Before it even arrives, golf’s rogue tour roils a small Oregon town

North Plains, Ore., Mayor Teri Lenahan, outside of the town's library.
North Plains, Ore., Mayor Teri Lenahan, outside of the town's library. (Leah Nash/For The Washington Post)

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Since the day she heard the golf tournament was coming to town, Teri Lenahan, the mayor of this 3,400-person city on Portland’s outskirts, has been worrying about things she never expected to worry about.

She worries about protesters who might show up in the streets, which are painted with murals of early 20th-century townspeople driving buggies and threshing grain. She worries about the outsize media attention, the crowds, what might happen if something goes wrong in a town whose biggest annual frenzy is the Elephant Garlic Festival.

And though she knows it’s far-fetched, Lenahan has even found herself worrying about whether Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman might touch down in a helicopter.

“It’s something in the back of my mind,” Lenahan said. “I don’t know if we need to expect that level of dignitaries or what that might mean. I was a Girl Scout — you need to be prepared.”

When LIV Golf, the upstart tour backed by bin Salman and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, tees off on American soil for the first time next week, it will be at Pumpkin Ridge, a picturesque country club in North Plains.

Bin Salman didn’t make an appearance at the first LIV tournament event in London. But Phil Mickelson, LIV’s most high-profile recruit, did tee off with the governor of the Saudi Public Investment fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, who is also the chairman of the English soccer club Newcastle United.

Pumpkin Ridge is not among golf’s most storied clubs; it has been two-plus decades since it hosted an important men’s tournament, the 1996 U.S. Amateur famously won by Tiger Woods. But when it hosts LIV and its growing roster of star golfers, who have eschewed the PGA Tour in favor of the staggering sums of money offered by the Saudi fund, Pumpkin Ridge and North Plains will become, like LIV itself, the divisive epicenter of an earthquake shaking golf.

More than a dozen Pumpkin Ridge members have quit in protest of LIV’s arrival, two people with knowledge of the club’s operations said. Some members have spoken out against the tournament, criticizing the company that owns the club, Texas-based Escalante Golf, for aligning itself with what they call “sportswashing” — attempts by the Saudi government to use sports to distract from a long record of alleged human rights violations. Bin Salman approved the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to an intelligence report released by the U.S. government.

Escalante is hosting two LIV tournaments this year. Two others will take place at properties owned by Donald Trump, whose family has maintained close ties to the Saudis.

“Escalante Golf has sold out our club’s honor, and to a certain extent I feel they’ve sold out a little bit of my honor, too,” said Andy McNiece, who sits on the club’s board of directors.

Another Pumpkin Ridge member, who said he had been among the club’s original members, put it more bluntly.

“You think differently in Texas — why don’t you host it there?” he said of Escalante, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about professional repercussions. “To me, the [Jamal] Khashoggi thing is extremely troubling. On principle, I could never support it for that reason.”

But there are plenty at Pumpkin Ridge who see LIV Golf differently, entranced by the roster of top golf names and the rare chance to see their club’s greens in the spotlight.

“There’s no question that the Saudis have a horrible record in terms of human rights abuses, and we can’t condone that at all,” said Gaylord Davis, a member and a longtime part-owner of Pumpkin Ridge until he sold the club to Escalante in 2015. “But when I put on my golf hat, I’m excited to see some of the best players in the world come out here to play golf.”

The dozen members who have quit since the tournament’s announcement have been offset by many more who joined, Davis pointed out. “You don’t hear people talk about that side of it,” he said.

Ryan McDonald, a director at Escalante, declined to be interviewed but said the club had welcomed 34 members since it announced it would host LIV. “The reaction we have received from many members has been positive in anticipation of the upcoming event,” McDonald said in a statement.

In a statement, Allen Barrett, a spokesperson for LIV, said the tournament was “pleased to see that our tournament has led to an increase in membership for Pumpkin Ridge, knowing most people welcome sports to their communities. We also understand and respect the views of those who do not support us.”

“Our tournament is about golf, and we look forward to playing it,” Barrett said.

Just as LIV Golf has dangled huge sums of money in front of experienced and upstart golfers, LIV’s deal with Escalante, the value of which not been disclosed, has paid for major upgrades to Pumpkin Ridge.

An elaborate network of stages and LIV-branded structures have sprung up almost overnight at Pumpkin Ridge, but there are also new roofs, floors and furniture in the clubhouses and pro shop that will last long after the tournament departs. The rich brown wood-plank ceilings of the Champions Grill have been painted stark, shiny black, and ornate red carpet has been replaced with dark gray laminate.

On a sunny afternoon this month, with the club’s public course already closed in preparation for the tournament, the clubhouse was sleepy, a contrast to the hubbub of construction equipment and work crews outside. On the television in a dining room, the Golf Channel showed a PGA player lambasting LIV.

To McNiece, the new coats of white and black shine with a kind of myopia. In meetings with members after the tournament was announced, he said, Escalante emphasized the upgrades it would be able to give the club.

“They didn’t indicate they were thinking about the morals at all,” McNiece said. “All I heard is, ‘We got a lot of money.’ ”

In North Plains, residents are divided even beyond the gates of Pumpkin Ridge. The town is less than 20 miles from liberal Portland but politically diverse, rural conservatives mixing with exurbanites occupying new developments. The town is ringed by several golf courses, and a golf-cart dealership sits on its 11-block-long Main Street. At Rogue Brew Pub and Eatery, golf plays on the television above the bar, and groups of golfers mingle with locals over beers.

“I’m for anything that makes golf more interesting,” said Jim Jenkins, of Milwaukie, who was fresh off a round of golf at another local course. “The [PGA] Tour is boring.”

Jenkins insists on having the Golf Channel, he said, but found the PGA Tour to be stagnant and found himself frustrated with the emotionlessness of top players. LIV Golf’s format, which includes teams drafted by captains, was at least something different. Jenkins was familiar with Saudi Arabia’s record, he said, but said Saudi money was everywhere in the United States.

Next to Jenkins at the pub table, one of his golf partners disagreed. “The human rights thing is a big deal to me,” he said. He and Jenkins, both military veterans, had been offered free tickets to LIV, he said, but he planned to stay home. Jenkins planned to go.

A few tables away, Bret Keller, an engineer in Portland, is just as unconcerned as Jenkins about the origins of the money. But he is worried about the future of the PGA Tour and the athletes, such as Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who have abandoned it. “I don’t like the way they jumped from the PGA just for the money,” Keller said. “I love golf. My feelings are about the money — it doesn’t matter to me who has it.”

What’s most unusual about LIV, though, in North Plains and outside of it, is the way it has drawn people in far outside of golf, such as Lenahan and a group of 10 other mayors from surrounding Washington County, who wrote an open letter to Escalante voicing their opposition to the tournament.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), meanwhile, has turned the tournament into a cudgel in his long campaign against documented abuses by the Saudi government, shaming LIV’s players for aligning themselves with bin Salman. The abuses are even more personal in Oregon, he said, which has seen documented cases of Saudi Arabian nationals fleeing justice after being accused of crimes in the state — including in the 2016 hit-and-run killing of a teenager, Fallon Smart, in Portland.

“The Saudis are just trying to wash bloodstained hands,” Wyden told The Post of LIV Golf. “I’ve played golf. If you’re playing in a tournament 20 miles away from where a Saudi national ran over a woman, I’d say ‘How would you feel if that was your daughter?’ ”

When she thinks of the coming chaos of the tournament in North Plains, Lenahan worries that something similar to Smart’s case might happen in her town. Smart’s accused killer, a Saudi student, disappeared before standing trial in Portland. “Knowing the history of the Saudi government, it’s become a real safety and security issue for me and my community,” Lenahan said.

There are other, smaller ways LIV Golf’s sudden arrival in North Plains is disrupting the town.

North Plains had planned to host a Fourth of July fireworks display at Pumpkin Ridge, an event it debuted last year. “People loved it,” the mayor said. But the hasty assembly of the LIV tournament, scheduled over the July Fourth weekend, is replacing the display. McDonald, the Escalante representative, said they never committed to hosting fireworks again and by the time the city asked the tournament had already been scheduled.

There will be an “old-fashioned parade,” Lenahan said, and a barbecue but no city-sponsored fireworks. Instead, LIV will put on its own fireworks display at the end of the tournament, with free tickets for children, veterans and health-care workers. It’s the Saudi involvement, Lenahan said, that makes her see it as something of a “slap in the face.”

Zion Rodgers, a North Plains resident, ignored the game of golf on the screen in front of him as he sat at Rogue Pub. He had heard about what was happening at Pumpkin Ridge and had just one thought: “I’d rather have fireworks than a golf tournament.”