When an appearance fee to play in Saudi Arabia is—and isn't—worth it

January 27, 2020
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 24:  Thomas Pieters of Belgium on the 10th hole during the pro-am event prior to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 24, 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Golf, compared to other professional sports, is mostly a controversy-free game. There are rules disputes, and slow play can really get on people’s nerves, but it’s nothing to get that worked up over.

But this Saudi Arabia tournament the past two years sure has gotten people going, hasn’t it?

I don’t usually follow player commitments—I have a hard enough time keeping track of my schedule—but whenever I saw a big name sign up for the Saudi International, I think, Here we go. A quick glance of Twitter proves that premonition right, with fans ripping the decision to shreds. And, without fail, the first comment is along the lines of, “Why would he possibly participate?”

Really? You don’t know why? Come on, brother. Yes, playing for a regime with human-rights issues is not a good look, especially after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. But here’s the answer that explains why anyone does anything in this life: It’s all about the money.

Growing the game, traveling to new spots, intrigued by the competition … all baloney. These guys are making the trip to pad their bank accounts— anywhere from $300,000 to $3 million for an appearance—and, perhaps, meet new sponsors. That players are given the finest accommodations, and their wives are pampered like princesses, doesn’t hurt. Any other justification of why they’re playing is a facade.

I hear you: Do players need the money? Don’t they realize the PR risk far outweighs the payday? Listen, I don’t care how financially secure you are, let’s see you turn down six figures, minimum, to play golf for four days. Easier said than done.

And aside from the week on social media, I didn’t see Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose or any of the stars who were in the Saudi field last year become less popular with fans in the United States. The “drama” is certainly not a factor when we’re on site.

One item grabs players’ attention, and that’s safety.

In truth, most players don’t care about the social or societal issues of a foreign country. Rory McIlroy said he turned down a Saudi invitation out of principle; good for him. Paul Casey did something similar. By no means am I saying anyone who doesn’t speak out is morally bankrupt; it’s just that the majority of players aren’t concerned with geopolitics. A good chunk of players are so isolated in what they do they couldn’t tell you what the fuss is about. There’s a reason Rose’s “I’m a golfer, not a politician” line became a refrain.

I understand why some fans are upset. I do. But they could be agitated anytime we leave the country. It’s not a perfect place out there, or even here, for that matter. Yet not once, out of all the players I’ve caddied for, has there been a discussion of skipping an overseas event, and the guaranteed check that comes with it, because of the complicated tapestry of foreign relations.

However, there is one item that grabs players’ attention, and that’s the safety of themselves and their families. Two or three times a year, there’s a conversation about a host city’s security and infrastructure, and we’ve passed on a dozen opportunities because we felt like it would be a hostile environment. Just a few years ago, a fellow caddie was shaken down by a Mexican police officer outside a tour stop. I believe the trumped-up charge was a seatbelt violation, and the cop threatened to take our boy to jail if he didn’t hand over his wallet.

On another trip, to Morocco, we were “greeted” by state militia, brandishing machine guns, at the airport, and they never left our side the entire week. We were told the soldiers were there for protection, but it was unclear who or what they were exactly protecting. No sum is worth that anxiety.

Now, when we do travel abroad, you better believe you are being watched. Your phone calls are being monitored, every lighthearted talk scrutinized. Lots of countries block what you can pull up on your computer. And it’s an unspoken agreement that you’re going to be on your best behavior, because you’re an extension of the tour, and to a greater degree, your country.

Though the catalyst for these international appearances is money, I do think good can come of it. Be it Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the fans are thrilled to see American tour players. Honestly, the crowds are more appreciative and kinder than they can be in the States. I’m not going to hit you over the head with a “grow the game” rallying cry, but at a basic level, I think we can agree we’d all like to see a bit more peace around the world. If golf can help build some bridges to that endgame, why not make these visits, right?

Especially since we’re not paying for the plane ticket.

—With Joel Beall