Golfers, European Tour facing tough questions ahead of controversial event in Saudi Arabia
The implications of heading to such a controversial place could reverberate
There is no great way to put this: This week's Saudi International on the European Tour has already been a bit of a mess and is creating plenty of controversy as golfers are being pressured to pull out of the event. The reason is obvious as journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last October, the fallout from which has reverberated globally.
In November, the Washington Post reported that the CIA had concluded that Khashoggi's murder was "ordered" by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This came on top of all the other questionable human rights issues in the country in recent years.
Around that time, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal canceled a $2 million match in Saudi Arabia but blamed it on a surgery Nadal had on his ankle. There are obviously innumerable tentacles to something like this, and no shortage of questions, which playing the actual golf tournament this week will not quell.
Chief among them is whether bin Salman will show up at the event, a move that would cast even more sideways looks at the European Tour and the big-name players who remain committed to traveling overseas -- Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka among them -- for this inaugural event. (Tiger Woods, by the way, apparently.)
The European Tour hasn't backed down or wavered from its commitment to the Saudi International as part of its Middle East swing. At every turn, European Tour CEO Keith Pelley has swatted away suggestions that the tournament should or would be moved away from Saudi Arabia.
"We have an excellent relationship with the Middle East, and it's very important," Pelley told Golf Channel on Sunday. "Why it's important is we can't play anywhere in Europe this time of year. So the Middle East becomes very important to us."
That feels like a little bit of misdirection, and Pelley certainly bobbed and weaved his way through questions from Gary Williams of Golf Channel.
"Our main focus is on the safety and security of our players and staff," Pelley added. "Like many global companies who operate in Saudi Arabia on a daily basis, we monitored the situation. … Having looked at that -- and having done due diligence in terms of the safety and security -- we're now obviously moving forward and looking forward to this new chapter on the European Tour."
He was asked point blank whether he considered moving the event or pulling out of Saudi Arabia.
"As I said, we, like everybody else and every other business continue to monitor the situation of all the events we play in, and we are looking forward to the next week and playing in the very first event in Saudi for the European Tour," said Pelley.
Talk about a non-answer.
As for the golfers attending the event, most of them have gone the way of world No. 1 Justin Rose and simply thrown their hands up in the air and abstained from delving into the messy, complicated politics of it all.
"I'm not a politician, I'm a pro golfer," said Rose on Sunday. "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."
Others have given more voice to the situation, though.
"As I continue to face questions about my participation, I feel it is important to clarify that I will not be playing in next week's Saudi International event," wrote Paul Casey on Instagram. "Plus contrary to reports I had also never signed a contract to play. I hope this addresses any confusion. Thank you."
"This week throws up a not new conundrum for us then, that competition supersedes morality," wrote Eddie Pepperell on his blog. "If I don't show up, the field doesn't reduce a spot, somebody takes it. With over 7 billion people in the world, our futures might give us all an opportunity to choose between morality and survival. This isn't to say morality isn't important and should never be acted upon, but it is to say that there's a reality to the world that while we might all dislike, still exists."
The entire event and how it's played out honestly raises more questions than answers, as you can see. Pepperell, Casey and Rose are three of over 100 players who have to figure how to solve a complex puzzle made of money, ambition and morality. The European Tour has put the ball in their hands (whether you agree with what they did or not), and now their greatest assets are going to have to produce answers in what figures to be a strange, melancholy week in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia.
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