A Moral Penalty Stroke: The PGA TOUR Needed to Step In and Make a Bold Statement on The Saudi International
While all the screaming and hollering was going on from the beer-bloated stands of the 16th hole at the Waste Management Phoenix Open the first few days in February, there were lots of grinding teeth behind the scenes for those who manage the sport.
Actually, the “grinding teeth” is an assumption. If the powers that be who run pro golf in this country weren’t grinding their teeth, pacing and sweating a lot, they ought to be ashamed.
To be clear, this isn’t about the frat-boy show in the Phoenix suburb. Sure, they drink a lot of beer. Sure, they turn out in numbers usually reserved for NFL games. And sure, they test the boundaries of good taste and golf etiquette by booing the players, who are people used to being treated with kid gloves and overdone reverence.
No, the heavy cloud hanging over PGA TOUR officials, led by commissioner Jay Monahan, was forming on the other side of the world — in Saudi Arabia, which was playing host to its first-ever major tour event, a European Tour offering called the Saudi International. Sadly, in the U.S., while some columnists weighed in on the issue, much of the golf-spectating and fan world missed what was going on amidst all that noise in Arizona.
Namely, what was going on was that a gathering of top U.S. TOUR players — including the top three in the world plus a contingent that represented 12 major titles — were helping the Saudis put lipstick on a pig by playing in its golf event. It was held in King Abdullah Economic City and played on the Royal Greens G&CC. The name conjures up wealth. The country flaunts it.
According to our own CIA, Saudi Arabia’s leaders gave orders for thugs to corner a Washington Post columnist in their embassy in Turkey on Oct. 2 of last year, killed him, butchered him, and denied it all. Jamal Khashoggi was a U.S. citizen who had written things that allegedly made the Saudi Crown Prince angry. So, he allegedly acted. In the U.S., you just call up the editor and threaten a lawsuit.
Against that background, and increasing international pressure to expose the Saudis for who and what they are, golfers named Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els, among others, showed up to play golf.
They had a choice. They could have said no. By saying yes, they implied that Saudi Arabia was an OK place, that their presence was as normal as the place they were playing. Think of it as a sort of symbolic whitewash. More colorfully put was the characterization on The Golf Channel by commentator Brandel Chamblee.
“By their participation,” Chamblee said, “the players are ventriloquists for the abhorrent, reprehensible Saudi regime.”
If you think Chamblee was overstating, take a look at the champions of understatement — or non-statement — the big guys who run the PGA TOUR. They didn’t stop it. Monahan made some statement about the players being “independent contractors” and about his main concern being for “their safety.”
We can happily report here that nobody was dismembered.
The Saudis purchased this American public-relations high-five by paying huge appearance fees, reportedly totaling $3.1 million, or just $400,000 less than the total purse. The PGA TOUR doesn’t allow appearance money, and correctly so. The European Tour does. There were reports that Tiger Woods had been offered $3.5 million, the same size as the purse, to show up and play. To his credit, Tiger said no. So did Paul Casey, which is where the story found its most traction.
Casey, who stayed that extra day for the Monday playoff he lost to Phil Mickelson at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, wasn’t preachy or sanctimonious. When asked about it, Casey merely said he had decided to “take a pass on this one.” Casey is an ambassador for UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). His golf bag carries the UNICEF insignia. He practiced what he preached.
It is hard to tell players to turn down great gobs of cash, even though all these guys already have great gobs of cash. It is also hard to not want to sit down somebody as bright and learned as Justin Rose and explain how naive he sounds when he rolls out the old “sports and politics don’t mix” routine — tell Colin Kaepernick that — and says, “I’m not a politician. I’m a golfer.”
How about, “I’m a golfer and a human being.”
It is not hard to tell PGA TOUR officials that they screwed up, that they should have drawn a line in the sand and told these guys, in light of current world circumstances, that they can’t go. Independent contractors or not, the students can’t run the school and the paperboys can’t run the paper.
It was First Lady Nancy Reagan who best crystallized the simplicity of decision-making in the 1980s, when she started a war on drug usage with the slogan, “Just Say No.”
You can look it up, Jay Monahan. ▪