(Reuters) - Four of the world’s five best golfers will compete in the European Tour’s new desert destination event in Saudi Arabia, which starts on Thursday, but the tournament has already thrown up uncomfortable questions for the sport.
European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley announced a three-year partnership with the kingdom in 2018 aimed at expanding the boundaries of golf in the Middle East.
But the $3.5 million event, which will be staged in King Abdullah Economic City, has split opinion in the golfing world. The Saudi regime is under intense international criticism after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October.
The kingdom has also been trying to shake off its ultra-conservative image, but the reform push has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrests of women’s rights activists, clerics and intellectuals.
English golfer Paul Casey confirmed last week that he would skip the event because of Saudi Arabia’s “human rights violations”.
Tiger Woods, a 14-times major winner and one of the sport’s biggest names, also turned down the biggest potential overseas paycheck of his career to skip the tournament, according to media reports.
Casey went public about his decision to skip the event last week.
“As I continue to face questions about my participation, I feel it’s important to clarify I will not be playing in next week’s Saudi International event,” he said on Instagram.
“Contrary to reports, I had also never signed a contract to play. I hope this addresses any confusion.”
World number one Justin Rose and American trio Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, however, will appear at the event. They are set to collect huge appearance fees for teeing off at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club.
The players have avoided questions on the kingdom’s human rights record. Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee called them “ventriloquists for an abhorrent regime”.
“Politically ,I get why you have to capitulate to Saudi Arabia and maybe from a business standpoint even,” said Chamblee, a former player on the U.S. PGA Tour.
“But a more definitive personal rebuke can be shown to the PR stunt of this regime by not participating, by refusing to participate, because your participation in some way enriches this regime.”
After winning the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego on Sunday to consolidate his place at the top of the rankings, Rose defended his decision to play.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” the 38-year-old Englishman 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.”
Away from the geopolitical and ethical ramifications of playing in the tournament, last week’s Dubai Desert Classic showed DeChambeau could be a strong contender.
He shot 24 under par over four days in Dubai to win his first title outside the United States and his fifth since the start of 2018 — more than any other player.
DeChambeau, a physics graduate who has earned the nickname “mad scientist” and famously plays with a set of single-length irons, believes his game is peaking at the right time.
“We’ve got a better understanding of how rough shots come out, of how bunker shots come out, of how putts break... all these little things we’ve accumulated are adding up, and... it’s kind of like a domino effect,” he said.
Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru, editing by Larry King