Maybe some good for the world can come out of the lavish new golf tour backed by Saudi Arabia, among the most repressive governments in the world in the eyes of human rights groups.
Maybe Greg Norman will use his perch to speak loudly about the Saudi’s crackdown on dissent.
Maybe Dustin Johnson will challenge the Saudis to create an open justice system that follows the rule of law.
Maybe Phil Mickelson will stand at a podium and demand the Saudis give a full accounting of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist brutally murdered by henchmen on orders, the Central Intelligence Agency has said, from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yes, the same Prince Mohammed now using the LIV Golf series to distract from the truth about his homeland.
Don’t hold your breath. None of the golfers who signed on to the LIV tour in exchange for staggering sums will speak up. They are too spineless and too compromised, working as they do for a tour funded by a government that tramples human rights.
Sure, in February, Mickelson had to turn tail and hide after admitting to the journalist Alan Shipnuck that the tour he was about to join was funded by “less than savory individuals.” And yes, in a wince-worthy news conference last week, Mickelson hailed LIV Golf in one breath and then, in another, said he did not condone “human rights violations.”
But Mickelson wasn’t about to take the risk of saying anything specific or truly challenging. He went for the one-inch putt and moved on. Don’t expect any of these golfers, or the others who have decided to jump aboard despite banishment from the PGA Tour, to use their fame as a bullhorn and their newfound ties to Saudi Arabia to effect change on the international stage.
If you want a potent example of someone who did that, look up Arthur Ashe, his controversial visits to play in apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s, and how he used his celebrity and gravitas to shame the racist regime while playing the South African Open.
There were plenty of activists who disagreed with Ashe’s decision to visit a country where the Black majority lived under the boot of racist whites. But right or wrong, he went, believing engagement would bring more reform than cutting South Africa off. He took with him the guts to confront power — right up until 1977, when he realized real change was not happening and vowed to never play again while the nation was ruled by apartheid.
As a frustrated Ashe wrote at the time: “What good is it, the grand scheme of human rights and dignity, to say to a Black South African, ‘You can run in this track meet,’ when he still can’t vote, own a home, make a decent living, attend a school, change his residence without government permission or even walk the streets without carrying that loathsome pass?”
After Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, he was asked if he wanted to meet anybody in the United States. His response: How about Arthur Ashe?
What matters most is that Ashe tried to make change. He spoke up. He made demands. He took an American news crew to South Africa to document what was really going on. These golfers won’t do anything close. They seem bent on silence while making a fortune stained by blood.
Fattening their already fattened wallets is the only concern. And in this regard, they appear to have made a prudent decision. Their rogue tour promises to host the richest tournaments in golf history. Mickelson is reportedly making $200 million to play in the LIV Golf series. Johnson is said to be earning $150 million, no matter how he fares.
The tour’s inaugural event, held in London, ended Saturday. Five events will be held in the United States this year. The South African Charl Schwartzel, 37, whose career peaked with a win at the Masters in 2011, finished first in both the individual and team competitions in the opening event, and took home $4.75 million.
In a news conference after the tournament, he deflected criticism of the Saudi-backed windfall, saying “where the money comes from” is not something he has ever considered in his career.
There are 4.75 million reasons he won’t start now.
“I think if I start digging everywhere where we played,” he added, “you could find fault in anything.”
Ah, the all-too-typical response. Imagine Ashe saying the same thing when visiting Schwartzel’s homeland at the height of its racist depravity. Cynics claim no one has the high ground, so it makes little sense to mix sports with politics and human rights — as, for instance, Wimbledon did this year when it barred Russian and Belarusian players because of their nations’ war against Ukraine.
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The new Saudi-financed, controversy-trailed LIV Golf series held its first event in June. But what is it? Who is playing it? What’s all the hubbub, and how can you watch it? Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Who is playing it? The 48 players in the initial LIV Golf event were not exactly a who’s who of golf, and many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away. But there were big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. On June 9, it suspended the 17 PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players.
How can I watch the new tour? Despite its high-profile golfers and its big-money backing, LIV Golf has not yet secured a broadcast rights agreement in the United States and will be shown on lesser-watched streaming services in much of the world. In the United States, this week’s tournament will be available via live streams on LIVGolf.com, YouTube and Facebook.
No one should accept that. Not when we’re talking about nations like Saudi Arabia, where “it is the strategy of the state” to use sports to hide its abusive rights record, said Adam Coogle, a deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.
“Sportswashing,” as it has come to be known, has long been an unfortunate fact of life. It’s why the Nazis hosted the 1936 Olympics, and China hosted the Summer Games in 2008 and the Winter Games in 2022. Vladimir V. Putin used athletic success to make Russia seem like a respectable member of the international community and a global force. Now we know the cost.
The Saudis are still new to this type of high-stakes mirage making, but under Prince Mohammed’s de facto rule since 2016, they’re making up for lost time with sports and entertainment. Hence the hosting of Formula 1 races and professional wrestling and soccer matches. Last year, they bought the Premier League soccer club Newcastle United. Now they’re turning to golf, a sport beloved by corporate kingpins and the political class. In other words, the kind of people whose decisions directly affect the desert kingdom.
Meantime, repression remains a fact of everyday Saudi Arabian life. Saudi citizens do not enjoy the right to free assembly and association. The legal system is not independent. Due process is a farce. “There’s a total lockdown of freedom of expression,” Coogle told me, speaking from Jordan last week over the phone. Saudis, he said, “are not allowed to voice one bit of criticism” toward the nation’s leadership.
To criticize, Coogle emphasized, is to risk detention, torture or death.
“With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform,” Khashoggi wrote in 2017. “He spoke of making our country more open and tolerant.”
Khashoggi added, “But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests.”
One year later, Khashoggi paid the ultimate price for speaking consistently against his nation’s leadership.
We must never forget Khashoggi. A United Nations report described how he was lured to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, drugged and cut into pieces. The report noted one Saudi official present that day called Khashoggi “the sacrificial animal.”
Think of that the next time you watch Michelson, Johnson, Schwartzel and all of their morally bankrupt colleagues hitting golf balls at the next LIV tournament, outside Portland, Ore. They are chasing obscene wealth while saying nothing that would offend their masters.