Saudi Arabia golf league column

When some of the best golfers in the world traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2019 to play for huge appearance fees and purses at the new Saudi International tournament, the calculus was simple.

Any flack they got for taking the money of an oppressive regime with one the world’s worst records on human rights would be a one-day kerfuffle at most, easy enough to wave away by saying they were there to spread the goodwill of golf, not make a statement. Even for some multi-millionaires, the inconvenience was worth the paycheck.

“It’s my job to play golf,” Dustin Johnson told the Associated Press at the time. “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.”

Yes, Dustin, that slight disagreement over the premeditated murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“They’re showing us, ‘Hey, we’re a place just as beautiful as the rest of the world,’” Bryson DeChambeau told reporters. “So I think it’s amazing what Saudi Arabia and the European Tour are doing.”

Absolutely Bryson, a government that jails dissidents, bombs civilians and non-military targets in Yemen, systematically discriminates against women, doesn’t recognize religious freedom and subjects gay people to torture and imprisonment is just as beautiful as the rest of the world, isn’t it?

“I’m not going to get into it,” Brooks Koepka said, because why would he?

And then there’s Justin Rose, who dismissively responded, “Yeah, sure politics,” before expanding on his vast reservoir of vapidity by invoking — you’re not going to believe this — the world ranking points he could win.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” Rose said. “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.”

Ah, a good golf course. Thanks for clarifying.

But apparently, the greed and naiveté and willingness to whitewash Saudi Arabia’s awfulness on a once-a-year basis was only an appetizer for a much larger money grab that could reveal just how morally bankrupt some of these guys really are.

According to Golfweek, a new Saudi-backed series of tournaments will try to lure the world’s top players with golf legend Greg Norman expected to be announced as the commissioner. It’s unclear how many tournaments will be part of the series or where they’ll be played, but the goal is obvious.

By offering loads of guaranteed money to small, exclusive fields of top players, the Saudis are hoping to find enough easy marks on PGA Tour and the European Tour to disrupt the entire world of golf and buy normalization of the country’s image through sports.

It’s enough of a threat that professional golf’s sanctioning bodies need to react in unison and in the strongest possible terms. If the top American stars aren’t smart or ethically strong enough to resist the Saudi money, they deserve not only shame and scorn but severe sanctions including banishment from PGA Tour events, the major championships and future Ryder Cups.

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This isn’t just about building a competitor to the PGA Tour, a potentially worthy idea that has popped up every decade or so. If someone comes up with a better product that the majority of top players prefer, that’s just good old American capitalism.

But when the goal of a problematic foreign government is to weaponize American athletes as propaganda machines, we do not need to pretend that their rationale for taking the money is legitimate or acceptable.

And that message needs to be made clear to them by their fans, their sponsors and every organization that matters from the PGA Tour to Augusta National to the R&A to the USGA. If you’re going to attach your name to the government of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), you’re no longer welcome to play in the tournaments that matter in the Western, democratic world. You don’t get to do both. It’s one or the other.

Golf, to be fair, isn’t the only sport that has been pulled into Saudi Arabia’s so-called “sportswashing” scheme. In March, London-based human rights organization Grant Liberty issued a report that details $1.5 billion in spending to lure major international sporting events including boxing, MMA, soccer, wrestling, horse racing and the first Formula One race in Jeddah slated for December.

In perhaps the boldest move yet, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — directly under the control of MBS — recently completed a $408 million deal for control of Newcastle United, sparking a backlash in the United Kingdom. On Oct. 8, a government-controlled media account tweeted a photo of MBS next to the Newcastle United logo with the caption: “Whoever loves Mohammed bin Salman supports Newcastle.”

Any golfer taking about being part of this tour should be sure they’re comfortable with their image being similarly tied to MBS. Unlike a one-off trip to Saudi Arabia under the auspices of sporting diplomacy, it won’t be so easy to make that case when you’re his full-time employee.