Paul Casey, a UNICEF ambassador, spoke out against the event last January and has taken the strongest public stance against its playing. Last fall, Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a $3.3 million appearance fee, the largest of his career, and declined his invitation to the event (although Woods’ agent did not comment on why he had declined the invitation). Others who are in attendance are reportedly receiving appearance fees over $1 million. By contrast, Rory McIlroy recently said he was skipping this stretch of Euro Tour events for a particular reason.
“I’m getting stick [for not playing more in Europe], but I’m turning down millions of dollars [by not going] to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia because I want to do the right thing,” he told Golf Digest’s John Huggan. “I want to play on the courses I want to play at. I don’t think I should get stick for that because I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
What players said last year
The most viral moment that came from last year’s Saudi event was Sergio Garcia’s DQ after a series of temper tantrums. But the controversy around the event put the heat on several players to defend their appearances. Mostly, they dodged the questions.
“Yeah, sure, politics. I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” then-world No. 1 Justin Rose said at the time. “There’s other reasons to go play it. It’s a good field, there’s going to be a lot of world ranking points to play for, by all accounts it’s a good golf course and it will be an experience to experience Saudi Arabia.”
Johnson told the AP before the event that he’d weighed the country’s political landscape in deciding to go. “Obviously, that was a concern with our team,” he said. “I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play. It’s my job to play golf. Unfortunately, it’s in a part of the world where most people don’t agree with what happened, and I definitely don’t support anything like that. I’m going to play golf, not support them.
“I’m not a politician. I play golf.”
DeChambeau was effusive in his praise for the event. “What the European Tour is doing for the game of golf is beyond my expectations…they’re growing the game internationally, especially in a place like Saudi Arabia it’s fantastic to see the world opening up a little bit to them,” he said. “I think it’s amazing what Saudi Arabia is doing and what the European Tour is doing.”
Koepka didn’t want to comment. “I’m not going to get into it,” he said.
Eddie Pepperell played in the event, though he admitted conflicting feelings in a blog post.
Perhaps the bluntest criticism came from Brandel Chamblee.
“To turn a blind eye to the butchering of a media member in some way euphemises the egregious atrocity that not only took place with the Jamal Khashoggi murder but what goes on there all the time,” Chamblee said on the Golf Channel. “By participating, [the players] are ventriloquists for this abhorrent, reprehensible regime.
“I cannot imagine what economic incentive it would take to get me to go to a place that is so egregiously on the wrong side of human rights. I don’t think they fully understand what they are doing. I don’t understand it from an economic point of view, I don’t understand it from a business point of view, and I don’t understand it from a moral point of view. They are legitimizing and enriching the rulers of this regime. I won’t even watch it on the TV. They should not be there.”
But Pelley made it clear he thought the criticism was unwarranted. “It was the right decision for our tour,” he told Reuters. “We will be back in Saudi and we’ll continue to grow that event. We believe our role will help the evolution of the country.”
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