This week the European Tour is debuting a new event in a new market, with four of the top five players in the world and recent major champs Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson all scheduled to compete.
What should be cause for celebration, however, has instead elicited uncomfortable questions about the tournament host, and whether the world's best golfers should be there at all.
Last spring European Tour CEO Keith Pelley announced a three-year partnership with Saudi Arabia that would bring golf to the Middle Eastern country. "We are very excited to be taking the first steps toward bringing professional golf to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time and I must thank His Royal Majesty, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for his vision in making this happen," Pelley said in March. Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Paul Casey were highlighted as early commits; Pelley would name drop Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka in the ensuing months as participants.
But the tournament has been complicated by matters that have transpired since. Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who lived in Virginia and was a critic of the Saudi government, was brutally assassinated—intelligence officials believe his body was drained of blood, cut in parts and dissolved in acid—at the country's ministry in Istanbul in October. After initially denying its role in Khashoggi's killing, Saudi Arabia has taken responsibility for his execution, with the Saudi attorney general announcing the murder was premeditated. Turkish officials and the United States intelligence community have asserted with "high confidence" that Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing.
Khashoggi's murder has put other Saudi Arabia human-rights issues into light, putting the European Tour, Pelley and players in a precarious position.
"We have heard some of the criticism of the region. Obviously, freedom of speech is far more available now based on social media," Pelley said at the Turkish Airlines Open. "Like many global companies we monitor situations like this. I can simply say that the Saudi International is on our schedule for 2019. I really have nothing more to add than that. The Middle East is very important to the European Tour.”
Players have likewise tried to avoid the subject. In December, Golf Digest reached out to a number of early entries, asking if Khashoggi's murder had made them re-think their participation. Only Paul Casey's agent responded, saying the Englishman had withdrawn due to a scheduling change. Casey would later clarify in a statement, "As I continue to face questions about my participation, I feel it is important to clarify that I will not be playing in next week’s Saudi International event. Plus, contrary to reports, I had also never signed a contract to play. I hope this addresses any confusion.”
In recent weeks, Rose, Johnson, Koepka and DeChambeau have faced the same inquiries at various events.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” Rose emphatically said following his victory at Torrey Pines. “There’s other reasons to go play it. It’s a good field, there’s going to be a lot of world ranking points to play for, by all accounts it’s a good golf course and it will be an experience to experience Saudi Arabia.”
Johnson echoed similar sentiments to the Associated Press' Doug Ferguson.
“I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play,” Johnson said in Hawaii this January. “It’s my job to play golf. Unfortunately, it’s in a part of the world where most people don’t agree with what happened, and I definitely don’t support anything like that. I’m going to play golf, not support them.
“I’m not a politician. I play golf.”
Added Koepka: “People are always going to have different views on politics wherever you go. All these places, there’s a bit of conflict if you want to get into it. I’m not going to get into it. It’s going to be an unbelievable field of golf there. Hopefully, you can spread some goodwill through golf when you’re there.”
Adding to the controversy is the fact that many of the players are getting million-dollar appearance fees by Saudi organizers. When asked if it was hard to play in the Middle East with the PGA Tour's new condensed schedule, Johnson replied, “I can think of a few [million] reasons.” Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a $3 million offer, although it's unclear if this was in response to Khashoggi or schedule conflicts.
The heat was turned up this weekend by the Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, who took a passionate, fiery shot at the players.
“To turn a blind eye to the butchering of a media member in some way euphemizes the egregious atrocity that not only took place with the Jamal Khashoggi murder but what goes on there all the time,” Chamblee said. “It is a PR stunt… Non-participation—and I applaud Paul Casey—in some marginal way makes a statement about human rights. By participating, [the players] are ventriloquists for this abhorrent, reprehensible regime.
“I cannot imagine what economic incentive it would take to get me to go to a place that is so egregiously on the wrong side of human rights. I don’t think they fully understand what they are doing. I don’t understand it from an economic point of view, I don’t understand it from a business point of view, and I don’t understand it from a moral point of view. They are legitimizing and enriching the rulers of this regime. I won't even watch it on the TV. They should not be there.”
The thorny union of entertainment and politics has already materialized in Saudi Arabia. The WWE received harsh criticism for hosting a pay-per-view wrestling event in Riyadh a month after the Khashoggi incident. “Moving forward with Crown Jewel in Saudi Arabia was an incredibly tough decision, given that heinous act,” said Stephanie McMahon, the chief business officer of the WWE. “But, at the end of the day, it is a business decision and, like a lot of other American companies, we decided that we're going to move forward with the event.” John Cena and Daniel Bryan, two of the companies more popular faces, boycotted the show.
Tennis talents Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were scheduled for a lucrative exhibition, also in Riyadh, on Dec. 22. As of early November, both were still committed to the match. “It's unfortunate that we are both drawn into this right now,” Djokovic said at the Paris Masters. “I'm aware of what's happening, and it's sad, of course. I've been always trying to be very professional and respectful towards people that I have commitments with.” However, the event was called off on November 9 when Nadal underwent ankle surgery.
As Padraig Harrington pointed out last fall, golf is not foreign to these situations.
“I've played a lot of golf in different countries and if you started to get down to the nitty gritty at times you'd go 'Well there have been questionable places we've gone to,'” Harrington said. “But on the other side you are opening up society in those countries and helping. This is a situation that obviously has to be monitored and looked at and is certainly not something that is taken lightly. Let's hope it's a step forward rather than backwards.”
For his part, DeChambeau is taking a similar mindset, hoping his participation will bring about some good.
“I think any time we’re trying to grow the game and expose the game in a positive way, that’s what we’re trying to do,” DeChambeau said. “I don’t think it’s a bad decision as long as they want us there. That’s what I’ve heard—they want us there. And they want to have a little bit more exposure in the game of golf. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”