Rory McIlroy has turned down what would have been his biggest appearance fee to play in Saudi Arabia next year, amid the continuing international outcry over the staging of major sports events in the country.
It is understood that McIlroy, the world No 2, could not be tempted by a $2.5 million (£1.92 m) cheque to play in the second Saudi International in February.
An insider said: “It doesn’t matter what they’d offered, Rory was going to say no anyway.”
After being rejected by McIlroy, the organisers apparently went to Phil Mickelson, and the five-time major champion agreed to tee it up for a similar fee, despite having to withdraw from that week’s Phoenix Open, a PGA Tour tournament he has not missed for 30 years.
McIlroy’s rebuff has emerged a few days before the controversial world heavyweight championship bout in Riyadh between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jnr. Critics insist the kingdom authorities are attempting to “sportswash” their oppression of women’s rights and ethnic minority rights.
The European Tour last year came under heavy criticism for adding the Saudi International to its schedule and going ahead with the event, despite the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi a few months previously. The Washington Post writer, who was living in the United States at the time, was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
McIlroy has travelled to such countries as China and the United Arab Emirates, yet it is believed he deemed Saudi Arabia to be an excursion too far – even for a fee that would dwarf anything he has received for an official overseas tournament. Sources say that he was first approached to play last year, but that the riches dangled were not nearly as great.
However, as Telegraph Sport exclusively revealed at the time, Tiger Woods was offered $3.5m, which would have been his most lucrative appearance fee, before opting against it. Woods confirmed on Tuesday that he was again approached this year, but defended those who decided to go.
In contrast, England’s Paul Casey spelt out exactly why he snubbed Saudi early this year. “There were a lot of questions,” Casey said. “Do I want to go to Saudi? That was the main question. There are a lot of places in the world that I have played and continue to go, which you could question … some human rights violations that governments have committed … I thought I’d sit this one out.”
Mickelson, however, has taken to social media to justify joining defending champion Dustin Johnson and world No 1 Brooks Koepka at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City. The official prize fund is $3.5 million, which is estimated to be quarter of the fees being paid to the golf stars, who include Open champion Shane Lowry.
“After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I’m excited to play and see a place in the world I’ve never been,” Mickelson said. “I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be OK.
“I’m excited to experience this for the first time … I have enjoyed my previous visits to the Middle East and am looking forward to playing in a new country and doing my bit to grow the game in the kingdom.”
It is fair to say that when the 49-year-old revealed his intentions eyebrows disappeared under golf visors in the Phoenix Open offices. The tournament has held a special place in Mickelson’s heart. He has won it on three occasions and honed his game at Scottsdale TPC while a member of the Arizona State University team.
“Given that I turn 50 this year, there’s a good chance I’ve played my last Phoenix Open,” Mickelson tweeted. “We’ll see.”