Controversial Saudi-backed golf tour coming to Massachusetts this summer

A controversial new golf tour with close ties to the Saudi Arabian government is slated to come to Bolton, Massachusetts later this year, putting the sleepy Worcester County town at the forefront of an escalating controversy that combines geopolitics and big-time professional sports.

The International, a private club in Bolton, is scheduled to host the fourth installment of the LIV Golf Invitational Series on Sept. 2-4, just over a month after the nascent tour comes to 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 on June 30-July 2.

While the September event will take place in Bolton, LIV Golf’s website describes it as the LIV Golf Invitational Boston, a flourish branding that suggests both Bolton’s relative obscurity and Boston’s status as an internationally known city.

LIV Golf, which is led 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 that features Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and several other well-known players.

The new tour is promising to “supercharge the game” with a mix of team and individual play, fewer holes, a raucous environment, and extremely lucrative prizes. But as its launch approaches, LIV is also drawing scrutiny and criticism for its links to the Saudi regime.

The majority shareholder in LIV Golf Investments is Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince widely seen as the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

A U.S. intelligence report declassified last year concluded that Salman approved the operation that culminated in the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018. Kashoggi, a U.S. resident with children who are American citizens, was killed after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2019 to obtain paperwork for his wedding. His body was subsequently dismembered with a saw.

At a May press conference in England, Norman, the LIV CEO, seemed to downplay Kashoggi’s murder, saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward. “

Norman was also dismissive when asked about Saudi Arabia’s recent mass execution of 81 men on one day in March, saying, “I got a lot of messages, but quite honestly, I look forward, I don’t look back. I don’t look into the politics of things. ” He was similarly glib when asked about the Saudi government’s criminalization of the LGBT community, saying, “I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”

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

“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson said. “They execute people over there for being gay.

“Knowing all of this, why would I even consider [participating]? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates, ”Mickelson continued. “[The PGA has] been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. ”

Mickelson later apologized for his comments and claimed he had been speaking off the record. That claim was disputed by Alan Shipnuck, the journalist who conducted the interview.

Ahmed Benchemsi, the advocacy and communications director 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 sports, like the 2021 purchase of the British Premier League soccer team Newcastle United, are part of a concerted effort to burnish the kingdom’s image abroad.

“[Salman] is rolling out ever more entertainment events, sporting events, ”Benchemsi said. “In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is, if those large-scale events… are meant to show a progressive face of Saudi Arabia, they’re also meant to whitewash – and sort of sportswash – the reputation of Saudi Arabia as a kingdom rife with rights abuses. ”

Since Salman became crown prince, Benchemsi said, the Saudi security forces have arrested a wide range of individuals seen as potential threats, including Islamic clerics, public intellectuals, advocates for women’s rights, and members of the royal family. In addition, he noted, a Saudi-led coalition has prosecuted an ongoing war in Yemen that has led to an estimated 200,000 plus casualties.

“On the one hand, you have the glitter and the pomp… everybody’s happy, champagne is flowing,” Benchemsi said. “On the other hand, [you have] this medieval, repressive regime. … To me, these are the two faces of Saudi now. ”

In the run-up to LIV’s launch, much of the media coverage has criticized Norman and others for uncritically partnering 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 entire appeal of the Saudi Arabian government’s fledgling golf tour. Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson and their allies… want to cash in. They don’t care how they do it, and they are annoyed by people who do care. ”

“The Saudis are happy to lose money because their interest is not turning a profit,” Rosenberg added. “It’s sportswashing. That’s why they’re the ones bankrolling this. ”

So far, though, 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 roughly 5,000 people whose ambience splits the difference between rural and suburban.

During a recent drive through Bolton, no signage advertising the event was visible in the small downtown or near the International, which is situated on Bolton’s western edge.

Don Lowe, Bolton’s town administrator, said the town is making logistical preparations for September’s event, but hasn’t taken a position on the appropriateness – or lack thereof – of the International playing host to LIV Golf.

“The town of Bolton does not support or support the tournament itself,” Lowe said. “The town has taken no official position on it. But as far as logistics go, there are certainly… issues that we’re going to have to work through. And we are working with the appropriate people, both at the International and senior managers from the LIV tour itself.

“We have discussed things such as security, traffic flow, public safety issues in general,” Lowe added. “I believe they’ve set a cap of 7,500 attendees a day, and Bolton’s a small town.”

Lowe also said that, from his vantage point, it’s not the town’s role to pass judgment on the LIV tour or the controversy it’s created.

“I think it’s fair to say that the town of Bolton doesn’t feel as though it’s in a position to tell a private business whom they can and can’t do business with,” he said. “And that’s really what this is, as far as Escalante appears to be concerned. They’re looking at it as a business proposition, and we wouldn’t try to dictate to any private business who they can and can’t do business with in a lawful manner. ”

In an emailed statement, Democratic State Representative Kate Hogan, whose district includes Bolton, said that while she’s not familiar with 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 by the sport of golf accepting sponsorship from the Saudi government in light of their human rights violations. ”

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

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