At LIV Golf, the Saudi controversy stops at the Pumpkin Ridge gate
Fans watch golfers on the practice range during day one of the LIV Golf Invitational Portland.
NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Fifteen-ish minutes before the shotgun start of LIV’s first foray onto U.S. soil,, a trio of retired Navy Seals employed American flag parachutes to plop down on Pumpkin Ridge’s 10th fairway. A few minutes earlier, a bald eagle glided just over the driving range, sparking an impromptu U-S-A! chant. (It is Fourth of July weekend, after all.) Four hours earlier and just down the road, family members of 9/11 victims fought back tears as they chastised 48 professional golfers for doing something they see as distinctly un-American: “getting in bed with the Saudis.”
Welcome is Professional Golf in 2022.
As Golf Digest detailed Wednesday, the tenor of discussion surrounding this event depends almost entirely on where you are. At golf courses around the Portland area, it’s a nuclear topic. People left their jobs at Pumpkin Ridge because of it. Portland is a deeply liberal town with a rebellious streak. It’s a curious place for a radioactive golf tour to hold its first tournament in America.
At that modest Veteran’s Park on Thursday morning, as the daughter of Terrance Aiken spoke of her father, who died amid crumbling steel and jet fuel on the 97th floor of the North Tower, the line between the Saudi Arabian government and Phil Mickelson could not have been more clear. Those family members could not believe the Saudis’ audacity to sportswash on American soil. They could not fathom why these impossibly talented golfers, who can earn money wherever and whenever, would disrespect the memory of their fathers and brothers. Especially Phil Mickelson.
“To see him kowtowing to the Saudi and saying that he doesn’t give a crap, he doesn’t give a crap about the struggles and the pain and the misery,” said Brett Eagelson, who was 15 when his father was murdered. “Three-thousand dead Americans. He doesn’t care because he got offered a paycheck? It’s just the worst form of greed."
Eagleson and 10 others wondered why none of the players have engaged their 9/11 justice group—not when a 9/11 coalition published an open letter imploring players to rethink their decisions, and not when they tried to get some face time at the players’ hotel this week. Security stepped in, quickly, to preserve the bubble of tranquility all LIVers are relishing this week.
Inside Pumpkin Ridge’s gates, and outside the media center, there has been hardly any talk of the Twin Towers, Mohammed bin Salman, Jamal Khashoggi or Fallon Smart. No one’s discussing sharia law’s treatment of Christians or homosexuals or women. The players have been clear in their justification for being here: I’m here to play golf and entertain the fans. The fans on-site—LIV wouldn’t disclose the number, but this writer’s very rough estimate has it somewhere in the 3,000 range, with more expected on the weekend, but not too much more, for LIV capped the number largely due to security concerns—wanted to watch the golf, and they wanted to be entertained. There were fathers and sons. Couples, young and old. Families with young children. And the relative scarcity of people made the viewing experience rather enjoyable. Everyone could see. Hardly any lines at concession stands and food trucks.
Perhaps it’s to be expected, given they paid to be here, but the general consensus among the galleries: We don’t condone Saudi Arabia, but we’re here to watch the golf.
Bill Caffey, who studied foreign service in college, understands the complex nature of U.S.-Saudi relations. He spoke of the Fallon Smart situation—when a Saudi national hit and killed a Portland teenager while speeding, then was whisked away to Saudi Arabia and never faced trial—and lamented the lack of an extradition treaty between the two nations. But that did not stop him from coming to Pumpkin Ridge.
“The U.S. has lots of allies that have different forms of government then we would prefer here," Caffey said. "We’ve protected them, and they’ve given us the free-flow of oil at market prices since World War II. But this is just a golf event. We’re not going to change the government in Saudi Arabia.”
Others were more blunt.
“Absolutely do not care,” says Tim Fey, 32, of the Saudi controversy. “I’m so happy that someone finally brought [elite] professionals to Oregon. Oregon! We have Bandon Dunes and we don’t have PGA pros coming out here for events. I’ve been to Waste Management, and that was awesome, and I’m like, bring that s–-t here!”
There was, however, one isolated incident. On his first hole of the day, Brooks Koepka missed a four-foot putt. A fan yelled “That’s what you get for playing here!” His playing partners and their caddies feared it would be the beginning of an onslaught of heckling. It was the only chirp they heard all day.
Cody Reynosa, 27, brought his 6-year-old sun out to enjoy an ideal summer day at the golf course. When asked if he considered any political or humans rights issues before coming, he looked legitimately taken aback. Uhhh, hell no.
“I’m here for the pro golf, that’s really all it is,” Reynosa says. He came to watch Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, and he bought a Hy Flyers hat in the merchandise tent, the team Mickelson captains.
“We had the women and the other tour, but something like this—this is up there,” Reynosa says. “They’re putting on a show for me, and I’m here to watch it. I don’t really care about politics and all that. I mean I do, but I don’t let it get involved with my fun. I mean, this is golf.”