Massachusetts is going to get hit twice this summer by a geopolitical storm the likes of which has never quite been seen before.
Fueled by billions of petro-dollars pumped from the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, muddied by that kingdom’s association with murder and human rights abuses, linked to the family of Donald Trump and Trump-owned golf courses, and twisted by an ethical and existential battle in the world of professional golf, the upstart LIV Golf Series kicks off with its first event in London this weekend before making its first approach stateside.
At the US Open at The Country Club in Brookline next week, LIV Golf is guaranteed to be a noisy sideshow to the tournament, especially after the major’s organizer, the US Golf Association, announced Tuesday that qualifiers who play in the London event will be allowed to play in Brookline.
Over Labor Day Weekend, LIV Golf will become the main event in the rural enclave of Bolton, outside of Worcester, where The International golf course will host one of eight tournaments LIV Golf is staging in its first year.
Whether or not protests will be raised about the Bolton tournament in September is unknown.
All the controversy, however, revolves around two core concerns.
The first is more of a professional golf story, one that is likely headed to the courtroom, with the PGA Tour banning its members from playing in LIV events while a widening swath of golfers are opting for the lucrative purses ($25 million per event), and some, such as former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, quitting the tour altogether.
The other is a moral one, based on the principle of “sportswashing,” which refers to a country trying to obscure its faults by hosting, acquiring, or launching sports events and teams. Saudi Arabia’s list of offenses is long, and includes public executions; discrimination against women, LGBTQ members, and migrant workers; free speech and religious prohibitions; and the accusation that the kingdom’s leader, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, approved the murder-by-dismemberment of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
On its face, the USGA’s decision dealt with the first concern and ignored the second.
“We simply asked ourselves this question — should a player who had earned his way into the 2022 US Open, via our criteria, be pulled out of the field as a result of his decision to play in another event? We decided that they should not,” said the USGA in a statement.
With Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and other London golfers, as well as PGA Tour stalwarts and LIV critics such as Rory McIlroy in the Brookline field, the PGA/LIV battle will be front and center next week at least until the competition starts.
When the conversation shifts to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, history suggests that verbal shanks will ensue.
LIV CEO Greg Norman has mostly gone quiet since he said “we’ve all made mistakes” with regard to the Khashoggi murder.
And on Tuesday in London, Irish golfer Graeme McDowell described the Khashoggi murder as a “situation” and a “reprehensible” one at that.
McDowell added, “If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get where they want to be — and they have the resources to accelerate that experience — I think we’re proud to help them on that journey.”
The Public Investment Fund is the Saudi Arabian wealth fund with more than $600 billion in assets that is backing LIV Golf, and which last year bought 80 percent of the Premier League’s Newcastle United soccer team.
PIF is an active investor in industries around the world, including Uber, PayPal, Meta, Carnival, and video game companies, as well as the Lucid Group, maker of luxury electric cars. The New York Times reported that PIF made a $2 billion investment in the private equity firm of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Central to PIF’s mission is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan to have a more diversified economy, one less dependent on fossil fuel.
Efforts to reach PIF representatives for comment were unsuccessful.
Two LIV events will be staged at Trump-owned golf courses, the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster (N.J.) in July and the championship at Trump National Doral Miami in late October.
The fact that the Boston area has not been a regular stop on the PGA Tour the last few years helped lead to The International’s selection. The course is now owned by the Texas-based Escalante Golf group, which also owns Pumpkin Ridge in Portland, Ore., where the first US LIV tournament will be held at the end of this month.
Earlier this month, mayors from 11 towns near Portland wrote a joint letter decrying the tour stop, writing, “We oppose this event because it is being sponsored by a repressive government whose human rights abuses are documented. We refuse to support these abuses by complicitly allowing the Saudi-backed organization to play in our backyard.”
At The International, general manager Steve Brennan said membership reaction has been “nothing but supportive” since the club landed the LIV event.
Brennan said he’s not sure whether there will be any protests in Bolton, but the tour and his club are preparing just in case, and will “go to the nth degree to make it as doable as possible and least disruptive as possible.”
Ron Cross, LIV’s chief events officer, acknowledged the “challenges” that have come with LIV Golf’s arrival. But his focus is strictly on golf, not politics.
“I’m worried about the golf tournament, yes sir,” he said.
Don Lowe, town administrator of Bolton, said the town is working with The International and LIV from a practical standpoint in terms of parking, traffic flow, and minimizing impact to conservation areas.
“The town’s not hosting the event, The International is,” said Lowe. “If The International is not doing anything illegal and not violating any laws, we really don’t have a say in who they do business with.”
Like Brennan, Lowe is not sure whether protesters will come out. He understands why they might.
“I suspect that the single biggest concern that protesters would have is that if you trace money all the way back, it appears that it comes from MBS [Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud],” said Lowe. “I can’t say it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because we know, right? People know what Saudi Arabia’s reputation is. Basically, the town of Bolton has a neutral position.”