Big Names, Big Money and a Big Pushback at LIV Golf’s Oregon Event

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — The Saudi government-backed LIV Golf Invitational series arrives in the United States on Thursday as it continues to roil a genteel sport with a slogan that promises, “Golf, but louder.” Except this is probably not the kind of noise its supporters had in mind.

There is vehement opposition by some to holding the three-day tournament at the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, about 20 miles northwest of Portland. The disapproval has come from politicians, a group of 9/11 survivors and family members, club members who have resigned in protest and at least one outspoken club board member. Critics have decried what they describe as Saudi Arabia’s attempt to use sports to soften the perception in the West of its grim human rights record.

Portland is the first of five LIV (a Roman numeral referring to the 54-hole format) tournaments to be held in the United States this year. The newly formed tour, with its lucrative prize money and eight-figure participation fees, has quickly become a threat to the long-established PGA Tour as marquee players such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka have joined the Saudi endeavor.

The Portland tournament will take place as local fury still simmers from the 2016 death of Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old high school student who was killed while crossing a Portland street by a driver traveling nearly 60 miles an hour. A Saudi community college student, facing felony charges of manslaughter and hit and run for Smart’s death, removed a tracking device and disappeared before trial, returning home apparently with the assistance of Saudi officials.

Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, has been insistently seeking justice for Smart and beseeching the White House to hold the Saudis more accountable. He has criticized the LIV golf tournament, which is backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, as an attempt to cleanse the country’s human rights reputation, a tactic known as sportswashing.

“No matter how much they cough up, they’re not going to be able to wash away” that reputation, Wyden said in an interview. Referring to Smart’s death, he added, “The Saudis could not have picked a more insulting and painful place to hold a golf tournament.”

Teri Lenahan, the mayor of tiny North Plains, population 3,440, has signed a letter with 10 other mayors from the area objecting to the LIV tournament, though they acknowledge they cannot stop it. Some members of Pumpkin Ridge have resigned in protest.

Some family members and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have planned a news conference for Thursday to discuss what they called the golfers’ “willing complicity” to take money from a country whose citizenry included 15 of the 19 hijackers.

Critics of the tournament note that American intelligence officials concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, ordered the killing and dismemberment of the dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018; that 81 men were executed in Saudi Arabia in a single day in March, calling into question the fairness of its criminal justice system; and that Saudi women did not receive permission to drive until 2018 after a longstanding ban and still must receive permission from a male relative to make many decisions in their lives.

“I really felt it was a moral obligation to speak out and say we cannot support this golf tournament because of where the funds are coming from to support it,” Lenahan said in an interview. “The issue is the Saudi government publicly executed people, oppresses women and considers them second-class citizens. And they killed a journalist and dismembered him. It’s disgusting.”

Escalante Golf, a Texas firm that owns the Pumpkin Ridge course, did not respond to requests for comment.

The LIV tournament will go on, playing out against a backdrop of realpolitik. As a candidate, President Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the murder of Khashoggi. But Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia in mid-July, seeking, among other things, relief from the oil-rich kingdom for spiking gasoline prices in the United States.

In truth, the issue of human rights frequently takes a back seat to financial and marketing concerns in the realm of international sports. China, for instance, was named to host the Winter Olympics in 2022 and the Summer Games in 2008. And the N.B.A. does robust business there. A recent ESPN report said the league’s principal team owners have more than $10 billion invested in China.

The creation of the LIV tour has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money.

Speaking generally, Wyden, who briefly played college basketball, said the Saudi approach is “really part of an autocratic playbook.” He continued: “They go in and try to buy everybody off, buy their silence,” figuring that “something somebody is going to be upset about on Tuesday, everybody’s going to forget about on Thursday.”

The Portland tournament will feature $25 million in prize money, including $5 million for team play and $4 million to the individual winner.

At news conferences here, golfers acknowledged the financial attraction of the LIV tour. And they said they respected various opinions about their involvement. Some played down human rights issues, while others, like Sergio García and Lee Westwood, said they felt golf could be a force for good.

“If we can help any country or any place in the world, that’s what we’re going to do,” García said.

Pat Perez, a journeyman American golfer, said candidly that playing golf and being able to spend less time on the road while participating in the LIV series was his “only concern.”

“I understand the topics you’re trying to bring up, and they’re horrible events, but I’m here to play golf,” Perez said. “That’s my job.”

Koepka, formerly the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer and a two-time winner of both the U.S. Open and the P.G.A. Championship, called Perez’s remarks “pretty much spot on,” saying, “We’re here to play golf.”

Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion, was asked whether he was troubled by the source of the prize money at LIV events. DeChambeau said that he believed golf “is a force for good, and I think as time goes on, hopefully people will see the good that they are doing and what they’re trying to accomplish, rather than looking at the bad that’s happened before.” He continued, “I think moving on from that is important.”

Andy McNiece, a member of the Pumpkin Ridge board of directors, which acts strictly in an advisory capacity, has not been able to move on.

Escalante Golf, the club owner, seems interested only in money in hosting the LIV tournament, McNiece said in an interview. As he has told other reporters, McNiece said Escalante sold out its own honor, Pumpkin Ridge’s honor and, “in a strange way, they have sold out some of my honor, and I don’t like it.”

He said he plans to visit the course to see the tournament setup but will not watch the competition. He has given away his four tickets for each of the three days to others. That way, McNiece said, “LIV doesn’t get any money out of them going.”

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