congress said in 2004 that it had found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually financed” Al Qaeda.

Still, the victims’ families have pushed for more revelations, and last year the FBI released a document detailing the FBI’s work to investigate alleged logistical support that a Saudi consular officer and a suspected Saudi intelligence agent in Los Angels provided at least two kidnappers

The 9/11 issue is just one of several criticisms of the LIV Golf series.

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Saudi money, blockbuster names and a unique format: everything you need to know about the LIV Golf series

Spearheaded by former World No. 1 Greg Norman, the team-based LIV series is backed by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and has pledged to award $250 million in total prize money. Tournaments are held over 54 holes, rather than the PGA Tour’s 72 holes, and there are no player cutoffs during tournament play.

The huge sums of money at stake and the less demanding requirements prompted a number of golfers, many in the twilight of their careers, to break away from the PGA Tour and join LIV, including six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, four. major champion Brooks Koepka and former World No. 1 Dustin Johnson.

LIV is expected to host six more events around the world in the coming months, including at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ, as well as in Boston, Chicago and Miami.

On June 10, a coalition of 9/11 families and survivors sent an open letter to several players competing in the LIV Golf Series, asking them to reconsider their participation.

Brett Eagleson, whose father died on 9/11, said at Thursday’s news conference that he plans to be in Bedminster next month to protest.

“An important message to these LIV golfers and to the Kingdom is that we’re not going anywhere. Every tournament is going to have to deal with us in larger numbers, more stories, from families,” Eagleson said. “We’re going to be in your face at every tournament that’s on American soil.”

A spokesperson for LIV Golf said in a statement: “We have great respect and sympathy for the families of anyone whose loved one was killed on September 11, 2001. The al Qaeda attack on the United States was a national tragedy. We continue to believe that Sports, including golf, are an important way of bringing about change in the world… Golf is a force for good that entertains and teaches the values ​​of fair play, competition and excellence through hard work” .

Why the Saudi-backed LIV is controversial

Saudi Arabia is one of several countries that have used the lure of sports to try to cover up other political concerns, a practice sometimes referred to as “sports laundering.”

Golfers have faced heavy criticism for choosing to accept the country’s money given its dismal human rights record.

Bin Salman was named in a US intelligence report as responsible for approving the operation that led to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, although he has denied involvement. Human rights groups have also criticized the country for carrying out mass executions and treating homosexuals.
Mickelson sought to address these issues in a controversial 2021 interview with author Alan Shipnuck for his book “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.”
PGA Tour commissioner announces higher prize money at some events in response to LIV Golf Series

Shipnuck quoted Mickelson as saying disparaging things about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and claiming that the kingdom killed Khashoggi. However, Mickelson also admitted that he would consider joining the league anyway because he gives golfers “influence” to change the way the PGA Tour operates.

He later apologized, saying his comments were “reckless.”
American political figures have faced similar criticism for working with Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden once vowed to make the country a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s killing, but earlier this month the White House said he plans to meet with Saudi officials, including bin Salman, in July.
Despite the criticism, LIV held its first tournament in London earlier this month. South African Charl Schwartzel won the inaugural individual stroke play competition, while Mickelson finished in 34th place.

Earlier this month, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan announced that all golfers who play in the breakaway series will no longer be eligible to play PGA Tour tournaments.

LIV released a statement in early June calling the PGA’s move “vindictive.”

“It is concerning that the Tour, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for golfers to play, is the entity that prevents golfers from playing,” the organization said. “Certainly this is not the last word on this subject. The era of free agency is just beginning and we are proud to have a full field of players joining us in London and beyond.”

Monahan also acknowledged last week that LIV poses a serious threat to the success of the PGA Tour.

“If this is an arms race and if the only weapons here are dollar bills, the PGA Tour can’t compete,” he said. “The PGA Tour, an American institution, cannot compete with a foreign monarchy that is spending billions of dollars in an attempt to buy golf.

“We welcome some good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi Golf League is not that. It is an irrational threat; one that doesn’t care about return on investment or the true growth of the game.”

CNN’s Wayne Sterling and Evan Perez contributed to this report.

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