Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf gets a chilly reception in Oregon, its first stop in the United States.
This week, the series, which pays huge signings for players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, comes down to Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in the tiny North Plains, nestled in the rolling hills west of Portland.
But the North Plains mayor, as well as officials from surrounding towns, wrote to the club’s owner, Escalante Golf, with concern. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden speaks out against the tournament, and some members of the expensive club are also uncomfortable with the situation.
Opponents point to the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, including the murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But in Oregon, there is also anger about the… Death by hit and run of 15-year-old Fallon Smart in 2016.
Saudi student Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah was on trial for first degree murder when he removed a tracking device and disappeared. US authorities believe the Saudi government helped arrange a false passport and arranged for a private jet to travel back to Saudi Arabia. The case was featured on ’60 Minutes’.
“It’s wrong to keep quiet when Saudi Arabia tries to clean bloodstained hands, in the fight for Oregonians to get justice – Fallon Smart was murdered near our home in Southeast Portland, and the person charged with the crime charged, a hit-and-run death, based on all the evidence, was expelled from the country by the Saudis before he was put on trial,” Wyden said in an interview with The Associated Press.
There is also concern that the event could spark protests in North Plains, a city of just 3,400. Tickets to the event prohibit fans from displaying political signs.
“We are against this event because it is sponsored by a repressive government whose human rights violations have been documented. We refuse to support these abuses by allowing the Saudi-backed organization to play complicit in our backyard,” said a letter signed by North Plains Mayor Teri Lenahan and 10 other mayors of surrounding cities.
Wyden accuses the Saudi government of sportswashing.
“It’s just a page from the autocrats’ playbook covering up injustices by abusing athletics in hopes of normalizing their abuse,” he said.
The event has also put the members of Pumpkin Ridge in a difficult position. Some decided to leave the club during the tournament, but it’s unclear how many left.
“Many members are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place that they completely disagree with politically,” said Beaverton member Kevin Palmer. “But I also joined last year and put in $12,000, and if I leave, I don’t get any of that money back.”
Greg Norman is CEO of LIV Golf Investments and the face of a circuit that aspires to emulate the PGA Tour. The 48-man field in Portland will compete for $20 million in individual play prize money and $5 million in team play, featuring 12 teams. The teams will be announced on Tuesday after a draft.
Johnson, who had been the world No. 1 for longer than any player since Tiger Woods, and six-time Grand Champion Mickelson were among the first big names to compete. The Portland field has since added Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed, all great champions but none of the current top 20 players in the world rankings.
The PGA Tour has suspended every member who participated in the first LIV event because they had no conflicting event releases. Those in Portland will also be suspended when they put it on the tee.
The tour typically awards three such releases per year, just for tournaments abroad. It does not allow its members to participate in tournaments held in North America.
The Portland event will be held the same week as the John Deere Classic in Illinois.
“The PGA Tour, an American institution, cannot compete with a foreign monarchy that spends billions of dollars buying golf,” Commissioner Jay Monahan said last week. “We welcome good, healthy competition. The LIV Saudi golf league is not. It’s an irrational threat, one that doesn’t concern itself with the return on investment or the real growth of the game.”
The LIV tour will consist of eight events this year, five of which will be in the United States. After the stop in Portland, the tour heads to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.
Texas-based Escalante Golf, which owns Pumpkin Ridge and another track in the LIV series, did not respond to a request for comment.
“We believe we have a moral obligation to take a stand and speak out against this event to protect the people we serve,” the mayors wrote in their letter to the company. “While our local jurisdictions may not be able to prevent this event, we stand together to voice our concerns about the unwanted potential risks, visitors and harm this event could pose to our communities.”
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