The European Tour breaks new and controversial ground in the Middle East this week, with Justin Rose among the players being paid up to $1m to compete in the Saudi International
In a flawlessly manicured instance of cosmic timing, last Sunday saw Justin Rose become the sixth golfer to surpass $50m in PGA Tour earnings. With his win at the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, the world No 1 now sits on a total of $51.02m, and counting. That, however, does not include his European Tour earnings, which currently stand at a further €27.25m. And counting.
These thrilling moves in his balance sheet have turned out to be the perfect curtain-raiser to confirmation that Rose would absolutely be playing in the inaugural Saudi International. Indeed, he couldn’t really even stick around to celebrate Sunday’s win, what with having a plane waiting to take him on the first leg of his long journey to the Saudi west coast. The tournament’s prize fund stands at $3.5m; though Rose and others are reported to have been paid up to $1m by way of an appearance fee. As for what to conclude, I guess this is just the latest iteration of that age-old question: how much golf is enough?
The event will take place at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in the lyrically named King Abdullah Economic City, which evokes vistas of … well, the Saudi royal family and money. It is, as mentioned, a brand new date on the European Tour, which is forever scrambling to keep up with its PGA counterpart.
The decision to allow Saudi Arabia to host a tour event is a hangover from the period when all sorts of people amusingly believed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a good egg, in the reforming mould. Without wishing to nitpick, you will recall that this unearned reputation took something of a dent after the murder and dismemberment of one of his critics, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. Ever since the CIA concluded that the so-called MbS directly ordered the murder, there has been a widespread sense that Prince Mohammed’s good guy costume needs a little work.
Not widespread enough, however, to have penetrated the noggin of the European Tour chief executive, Keith Pelley, who may still be watching 2018 on a time-delay. “We have an excellent relationship with the Middle East,” Keith has explained, brilliantly homogenising Earth’s most divided region. “We understand [Saudi Arabia’s] goal to make parts of the country more accessible to global business, tourism and leisure over the next decade.”
Yes. That bit’s not difficult to understand, Keith. Understanding the wider issue of sportswashing ought not to be beyond your ken, either. As Amnesty has warned: “It’s clear that countries like Saudi Arabia are well aware of the potential for sport to subtly ‘rebrand’ a country.”
For his failure to be even within touching distance of a clue, then, Keith places higher in the blame rankings than Justin. Even so, when players such as Paul Casey have decided not to play in Saudi Arabia on human rights grounds, Rose’s dismissal of concerns could hardly have been more affectless. “It’s a good field,” he reasoned. “There’s going to be a lot of world-ranking points to play for, by all accounts it’s a good golf course and it will be an experience to experience Saudi Arabia,” he said. [Warning: the Saudi Arabia experience can vary according to user.] “I’m taking three weeks off after it, so to have an international trip fits in the schedule really well, and it also gets one of my European Tour events out of the way very early.” Well then. Put like that …
Naturally, other excuses are available. Having also decided to make the journey, Ian Poulter has gone with: “I’m probably not the most educated man in the world to sit down and have a discussion about politics.” Oh please. Poulter is perfectly bright, and you really don’t need to be a political science professor to get that chopping someone up in an embassy may place the perpetrators in the “guys whose money I shouldn’t take” file.
Of course, it must be said that Rose and Poulter hail from a country – the United Kingdom – which is vastly more unforgivably enmeshed with Riyadh, and which continues to sell billions of pounds of arms a year to the Saudis. In the scheme of things, then, should Rose and the European Tour really be held to higher standards than the UK government? The answer, in an ideal world, is no. But in a realistic world, imagine not WANTING to hold yourself to a higher standard than the UK government – currently the international standard for talentless post-moral dysfunctionality.
Still, let’s play out with arguably my favourite take on it all, which emanated from the American Patrick Reed. Asked if he had any safety concerns about visiting Saudi Arabia, last year’s Masters champion dismissed the idea. “No,” breezed Reed, “because the European Tour has us covered.” On the one hand, yes. It feels vanishingly unlikely that anything unpleasant would happen to golfers paid to burnish Saudi Arabia’s dismal image. On the other, if the chips do go down, and you want a really crack unit to have your back covered, who you gonna call? The SAS, Delta Force, Seal Team Six, or … hang on, what was it again? … ah yes. The European Tour. Veteran of zero deadly missions, but several increasingly daring sorties into enemy coffers.