GOLF

Controversial Saudi-backed golf tour is coming to Massachusetts this summer

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A controversial new golf tour with close ties to the Saudi government is set to take place in Bolton, Massachusetts later this year, putting the sleepy Worcester County town at the forefront of a growing controversy that combines geopolitics and major professional sports.

The International, a private club in Bolton, is set to host the fourth episode of the LIV Golf Invitational series from September 2-4, just over a month after the fledgling tour at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey. The International’s owner, Texas-based Escalante Golf, LLC, also owns Pumpkin Ridge, an Oregon club that will host LIV’s first US event June 30-July 2.

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While September’s event will be held in Bolton, LIV Golf’s website describes it as the LIV Golf Invitational Boston, a branding that suggests both Bolton’s relative obscurity and Boston’s status as a internationally renowned city.

LIV Golf, which is run by former golf star Greg Norman, is positioning itself as an alternative to the more established PGA Tour, which has dominated men’s professional golf for decades. The first LIV event, which kicks off at the Centurion Club in suburban London on June 9, recently announced a roster including Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and several other well-known players.

The new tour promises to “energize the game” with a mix of team and individual play, fewer holes, a loud environment and hugely lucrative prizes. But as its launch nears, LIV is also facing intense scrutiny and criticism for its ties to the Saudi regime.

The majority shareholder of LIV Golf Investments is the Saudi Public Investment Fund, chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince widely regarded as the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

A declassified US intelligence report last year concluded that Salman approved the operation that resulted in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. Kashoggi, a US resident with children American citizens, was killed after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2019 to obtain papers for his marriage. His body was then dismembered with a saw.

At a press conference in May in England, Norman, the CEO of LIV, appeared to play down Kashoggi’s murder, saying, “Listen, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them in the future. “

Norman was also dismissive when asked about Saudi Arabia’s recent mass execution of 81 men one day in March, saying: “I’ve had a lot of messages, but honestly I’m looking forward. forward, I don’t look back. I don’t look at the politics of things. He was equally flippant when asked about the Saudi government’s criminalization of the LGBT community, saying, “I don’t even know if I have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”

In February, the Fire Pit Collective, a golf website, published an account of an interview with Mickelson in which he expressed interest in participating in LIV events, but also described the Saudi regime as “scary motherfuckers to get involved”. with.”

“We know they killed Khashoggi and they have a horrible human rights record,” Mickelson said. “They execute people there because they are gay.

“Knowing all this, why would I even consider [participating]? Because this is a unique opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour works,” Mickelson continued. “[The PGA has] able to cope with manipulative, coercive and heavy-handed tactics because we players had no recourse.

Mickelson later apologized for his comments and claimed he had spoken off the record. This claim was disputed by Alan Shipnuck, the reporter who conducted the interview.

Ahmed Benchemsi, director of advocacy and communications for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told GBH News that LIV Golf and other high profile Saudi forays into professional sport, such as buying in 2021 from British Premier League football team Newcastle United, are part of a concerted effort to boost the kingdom’s image abroad.

“[Salman] is rolling out more and more entertainment events, sporting events,” Benchemsi said. “In itself, there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that while these large-scale events…are meant to show a progressive face of Saudi Arabia, they are also meant to whitewash – and somehow wash the sport away – Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a kingdom plagued by rights violations.

Since Salman became crown prince, Benchemsi said, Saudi security forces have arrested a wide range of individuals seen as potential threats, including Islamic clerics, public intellectuals, women’s rights advocates and members of the Royal family. Additionally, he noted, a Saudi-led coalition has continued an ongoing war in Yemen that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

“On one side you have the glitz and the glitz…everyone is happy, the champagne is flowing,” Benchemsi said. “On the other hand, [you have] this medieval and repressive regime. … For me, these are the two faces of Saudi Arabia now.

In the lead up to LIV’s launch, much of the media coverage criticized Norman and others for uncritically associating with the Saudis. In May, for example, a Sports Illustrated column by senior writer Michael Rosenberg began: “Blood money is still money, and that has always been the whole lure of the nascent golf tour of the Saudi government. Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson and their allies… want to cash in. They don’t care how they do it, and they get annoyed at people who do.

“The Saudis are happy to lose money because their interest does not generate profit,” Rosenberg added. “It’s sportwashing. That’s why they’re the ones funding it.

So far, however, the upcoming LIV Golf event and the controversy created by the new tour seem to have gone largely unnoticed in Bolton, a small town of around 5,000 whose vibe divides the difference between rural and suburban. .

On a recent drive through Bolton, no signage announcing the event was visible in the small town center or near the International, which is located at the western end of Bolton.

Bolton town administrator Don Lowe said the town was making logistical preparations for the September event, but did not take a position on the suitability – or lack thereof – of the international host of LIV Golf.

“The City of Bolton does not endorse or support the tournament itself,” Lowe said. “The municipality has not taken any official position on this subject. But when it comes to logistics, there are definitely… issues that we’re going to have to deal with. And we work with the right people, both internationally and senior executives on the LIV tour itself.

“We discussed things like safety, traffic flow, public safety issues in general,” Lowe added. “I believe they have set a cap of 7,500 attendees per day, and Bolton is a small town.”

Lowe also said that, in his view, it is not the city’s role to pass judgment on the LIV Tour or the controversy it created.

‘I think it’s fair to say that the City of Bolton does not feel able to tell a private company who they can and cannot do business with,’ he said. “And that’s really what it’s all about, when it comes to Escalante. They view this as a business proposition, and we wouldn’t try to dictate to a private company who they can and cannot legally do business with.

In an emailed statement, Democratic State Rep. Kate Hogan, whose district includes Bolton, said that while she does not know the specific details of the LIV event in Bolton, “I am aware of its main parameters and the controversy associated with it.Like many fans and citizens, I am generally concerned that the sport of golf accepts sponsorship from the Saudi government in light of its human rights abuses.

Democratic State Senator John Cronin, who also represents Bolton, and Escalante Golf declined to comment for this story.

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