ST. ALBANS, England – The stars of the new Saudi-funded golf league on Tuesday tried to allay concerns about human rights abuses and pledged to accept hundreds of millions of dollars despite the risk of to be banned from long-running events.
After announcing he was leaving the PGA Tour to join the LIV Golf Series, Dustin Johnson dodged questions about the source of the $25 million prize money for each event from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. The first LIV Golf Invitational takes place outside London from Thursday.
Another former big winner – Graeme McDowell – was left at a press conference trying to publicly reconcile the rifts causing rifts in golf by signing for the rebel series which appears to be part of Saudi Arabia’s bid to reshape its image as a funder of lavish sporting events rather than one associated with human rights abuses.
The Northern Irish golfer, who won the US Open and the Ryder Cup in 2010, has raised the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as a matter of legitimate concern to join a series he agrees to to be “incredibly polarizing” for the sport.
“Take the Khashoggi situation,” he said. “We all agree that this is reprehensible. No one will dispute this fact.
US intelligence has said it believes the killing of the US-based Saudi journalist was on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who heads the Public Investment Fund. The prince denies any wrongdoing.
The fund provides hundreds of millions of dollars in registration fees and prize money that keep players away from established tours and jeopardize their participation in major tournaments and the Ryder Cup.
Human rights groups describe Saudi Arabia’s efforts as “sportswashing” its image.
McDowell tried to avoid discussing the specifics of the country he actually works for.
“I really feel like golf is a force for good in the world – I just try to be a great role model for the kids,” he said. “We are not politicians. I know you hate that expression, but unfortunately we really don’t. We are professional golfers.
“If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we’re proud to help them on that journey by using the game of golf and the abilities we have to help develop the sport and take them where they want to be.
However, McDowell was asked, does this trip help oppressed women in Saudi Arabia, LGBTQ people whose right to live freely is criminalized, migrant workers whose rights are violated, victims of the bombing from Yemen, or the 81 men executed by the kingdom in March?
“I wish I had the ability to have that conversation with you,” McDowell said. “As golfers, if we tried to address the geopolitical situations in every country in the world where we play golf, we wouldn’t play much golf. This is a really difficult question to answer.
“We’re just here to focus on golf and what it’s doing globally for the role models these guys are.”
McDowell has done most of the talking about Saudi rights issues, with two-time big winner Johnson answering earlier: “I would say pretty much the exact same thing. I agree with what Graeme said.
The series is overseen by Greg Norman with 54-hole tournaments and a shotgun start that sees each group start at the same time on different holes. The winner receives $4 million, while last place receives $120,000.
The golfers are taking more heat than some other athletes who have competed in Saudi Arabia. While sports including golf, football and Formula 1 have opted to hold events in Saudi Arabia without the stars having a say, LIV is a case of players opting out of existing structures to participate in the kingdom project. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are among the players to reject an approach from LIV.
“An opportunity like this comes up,” said McDowell, 42, “where you can play the last three or four years of your career, in a very financially lucrative environment. It would be crazy to walk away from that by as a businessman.
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, was the tournament organizer’s host of both press conferences involving players on Tuesday. He asked the golfers questions before the media had a chance.
Fleischer was asked about a tweet he posted in 2011 that talked about Saudi Arabia and implied the king was willing to “spend hundreds of billions not to be overthrown”. He said that comment was made “a long, long time ago”.