ST ALBANS, England : Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell conceded on Tuesday the contentious Saudi-backed LIV Invitational Series was ‘polarising’ but was proud to be part of the new event.
The controversial eight-event breakaway series starts just north of London on Thursday with 48 players competing for an eye-watering $25 million prize pot.
Despite the threat of sanctions from the PGA Tour, who along with the Europe-based DP World Tour have declined requests from members to be released to compete at Centurion, the 42-year-old McDowell said it would have been “crazy” to decline the chance to top up his bank account in the latter stages of his career.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is bankrolling the $255 million series, and while players spoke of new opportunities and exciting formats during Tuesday’s news conference at the Centurion Club, the elephant in the room remained accusations of Saudi ‘sportswashing’.
Critics say PIF, chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a vehicle for the country to improve its image in the face of criticism of its human rights record.
Former world number one Greg Norman, CEO of LIV Golf, recently attracted scorn by downplaying the 2018 killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, saying: “We’ve all made mistakes.”
A U.S. report last year said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the operation to kill or capture the Washington Post journalist.
The Saudi government has denied any involvement by the crown prince and dismissed the report’s findings.
Questioned on ethics of competing in the Saudi-backed series, McDowell said: “This has been incredibly polarising. I think we all agree up here. Take the Khashoggi situation. We all agreed that that was reprehensible.
“No one’s going to argue that fact. We’re golfers, and speaking personally, I really feel like golf is a force of good.
“We’re not politicians. I know you guys hate that expression. But, you know, if Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be, and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we are proud to help them on that journey.”
Pushed on whether he was effectively working for the Saudi Arabia PR machine, McDowell said: “I think as golfers, if we tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world and we play golf, we wouldn’t play a lot of golf.”
The sensitivity of the subject led to tension in the media room later when a journalist was overlooked while trying to ask a question.
On Monday six-times major winner Phil Mickelson became the highest-profile player to sign up to the series.
Mickelson has been linked to LIV Golf for months but began a self-imposed hiatus from the sport in February – even skipping his title defence at the PGA Championship – amid backlash over comments he made about the breakaway tour.
The 51-year-old’s public image took a hit when the author of an unauthorised biography on Mickelson released excerpts from the book in which the American golfer called the Saudis “scary” but said he was willing to look past their human rights records to gain leverage with the PGA Tour.
Mickelson, who has lost several sponsors since his comments surfaced, apologised again on Monday to those he offended.
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