I’m not a politician; I’m a golfer.
That has been the stock line this week from several top-ranked players who are competing in the European Tour’s inaugural Saudi International this week in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson offered renditions on the talking point, and world No. 2 Brooks Koepka declined altogether to get into defending his decision to take an undisclosed, yet assuredly large, sum of money to play in this first-year event.
Meanwhile, European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley has been fielding questions about this tournament’s existence for months now, dating back to the October murder of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist and columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi henchmen in their embassy on Turkish soil. The Canadian-born Pelley has toed over his dignity as best he believed possible given he was never walking away from a multi-year deal with a tournament boasting a $3.5 million purse. He’s been talking about monitoring the situation and working with partners and all kinds of gibberish that comes with defending the moral vacuum that allowed this deal in the first place.
To be plainly clear, the Saudi International not only shouldn’t be played this week, but the deal creating it never should have been struck in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s the long-standing comfort with the moral hazard on portions of the European Tour schedule that created the conditions for this deal to seem OK — until the high-profile case of an adopted Westerner’s murder reminded people of the terrible things Saudi Arabia does.
The European Tour has been going to the United Arab Emirates for 30 years, now boasting three stops in the alliance country. The whole season is geared toward the finale in Dubai, while the Dubai Desert Classic and Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship having been a source of competitive pride for years. The back-to-back weeks in the UAE have become the rare opportunity where the Euro Tour can puff out their chest and compare Official World Golf Ranking field ratings with the PGA Tour, sometimes favorably.
Each year, everyone associated with the tour seems to marvel at Dubai’s growth as analogous with that of the European Tour. However, the country’s stagnant human rights issues — mild as they may be for the Middle East — don’t get much play.
The Desert Swing also makes its way to Oman and Qatar. Qatar is rightfully admonished for its exploitative visa practices and lack of worker’s rights, often turning desperate international workers into indentured servants with little means of recourse against their brutish employers. Oman has similar issues with their migrant domestic workforce.
All four countries are monarchies, bringing inherent problems with self-expression and government criticism.
There’s Turkey, which has turned dramatically toward authoritarianism under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under his rule, Turkey has prosecuted journalists, silenced critics and has been accused of steering itself toward kleptocracy.
And China. China poses an enormous problem for golf.
Golf believes China is the saving frontier. The thinking goes: A country of 2 billion people that is (supposedly but not really) rapidly expanding should have at least a few golfers in it. All we have to do is develop them! However, Xi Jinping, China’s dictator for life, has commandeered and closed scores of golf courses that were illegally developed under prior governments while Communist Party officials looked the other way or took bribes that included membership to these courses. Xi has done this under the guise of a crackdown against excess and a call for a return to party ideals.
Despite a false start of sorts, the PGA Tour has managed to establish the PGA Tour China series as a feeder to the Web.com Tour and, ultimately, the PGA Tour. The European Challenge Tour, their equivalent of the Web.com Tour, has three tournaments in China, including the final two before the season finale in, you guessed it, the United Arab Emirates.
Then there’s the WGC-HSBC Champions, which offers a platform to the Chinese government for a star-studded field to tacitly endorse their human rights practices, including the persecution, constant surveillance and killings of Chinese Uighurs, a sect of millions of Muslims living in the country’s west. The government has infiltrated their culture in the hope of secularizing the people, including through re-education and labor camps, having minders literally living in Uighur homes to enforce Communist Party rules, as well disappearing and killing others as examples. And that’s just one example of the horrid human rights abuses the Chinese government often commits in plain sight without so much as a questioning word from golf.
And that brings us back to the response to the Saudi monarchy this week, which has been nothing from players or European Tour officials. The checks cash; play the tournament and avoid acknowledging the 800 lb. oil barrel in the room.
The Saudi monarchy has been spending like mad to bring sporting events to their kingdom in hopes of having world-class athletes participate and, by proxy, endorse their country as a totally fine place to do business that isn’t digging for dinosaur bones. From tennis to soccer to World Wrestling Entertainment, the Saudis have been cutting checks for any major sport or sport-adjacent extravaganza. Some haven’t taken the money, including UNICEF ambassador Paul Casey, who politely declined the offer on Instagram, and Tiger Woods, who reportedly turned down an appearance fee as large as the stated purse itself. Whether Woods did so because of some moral grounding or the reality of logistics, it’s unclear.
The cynical response to anyone who has raised these enormous issues is something to the effect of: If the European Tour had to care about the atrocities every hosting government committed, there’d be no European Tour. And that’s absolutely false. We can draw the line at a very clear place: when a government persecutes and kills its critics or a segment of society it arbitrarily deems unfit to live.
However, we are talking about countries that have state-run companies willing to write big checks for big appearance fees. HSBC has been willing to put their name and big money behind events in places — Abu Dhabi and China — where other multi-nationals might not be willing to do the same. So, look the other way.
The critic who finds rich any criticism coming from an American has a point. It’s not like the United States has done anything to punish Saudi Arabia for the Khashoggi murder. In fact, the Trump Administration has done the opposite, preserving the outlines of a military-contracting deal with American defense firms. The United States has uneasily worked with the Saudis for years, with a handful of air bases as the launching point for litany military strikes. If the American government is willing to look the other way while the Saudi government kills dissidents, persecutes the LGBTQ community and literally restricts the movement of women, why can’t a pro golf tour?
It’s that kind of relativism that’s pervasive in golf, on social and human rights issues big and small. Golf has moved at a glacial pace to welcome minorities, women and those who don’t pay in the proper tax bracket. Inching forward is interrupted by patting ourselves on the back for being so progressive.
I don’t expect every pro golfer to be aware of everything happening in every country in which they play. It’s not a requirement of the job. And I certainly don’t expect every pro golfer to share my views on how to deal with the ethical questions shoved in their face a half-dozen times per year. However, by not even being willing to openly acknowledge the real problems that come with bringing the highest echelon of the sport to places where horrible things are sanctioned by governments, golf is acting like everything is OK. It’s not.