How should we judge those who play in this week’s inaugural Saudi International?
Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Eddie Pepperell, Ian Poulter, Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Thomas Bjorn are among the “names” teeing it up in Saudi Arabia.
Should they be there? Should the European Tour even be staging the $3.5 million tournament amid international criticism over the House of Saud’s alleged role in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul?
You can bet the subject probably won’t come up this week at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City. But several players who will play in Saudi have gone on record to say that they are there for the golf, not to play politics.
Dustin Johnson told Associated Press reporter Doug Ferguson that he consulted with his corporate sponsors before accepting entry into the Saudi event.
“Obviously, that was a concern with our team,” Johnson said. “I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play. 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.”
After finishing 21 under Sunday to win the Farmers Insurance Open by two, Rose reiterated Johnson’s position of avoiding politics.
“There’s other reasons to go play it,” Rose said, adding that going to Saudi Arabia was a good fit for his schedule and it allows him to knock off a Euro Tour event to meet the requirement. “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.”
DeChambeau, who won the Euro Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday, told the AP before his victory that it was an opportunity to have a positive impact despite the complications of his trip to Saudi Arabia.
“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.”
European Tour officials have refused to discuss the matter since the 2019 schedule was released last October. Normally the Euro Tour makes a big deal about new tournaments in new countries, yet the Saudi International didn’t merit as much as a line when the tour issued its press release on the 2019 schedule.
Euro Tour chief executive Keith Pelley is arguably golf’s most effusive administrator, but he was tight-lipped when asked during last year’s Turkish Airlines Open to justify staging the Saudi tournament. Five times he batted back probing questions with these words: “The Saudi International is on our schedule.”
The Canadian was hardly going to upend a $3.5 million tournament when the deal was done last year, and to boycott the event probably would have meant a breach-of-contract court battle with the Saudis.
Most of the above “names” also are under contract to play. Don’t think the world’s top three players in Rose, Koepka and Johnson and the other notables will be in Saudi Arabia because of an overwhelming desire to visit. They will be there because the oil-rich nation is filling their pockets with wads of greenbacks in appearance fees.
Tiger Woods reportedly turned down more than $3 million to play. That money and more will head to the bank accounts of Rose and others. The world No. 1 reportedly received $1.5 million to play in last year’s BNI Indonesian Masters on the Asian Tour, double the $750,000 total purse. You can bet he will earn similar money this week just for showing up.
Koepka and Johnson will earn similar checks as Rose, with varying amounts paid to the supporting cast. While most players won’t command the same sums, it will be enough to put aside thoughts of a murdered journalist.
“People are always going to have different views on politics wherever you go,” Koepka, the topped-ranked American at No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, told the AP. “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.”
You also can bet these guys won’t be joining Amnesty International’s campaign to free Saudi citizen Israa al-Ghomgham . According to Amnesty International, she and four others face execution for taking part in a non-violent protest.
Taking golf tournaments to countries with a questionable history of human rights is nothing new. The Tour just played two tournaments in the United Arab Emirates, a country that outwardly seems extremely liberal. However, Amnesty International claims UAE authorities “arbitrarily restrict freedoms of expression and association, using criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws to detain, prosecute, convict and imprison government critics.” Dubai has been on the Euro Tour schedule since 1989, while Abu Dhabi began its Euro Tour association in 2006.
Qatar is another nation with a questionable record on human rights. Amnesty International, along with many media outlets, has focused on this nation’s treatment of migrant workers involved in preparations for the 2022 World Cup. The Qatar Masters has been part of the European Tour schedule since 1998.
Should sportsmen and women travel to countries that don’t apply the same basic values we in the West hold dear? Let’s ask the question another way: Would we turn down the chance to earn $1.5 million to turn up in Saudi Arabia for just a week?
Too bad the world is the way it is that we have to ask these questions in 2019. Gwk