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Decision to join ‘incredibly polarizing’ Saudi tour no gimme for golfers

Graeme McDowell calls out ‘reprehensible’ 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but believes golf can be ‘force of good’; rights groups accuse Saudis of ‘sportswashing’ violations

Graeme McDowell, of Northern Ireland, hits out of a bunker on the seventh hole during the second round of the RBC Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, April 15, 2022. (AP/Stephen B. Morton)
Graeme McDowell, of Northern Ireland, hits out of a bunker on the seventh hole during the second round of the RBC Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, April 15, 2022. (AP/Stephen B. Morton)

ST. ALBANS, England (AP) — Graeme McDowell accepts it is “incredibly polarizing” to join the Saudi-funded rebel golf tour. He even offered a reason why.

“Take the Khashoggi situation,” he said. “We all agree that’s reprehensible. Nobody is going to argue that fact.”

The Northern Irish golfer was referencing the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence services said they believe the killing of the US-based Saudi journalist came at the orders of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who heads the Public Investment Fund. The prince denies wrongdoing.

The Saudi sovereign wealth fund is providing the hundreds of millions of dollars in sign-on fees and prize money that is enticing players away from the established tours and jeopardizing their participation in the majors and Ryder Cup.

The tour is the latest branch of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to reposition itself as a backer of lavish sports events rather than one associated with human rights abuses, which rights groups call “sportswashing.”

McDowell is trying to avoid discussing the specifics of the country he is effectively working for.

American Dustin Johnson follows his ball at the 6th hole during the third round of the Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, at the Red Sea resort of King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia, February 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

“I really feel like golf is a force of good in the world — I just try to be a great role model to kids,” he said. “We are not politicians. I know you guys hate that expression, but we are really not, unfortunately. We are professional golfers.

“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 using the game of golf and the abilities that we have to help grow the sport and take them to where they want to be.”

How, though, McDowell was asked, is that journey helping women who are oppressed in Saudi Arabia, the LGBTQ individuals whose rights to live freely are criminalized, the migrant workers whose rights are violated, the victims of the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, or the 81 men who were executed by the kingdom in March?

“I wish I had the ability to be able to have that conversation with you,” McDowell said. “As golfers, if we tried to cure geopolitical situations in every country in the world that we play golf in, we wouldn’t play a lot of golf. It’s a really hard question to answer.

“We’re just here to focus on the golf and kind of what it does globally for the role models that these guys are.”

McDowell did most of the talking on Saudi rights issues, with two-time major winner Dustin Johnson responding earlier: “I would pretty much say the exact same thing. I’d agree with what Graeme said.”

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