LIV Golf’s first US event was set to begin Thursday, with a group of survivors and families who lost loved ones in the September 11 terror attacks planning to gather at a nearby park to speak out against the Saudi Arabia-funded tour.
Brett Eagleson was 15 years old when he lost his father in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Nearly 3,000 people were killed on that day in 2001.
“We want the golfers to know who they’re getting in bed with, who they’re doing business with,” Eagleson said. “Any golfer that chooses to go play for the LIV tournament should have to listen to the family members and look us in the eye, and explain to us why they’re taking the Saudi money and why they’re playing in this tournament. And we want the ability to educate the golfers on what we know about the Saudi role on 9/11.”
Eagleson, now 36, is among those criticizing the LIV tournament and its connection to a regime that has flouted human rights. All but four of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudi citizens, and the Saudi kingdom was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaida and mastermind of the attack.
The LIV Golf Invitational starts Thursday at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, about 20 miles west of downtown Portland. But well before it arrived in tiny North Plains, the city’s mayor and those from surrounding cities wrote the Texas-based owner of the club to protest the event, saying it didn’t align with the community’s values.
US senator Ron Wyden called the event “sportswashing” to distract from human rights abuses. But the anger has landed even closer to home following the hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart in 2016.
Saudi student Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah was facing a trial on first-degree murder charges when he removed a tracking device and vanished. US authorities believe the Saudi government helped arrange for a fake passport and provided a private jet for travel back to Saudi Arabia. The case was featured on 60 Minutes.
“It’s wrong to be silent when Saudi Arabia tries to cleanse blood-stained hands, in the fight for Oregonians to get justice – Fallon Smart was killed very close to our house in southeast Portland, and the person charged with the crime, a hit-and-run death, was, based on all the evidence, whisked out of the country by the Saudis before he stood for trial,” Wyden said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Additionally, North Plains mayor Teri Lenahan and 10 other mayors from surrounding cities signed a letter decrying the competition.
“We oppose this event because it is being sponsored by a repressive government whose human rights abuses are documented,” it read. “We refuse to support these abuses by complicitly allowing the Saudi-backed organization to play in our backyard.”
The Portland stop is the second of eight LIV Golf events this year. The families of the September 11 victims and the survivors also spoke out against the inaugural event outside London earlier this month.
In addition to Phil Mickelson, fellow majors winners Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau have also joined the tour. Mickelson did not speak to reporters before the Oregon tournament.
Koepka, who recently joined LIV Golf after initially denouncing it, downplayed the concerns about the Saudi funding.
“They’re allowed to have their opinions. You know, we’ve heard it. I think everybody has. It’s been brought up,” said Koepka, a former world No 1 and four-time majors champion. “But look, like we said, our only job is to go play golf, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to grow the game.”
Part of LIV Golf’s allure is the money. In addition to signing bonuses, the 48-man field will compete for a $20m purse, with an additional $5m prize fund for a team competition. Charl Schwartzel won the London event (and team portion) and made $4.75m.
LIV tournaments are played over 54 holes with no cut, and even the last-place finisher gets $120,000. Organizers promise exciting events they say will attract new fans.
The PGA Tour has responded to LIV Golf’s challenge by suspending every active member who competed in the first LIV event. Those who play in Oregon will also be suspended unless they resign their tour memberships.
The PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic takes place in Illinois this week.