It was two decades ago that Tiger and Earl Woods walked into Nelson Mandela’s dining room in between rounds at the ‘Million Dollar Challenge’ exhibition event. Four years after the end of the apartheid, Woods’ attendance, albeit aided by a large appearance fee, was advertised as a symbol of a new South Africa.
It is the same time-honoured protocol being pushed by the European Tour this week after becoming the latest sport to submerge itself in Saudi Arabia’s rebrand.
A new, and lucrative, frontier of the circuit’s ‘desert-swing’ now declared open for business thanks to the “vision” of Mohamed bin Salman, according to the Tour’s chief executive Keith Pelley.
But the willful blindness of Justin Rose’s “I’m a not a politician, I’m a golfer” stance quickly deteriorated after a photo of the players gleefully pointing to Saudi Arabia on a map like a holiday package come Kitchener propaganda poster emerged on Tuesday.
Even as Dustin Johnson acknowledged the minor inconvenience that “unfortunately, it’s in a part of the world where most people don’t agree with what happened,” he couldn’t help but note the “few [million] reasons” to attend.
This was all part of the parcel in the Tour’s mercenary bargain. Over £1m is being paid to four of the world’s top five players by Saudi organisers in appearances fees and £2.5m reserved in prize money in exchange for a PR campaign to bolster the reputation of a country accused of dissolving Jamal Khashoggi’s body in acid in Istanbul and allegedly killing thousands in Yemen. Just last week, as Royal Greens Golf & Country Club received its final manicure, Amnesty International accused the country of sexually assaulting and imprisoning female activists.
It’s morally egregious, mildly effective, but nothing novel. The Tour has hosted events in Qatar for 20 years, where homosexuality is illegal and slave labourers are building the infrastructure for the next World Cup. In the months following the Salisbury poisoning of the Skripals, the Tour hosted its first seniors' event in Russia for four years, just 40km from the Kremlin.
Only after former PGA Tour winner Brandel Chamblee labelled the field “ventriloquists for a reprehensible regime” on Sunday was criticism actually centralised, months after the event was unscrupulously left off the Tour's 1000-word plus press release.
“They are legitimising and enriching the rulers of this regime. I won't even watch it on the TV. They should not be there,” Chamblee claimed.
The pre-wired £1m payments to Bahamian bank accounts have unavoidably put a price on morality. The players, if not responsible, are greedily complicit. But it’s the Tour who have put them in a position where they are forced to weigh their conscience against their careers.
Even for someone as wildly rich as Rose, withdrawal from the event could see him lose his world No 1 ranking. For Eddie Pepperell, it’s an opportunity to play against the best in the world and earn ranking points so he can continue to do so. “Competition supersedes morality,” he said. By and large, in the unhealthy coalition between sport and politics, it always has.
The truth is only a minuscule percentage of sportspersons are willing to take posture on a political issue. That’s why Paul Casey’s bold move to withdraw due to “human rights concerns” was met with such overwhelming praise.
We should not expect professionals to turn protesters. They follow the money in short and fragile careers where it’s safer to toe the line, pose for photos, play the weekend and then jet off before sunset. As Rose attested, “this is a job”.
That is a reflection for society itself - a society in the UK which benefits from the Saudi touch constantly, immeasurably and without hesitance - rather than resentfully scapegoating the world’s best golfers.
Yes, they do appear a little too pleased to be passengers on another of sport’s nightmare rodeos, but the Tour should not be allowed to deflect and sidestep behind the shield of its stars.
For months they calculated the impact of this negative PR storm, and concluded the profits were worth the bluster.
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