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Media hounds golfers leaving PGA Tour for Saudi Arabia-backed LIV

Dustin Johnson is one of several golfers who have decided to leave the PGA Tour for LIV Golf, leading to some heavy questioning by media members.

Jennifer Bubel
Media hounds golfers leaving PGA Tour for Saudi Arabia-backed LIV

The controversial LIV Invitational Series starts near London on Thursday. It’s a breakaway series with eight events and 48 players competing for $25 million. Several golfers, including big name Dustin Johnson, have dropped out of the PGA Tour in order to play in the Saudi-backed LIV series, leading to criticism from the media.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is bankrolling the $255 million series. If you haven’t heard the term “sportswashing”, you probably will soon regarding this series. It refers to an individual or group using a sport to improve their poor reputation by hosting an event. It can be used as a way to take the attention away from poor human rights and corrupt government practices. When asked about the choice to leave the PGA Tour for LIV, Dustin Johnson and several others said they were excited to participate in something new and different. The media was not sold on that idea.

Graeme McDowell, amongst those golfers who are resigning their PGA Tour membership for the opportunity to play the LIV series, said he’s proud to be a part of the event.

If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we’re proud to help them on that journey, using the game of golf and the abilities that we have to help grow the sport and take them to where they want to be,” said McDowell.

At that comment, a journalist asked McDowell a question that made everyone sit in silence for a long moment before letting out some awkward laughs and deep breaths:

“How is that journey helping the women oppressed in Saudi Arabia, the migrant groups, their rights violated, the LGBTQ individuals who are criminalized, the families of the 81 men who were executed in March, and those being bombed in Yemen?”

McDowell did not know how to respond to that question, saying only that he did not have the ability to have that conversation and that if golfers “tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world that we play golf in, we wouldn’t play a lot of golf.”

Phil Mickelson became the highest-profile player to resign his PGA membership and join the LIV series on Monday. His reputation was already under fire when excerpts from an unauthorized biography on him was released, in which he called Saudis “scary”, but would be willing to ignore their poor human rights record in order to gain leverage with the PGA Tour. He lost several sponsors, but will participate in the event.

The citizens of Saudi Arabia have been victims of torture, travel bans, government hacking of social media accounts, intrusive surveillance and invasion of privacy, mass arrests, and detention without charge. The US intelligence community linked Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have turned down generous offers to promote Saudi tourism and make appearances in the country, golfers are content to tune out the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia in lieu of extra cash and a new and “exciting” opportunity.