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Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka confirm return to controversial Saudi event

October 8, 2019

Two of the world’s top three golfers are headed back to a controversial European Tour event in Saudi Arabia. Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson are committed to the 2020 Saudi International, to be held in January at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City.

The return of Johnson, the defending champion, and Koepka, the world No. 1, is huge news for the event, which debuted last January to a star-studded field that also included Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and others.

“I really enjoyed my trip to Saudi Arabia last year and my game certainly suited the layout at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club,” Johnson said in a release.

“I have very good memories from the week and look forward to defending my title.

“It’s great to see how Golf Saudi has strengthened its commitment to create a world-class golf event and plans to grow golf in the region are in full swing. It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

Koepka, who finished T57 last year, also released a statement on his appearance.

“I’m excited to be returning to Saudi Arabia, after an enjoyable visit last year,” he said. “The golf course is one of the best I’ve played in the region, with incredible scenery, including some breathtaking views of the Red Sea.

“The event is an opportunity to showcase the work being done to grow the game of golf in the Kingdom, which was evidenced by the enthusiastic fans last year. It is great to be involved with the initiative and I look forward to seeing the progress Golf Saudi has made in the past year.”

The par-3 16th overlooks the Red Sea and is Royal Greens's signature hole.
The par-3 16th overlooks the Red Sea and is Royal Greens's signature hole.

The controversy behind the Saudi International

Host course Royal Greens was officially opened in 2018 after years of planning and became the first Saudi golf community of its kind. The event, with its $3.5 million purse, was one of six Euro Tour events to be played on the Arabian Peninsula last season. European Tour executive director Keith Pelley said a seventh could be added in the future.

Plenty of international golf tournaments take place in countries with dubious human rights records, of course. But the Saudi event came under particularly intense scrutiny last year because it fell just months after the October killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had spoken out against Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington Post columns. Khashoggi, a resident of the United States who had traveled to Turkey, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul after agreeing to meet there.

Turkish officials as well as intelligence agencies from around the world (including those from the United States) concurred that the crown prince was likely responsible for ordering the killing and dismembering of Khashoggi. As a result, golfers were criticized for accepting Saudi money to appear and speak on behalf of their government.

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,” 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.

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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