LIV debuts in Oregon amid criticism over Saudi funding
NORTHERN PLAINS, Oregon.
The second event of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour kicked off on Thursday, angering a group of families who lost loved ones on 9/11 and want the Saudi government to account for the terror attacks .
About 10 family members and survivors spoke at a small park honoring veterans on the tiny northern plains, home to Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
“This event is nothing more than a group of very talented athletes who seem to have turned their backs on the crime of murder,” said survivor Tim Frolich, who was injured in the collapse of the World Trade Towers Center.
The LIV Golf series, funded by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, made its first stop on American soil this week after debuting this month outside London.
Carlos Ortiz took the lead on Thursday with a 5-under 67. Dustin Johnson, the winner of the 2020 Masters, was a shot back. Pat Perez, Brenden Grace and Hideto Tadihara were two shots off the lead.
“You have to get off to a good start and obviously stick with it, because there’s not really any slack,” Perez said of the 54-hole format. “Each hit, I think, means a little more.”
The upstart series, led by CEO Greg Norman, aims to challenge the PGA Tour and has lured players with big signing bonuses and rich purses. But critics call the tour a “sportswashing” attempt to distract from human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including the 2018 killing of US journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Locally, opponents point to the 2016 hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart. The Saudi national accused in the case cut off a surveillance device shortly before his trial and disappeared. US officials believe he was taken home by the Saudi government.
And then there are the 9/11 families, who reached out to some of the individual golfers involved in the tour but didn’t get a hearing. The group produced a commercial that aired on local television.
“These golfers sleeping with the Saudis, they should know what they’re doing. Shame on them. And golfers who say it’s just a game of golf: shame on them,” said Brett Eagleson, the leader of the 9/11 Justice group, who lost his father at the World Trade Center.”I invite them to live with the pain in our eyes, to listen to our stories and to walk in our place, to listen to what we have to say on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
At Pumpkin Ridge, there was a noticeable police and security presence, including officers at the front gate. There were rumors of a designated protest zone in one of the parking lots, but no one knew where it was. Tickets for the event warned fans that they could not display political signs.
Phil Mickelson, a six-time major winner and one of the best draws on the tour, had one of the biggest galleries on opening day. He was playing in a group with Charl Schwartzel, who lost his ball on his first drive of the day. Fans along the fairway said they thought he landed in a tree.
“In this area, there’s not much chance of seeing these guys in person,” said onlooker Will Knowles. “I stay out of politics.”
Since the event took place over two courses, it was difficult to get an idea of the size of the crowd and LIV Golf did not disclose attendance figures.
For golfers, part of the appeal of LIV Golf is the money. Along with significant signing bonuses, the 48-man squad are competing for a $20 million prize purse, with an additional $5 million prize pool for a tag team competition. Schwartzel won the London event (and the tag team part) and won $4.75 million.
There is no cut and even last place earns a salary of $120,000. The organizers are promising exciting events which they say will attract new fans: with a shotgun start and Rihanna screaming from a huge sound system near the green, the tournament had a different vibe indeed.
In addition to Mickelson, who shot a 75, fellow Majors winners Johnson, Brooks Koepka (70) and Bryson DeChambeau (72) have also joined LIV – which rhymes with “give” – and is playing Roman numerals for 54.
The PGA Tour responded to LIV Golf’s challenge by suspending all active members who participated in the first LIV event. Those playing in Oregon will also be suspended unless they resign from their tour membership.
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