The upstart LIV Golf Invitational Series, a Saudi-backed proposed competitor to the PGA Tour, continues to suffer setbacks, some external and some very much self-inflicted.
Earlier this week, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) indicated they would not give their players releases to play in LIV Golf's inaugural event early next month. On Wednesday, LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman threw gasoline on the fire by appearing to downplay the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying, per The Times, "we've all made mistakes."
Norman is attempting to frame LIV Golf as an entirely sport-related, non-political venture. But given that LIV Golf is backed by the Saudi government's Public Investment Fund, to the tune of several billion dollars pledged, critics are questioning how Norman, and many players from both legacy tours, could ally with a regime that has committed multiple ongoing human rights violations.
One of the most notable crimes: the killing of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and a Washington Post journalist who was kidnapped and dismembered in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Human rights organizations and intelligence services have indicated that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the PIF, signed off on the killing. Salman has denied that accusation but indicated he took "full responsibility" as the leader of the nation. That, apparently, was enough to satisfy Norman.
Pressed on the Khashoggi killing, Norman tried to brush off the question. “Everybody has owned up to it, right?" he said. "It has been spoken about, from what I’ve read, going on what you guys reported. Take ownership, no matter what it is. Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
More recently, Saudi Arabia put 81 individuals to death in a mass execution on March 12 that also drew international criticism. Norman sought to sidestep questions about that incident, as well.
“I got a lot of messages but quite honestly I look forward,” he said. “I don’t look back. I don’t look into the politics of things. I’m not going to get into the quagmire of whatever else happens in someone else’s world. I heard about it and just kept moving on.”
While Norman is moving on, human rights advocates and critics of the Saudi regime are not. Amnesty International took issue with longtime Ryder Cup star Lee Westwood defending his decision to play LIV events because of the vast sums of money involved.
“Lee Westwood is obviously entitled to his opinion about the degree to which sport and politics should mix, but with the Saudi authorities pumping huge amounts of money into golf and other sports precisely to sportswash their battered international image it’s clear that golf tournaments like this one are already political through and through," Amnesty International said in a statement.
“Riyadh’s new-found love of sports promotion has come at a time when the Saudi authorities have carried out mass executions, when numerous human rights defenders have been jailed in the Kingdom and when Saudi missiles are still raining down on civilians in Yemen.
“We would urge all golfers tempted to play in Saudi-bankrolled tournaments to consider how sportswashing works and how they might break its spell by speaking out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s persecuted human rights community will feel bitterly disappointed if well-paid golfing superstars take the LIV Golf cash but stay silent about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia."
Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson are among those who have sought releases to play in LIV Golf events. Mickelson's comments about Khashoggi's death, waving it away in service of his intention to wound the PGA Tour, triggered his current de facto exile.
“They’re scary motherf***ers to get involved with,” Mickelson told biographer Alan Shipnuck. “We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates."
Mickelson has not played since early February and has not made a public statement since later that month. He is still listed in the field for next week's PGA Championship, the tournament he won last year at age 50.
The first LIV Golf event is scheduled for June 9-11 at England's Centurion Club, with a purse of $4 million to the winner. The 2022 Masters, by contrast, paid $2.7 million to winner Scottie Scheffler.
Eight events in total are on LIV's 2022 schedule, finishing at the Trump National Doral in Miami in October. Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia committed an additional $2 billion to the venture, with the goal of expanding to 14 events in 2024 and 2025.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.