The Waste Management Phoenix Open is among the most iconic events on the PGA Tour’s schedule. But when it comes to star power, the event won’t even be the top-billed desert-based golf tournament that week. On Monday, Phil Mickelson became the latest star to announce his commitment to the controversial 2020 Saudi International. As a result, he’ll skip out on the Waste Management for the first time since his college days at Arizona State 30 years ago.
Players have taken an onslaught of criticism for taking seven-figure appearance fees from a Saudi government with a dubious human rights record. While golfers have a long history of following the money wherever it leads, last year’s tournament came just months after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had spoken out against Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington Post columns.
Still, the criticism hasn’t felt like much of a dissuasion. Last month, defending champion Dustin Johnson and World No. 1 Brooks Koepka confirmed they would return to the event for a second consecutive year. Patrick Reed will be there, as will Shane Lowry and Sergio Garcia — although Garcia won’t be getting his appearance fee after a temper tantrum at Royal Greens last year.
Mickelson and U.S. Presidents Cupper Tony Finau were the latest to commit on Monday in statements reported in the Saudi Gazette.
“I am really looking forward to playing in Saudi Arabia in January,” said Mickelson. “I watched Dustin win the title last year and thought the course looked like an interesting challenge. Having so many talented players on show also made it look like a much more established tournament than one in its inaugural year. 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.”
The comments echoed many similar “grow-the-game” sentiments expressed by other players, though they’re somewhat less expected from the outspoken Mickelson.
Finau added a statement of his own. “I’ve always believed that to be considered a world-class player, you must compete in premier tournaments around the world,” he said. “Playing in Saudi Arabia for the first time will be a great experience, and I’m looking forward to competing against what is already an exceptionally strong field, on what I have learned is a great golf course.”
That golf course is Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, the “crown jewel” of the country’s new development, King Abdullah Economic City. The tournament kicks off Jan. 30.
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 Khashoggi, a resident of the United States who had traveled to Turkey and 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,” then-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.
Eddie Pepperell played in the event, though he admitted conflicting feelings in a blog post.
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.”
To receive GOLF’s all-new newsletters, subscribe for free here.