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The Saudi Golf Tour is a blatant ‘sportswash’

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Phil Mickelson and Asian Tour CEO Cho Minn Thant. (Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images/Getty Images).

From the 9th to the 11th of June, LIV Golf organized its first tournament, at the Centurion Club, on the outskirts of London. The winner was Charl Schwartzel, the South African star (who won the 2011 Masters).

LIV Golf? Yes, also known as “the Saudi Golf Tour”. It is financed by the PIF, the public investment fund or sovereign wealth fund, of the Saudi government. The fund’s chairman is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, who effectively functions as the country’s dictator. The CEO of the new tour is Greg Norman, the veteran Australian golfer, also known as the Great White Shark.

What does “LIV” mean? It is not an acronym. It is a Roman numeral, alluding to the fact that the circuit tournaments will be played in three rounds, or 54 holes. Traditional tournaments, like those on the PGA Tour, are four rounds or 72 holes.

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These details aside, the Saudi government is engaged in “sports laundering.” This is the practice by which bad actors try to clear their reputations through participation in sports. The Chinese are master sports washers, as they have shown in their Olympics, and the Saudis are pretty good at it too. As well as their golf league, they own a Premier League football club, Newcastle.

In its inaugural season, the Saudi Golf League will have eight tournaments, two of them on courses owned by former President Donald Trump: his club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and his club in Miami. The PGA Tour is not very happy with the new league and has made the players choose: “You can play with us or with them, but not with both.”

What is the attraction of the Saudi Golf League for players? Moolah, lots of moolah. The purse for the initial tournament at the Centurion Club was $25 million. The concurrent event on the PGA Tour, the Canadian Open, had a comparatively paltry $8.7 million purse. But that’s not the big draw for gamers.

No, the big draw is that they get guaranteed money from the Saudis: money just for showing up, just for participating. There is no “cut”, or elimination from the tournament, in these 54-hole LIV Golf. You get a good chunk of change no matter how well you play.

If you’re really big, big name, really hot, you get a lot of money. Phil Mickelson will receive $200 million to join the new league. Dustin Johnson, who until recently was the No. 1 player in the world, will receive $125 million.

There were 42 players in the first tournament. Many of them were golfers of a certain age, from the other side of the hill, with their best earning years behind them. Examples of such players are Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. Others, however, are in their prime, like Johnson. He will soon be joined on tour by Bryson DeChambeau, in his prime, and a huge star in the game.

The biggest star of them all, Tiger Woods, declined to make the jump from the PGA Tour to the Saudi. He turned down close to a billion dollars from the Saudis. “Breakingly huge,” is the way Greg Norman put it. “We’re talking high nine figures,” he said of the deal Woods turned down. Jack Nicklaus, who was Woods before Woods, so to speak, was also offered a deal. According to Nicklaus himself, that agreement would have brought him “more than 100 million dollars.” All that money to play, at 82 years old? No, essentially having Norman’s job.

Rory McIlroy, the star from Northern Ireland, has stayed on the PGA Tour. “I don’t see the value in tarnishing a reputation for extra millions,” he said. Jon Rahm, the great Spanish, has done the same. “I’m not doing this for the money,” he said. “They throw numbers at you, and that’s supposed to impress people. I’m in this game for the love of golf and for the love of the game and to become a champion.”

All very altruistic. But arguably McIlroy and Rahm can afford to turn down guaranteed money. Other players cannot resist the temptation. “I need to do what’s best for myself and my family” is a common line.

In a press conference before the inaugural tournament, two veteran players, Lee Westwood (49) and Ian Poulter (46), were asked if they would play in a tournament organized by Vladimir Putin, if the money was right. None would comment.

Greg Norman was asked about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. (Khashoggi, you may remember, was the journalist and dissident who was tortured, killed, and then hacked to pieces with a bone saw in October 2018. US intelligence determined the killing was ordered by Mohammed bin Salman.) Norman responded, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them in the future.”

Michaelson has been very honest about the saudis—in comments to a writer who claimed, after they were published, they were supposed to be off the record. “It’s scary to get involved with motherfuckers,” Mickelson said. “We know that Khashoggi was killed and they have a horrible human rights record. They execute people there for being gay.” He went on to say that he wanted to use the Saudi tour as leverage against the PGA tour, to effect the changes he felt were desirable.

When his comments came to light, much of the world fell on him. His long-time sponsor, KPMG, the accounting giant, dropped him. By his Machiavellian designs? Because of his amorality towards the Saudis? KPMG has three offices in Saudi Arabia. Mickelson’s real crime, surely, was to have been indiscreet with the truth.

Personally, I am in favor of competition. I believe in markets, even golf tours. I am antitrust. But I choke on the Saudi aspect. If you’ll excuse me, the more you know, the more you know about the Saudis and their practices, the less you can enjoy a Saudi golf league, even with lovable rascals like Mickelson in it.

Over the years, I’ve written of many Saudis political prisoners, who are tortured, sometimes to death. I have interviewed several relatives – wives, brothers, sisters – who are campaigning for the release of their loved ones. They do so at considerable risk to themselves, of course. The Saudi government does not take human rights campaigns well. And he doesn’t hesitate to target people on foreign soil, not to mention Saudi soil.

Perhaps I could mention a case.

last month i interviewed Areej al-Sadhan, at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway. His brother, Abdulrahman, is a political prisoner in Saudi Arabia. The Sadhans grew up between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Abdulrahman went to the University of Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont, California, graduating in 2013. He then went to Saudi Arabia to start a career. A compassionate fellow, he joined the Red Crescent (as the Red Cross is known in Muslim-majority countries).

On Twitter, Abdulrahman made some criticisms of the government. He is a defender of freedom, democracy and human rights. The government, not so much. He tweeted him anonymously, but his cover was blown and he was kidnapped from his office. He then “disappeared”, unable to contact his family for two years.

But the family received reports from relatives of other political prisoners. Abdulrahman was being tortured, obviously, that’s what the Saudi authorities do. They were subjecting him to the usual repertoire: electric shocks; sleep deprivation; foot suspension; beatings. But they added a twist. As they crushed the prisoner’s hand, they taunted, “Is this the one you tweet with?”

In a secret and sham trial, in April 2021, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan was sentenced to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban. The government hates that its victims are in a position to tell their stories.

Many people are cynical about human rights, often under the guise of being worldly or realistic. “It’s a big bad world out there,” they say. “I can’t follow the fall of every sparrow.” In early 2017, Bill O’Reilly told the new president, Donald Trump, “Putin is a killer.” The president replied: “There are many murderers. We have many killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?

In a recent interview, Greg Norman made a similar comment. When asked about Saudi Arabia and its horrors, he said: “Every country has a cross to bear.”

After the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump was asked who should be held accountable. The answered, “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place.” Later, speaking with Bob Woodward, Trump said, “I saved his ass”, referring to Mohammed bin Salman. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone.”

Next month, President Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia, hat in hand, as the United States suffers from oil shortages.

Democracies often need to have relationships, even alliances, with dictatorships. We could talk about the US-Saudi alliance in another piece (or book or series of books). But what about individuals? Jared Kushner’s private equity firm reportedly has $2.5 billion, $2 billion of which comes from the Saudis. Is that person not in a position to get their money from other sources? Less unpleasant?

Elon Musk is the richest man in the world. Does he really have to open a new Tesla showroom and office in China’s Xinjiang region, like he did earlier this year? Xinjiang is where the Chinese government has herded the Uyghur people into concentration camps. The US State Department has called China’s persecution of the Uyghurs a genocide.

I am in favor of making money. But do golfers really have to make money off the Saudis? None of them have ever been in danger of going to the bread line that I know of.

In my experience, people care about human rights or they don’t. (Some care about them selectively, depending on the perpetrators and the victims.) I often get the chance to quote a Lyle Lovett song: “It may not be a big deal to you, but it’s a big deal to me.”

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor at National Reviewmember of the National Review Institute and music critic of The new criteria.

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