Pro golfers faced backlash throughout the weekend for their decision to participate in the Saudi International golf tournament, the European Tour’s first event in Saudi Arabia, as players sought to downplay any connection between their attendance and the country’s politics.
The killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record cast a pall over the event, which attracted the top three ranked players in the world: Justin Rose, who is British, and Americans Brooks Koepka and Dustin JohnsonDustin (Dusty) JohnsonTiger's crash trumps the news cycle, but is his career over? PGA star Phil Mickelson donates 0K to HBCU ahead of The Match Masters ratings plunge to lowest in decades MORE. Participants drew additional scrutiny as many accepted lucrative paydays to take part in the event, ESPN reported.
After the European Tour shared a photo on Twitter on Sunday morning of a joyous Johnson holding up a trophy after winning the Saudi International tournament, one user replied “I thought the trophy would be a golden bone saw,” a reference to the alleged use of the tool to dismember Khashoggi’s body.
“When is the LPGA event coming to Saudi Arabia? Oh wait….” another user replied, alluding to the kingdom’s restrictive laws toward women.
ESPN reported that the Saudi International was paid for by the Saudi government in an effort to help promote the country. Those who organized the event or who agreed to take part largely steered clear of discussing the controversy surrounding the country.
“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,” Johnson said, according to ESPN. “I'm going to play golf, not support them. I'm not a politician. I play golf."
Bryson DeChambeau praised the European Tour for "growing the game internationally" by hosting an event in Saudi Arabia.
Rose, the top-ranked player in the world heading into the weekend, cited "other reasons" besides politics to take part.
“It's a good field, there's going to be a lot of world ranking points to play for,” he said. “By all accounts, it's a good golf course and it will be an experience to experience Saudi Arabia."
Keith Pelley, the CEO of the European Tour, defended the tournament in an interview with the Golf Channel. He noted that the Middle East is an important partner for the sport, as it's one of the few regions with the climate for events this time of year.
The event drew some pushback from golf pros and analysts. Paul Casey, ranked 22nd in the world, clarified in a social media post that he had not signed a contract to play in Saudi Arabia. Casey is an ambassador for UNICEF.
Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have faced renewed scrutiny in recent months following Khashoggi's death. The dissident journalist was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in early October. His remains have not been found since.
The Saudi government initially denied knowledge of Khashoggi's whereabouts, and changed its story multiple times before announcing charges against more than a dozen people in the incident.
U.S. and international intelligence officials have indicated that the crown prince likely played a role in Khashoggi's death.