In the insular world of professional golf, a player’s decision to enter one event or skip another amounts to minor news. Here’s Phil Mickelson, for instance, opening his 2022 in the annual Tournament of Champions on the Hawaiian island of Maui. A refreshing change and another star in the field against the gorgeous backdrop of the Pacific. So soothing.
Next month, though, there will be two distinct camps of players making choices that both matter and reflect their values. One group will play in the PGA Tour’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a tournament that started as a clambake hosted by the crooner Bing Crosby. Another will fly halfway around the globe to play in the Saudi International, a tournament sanctioned by the Asia Tour and sponsored by a murderous regime.
The stars who assemble in Saudi Arabia — and it’s currently a group that includes Mickelson, the six-time major champion, as well as Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio García — are doing so for the paychecks, which will reportedly be enormous just for showing up. There’s no disguising the fact that it’s blood money.
Follow along. It’s not that difficult. In October, former world No. 1 Greg Norman was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, an entity that created a “strategic partnership” with the Asian Tour to sponsor 10 tournaments in 2022 and pump $200 million into the circuit over the next decade. The first is the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, to be held Feb. 3-6 at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The primary investor in Norman’s group is the Public Investment Fund, which is essentially the financial arm of the Saudi government, a regime run by authoritarian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Here’s Norman, in a November interview with Golf Digest within days of his announcement, immediately trying to distance the PIF from the brutalities inflicted by bin Salman.
“[The PIF is] obviously a commercial operation,” Norman said. “They’re very autonomous. They make investment decisions all around the world. They’ve invested in major U.S. corporations because of commercial reasons. They invested in LIV Golf Investments for a commercial opportunity. They’re passionate about the game of golf.”
He’s a self-serving snake-oil salesman but worse. Don’t trust him. Rather, listen to Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a nonprofit that promotes democracy and human rights throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“The notion that the PIF is some independent financial authority that isn’t used to carry out murders and assassinations at the beck and call of Mohammed bin Salman is just patently untrue,” Whitson said by phone. “He does and has been using the PIF as a fig leaf, as a cover, as an intermediate step between his face on things and Saudi Arabia’s face on things.”
The golfers who show up at the Saudi International will say they’re there as independent contractors trying to “grow the game” internationally. How magnanimous. What they’re doing is taking millions of dollars from a regime that has kept alive an inexplicable civil war in Yemen for nearly seven years with, as Whitson said, “no military strategy or military gains, achieving only the starvation and destruction of a neighboring country.” These golfers will smile and shake hands with officials from a regime that, until recently, didn’t allow women to drive or open a bank account or rent an apartment or obtain a medical procedure without the consent of a male guardian.
“The women there now, I’ve been so impressed,” Norman told Golf Digest. “You walk into a restaurant and there are women. They’re not wearing burkas. They’re out playing golf.”
All’s just peachy then, right? He’s not alone. Here’s Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion, with the kind of pretzel logic you will hear from the guys who choose to play in the Saudi International.
“It’s one of those things where I love to travel and I wanted to travel somewhere else,” Watson said last month at the QBE Shootout in Florida. “And Saudi Arabia, they’re trying to change. They started with women’s golf, started supporting the women’s golf, and then they started supporting men’s golf. There’s women’s tournaments already that they sponsor. Trying to grow the game.”
Whitson allows that bin Salman has acquiesced to enormous international pressure and granted women some basic human rights. But this is calculated, nothing more. Bin Salman needed to modernize Saudi policies toward women if he hoped to do business with the West. His motives are economic, not altruistic.
“I support that kind of opening to the globe,” Whitson said. “But not if it’s used to shield the horrible brutality that this — I don’t even want to call it a government — that this one-man operation has exercised not only against his own citizens but against the millions of people of Yemen.”
The golfers who turn up in Saudi Arabia will no doubt say they are independent contractors free to make their own choices. Fair enough. Rory McIlroy, the four-time major champion from Northern Ireland, is making his own choice, too. McIlroy has said repeatedly that he would not play in Saudi Arabia for any price. In 2019, he told the Golf Channel, “There’s a morality to it.” What a concept.
To anyone who doubts that, remember the origination of DAWN, the organization Whitson, a former executive at Human Rights Watch, now leads. The group was founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident who became a columnist for The Washington Post in 2017.
Khashoggi was a thoughtful and relentless critic of bin Salman and the Saudi government. In October 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for his impending marriage. He was murdered and most likely dismembered. His body has never been returned to his family. The CIA concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing.
That murder should hang over the field at the Saudi International. As should the senseless war in Yemen, which the United Nations estimated had caused 377,000 deaths by the end of 2021. As should the hit squad bin Salman allegedly sent to Canada for the attempted murder of a former Saudi intelligence official. As should the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, prominent women’s rights advocates have remained in Saudi jails since 2018 merely for their advocacy.
The Saudi International is just a bit piece in bin Salman’s attempt to use international sport to help distract from his abhorrent record. He has invested in Formula One auto racing. He has invested in English Premier League soccer by buying a majority stake in Newcastle. Chess, snooker, horse racing, you name it. He has proved adept at the practice the human rights group Grant Liberty calls “sportswashing.”
Don’t sportswash this fact: The golfers who play in the Saudi International are making a choice, and it’s a choice to take thinly laundered money from a man who orders his dissenters murdered. A month from now, take note of their names. Their participation should be more than minor news.