Thursday , July 7 2022

McIlroy dismisses Saudi Arabia-backed opener as not a ‘proper tournament’ | Golf

Rory McIlroy has taken a swipe at the first event of the Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway golf series by suggesting it is not a “proper tournament”.

The field for LIV Golf’s visit to the Centurion Club in Hertfordshire next week has now been partly confirmed, with inclusion of the former world No 1 Dustin Johnson the biggest surprise. Phil Mickelson’s name is not yet on the entry list for the $25m event but there is believed to be hope among tournament organisers that the six-times major winner will play. Mickelson has not played competitively since comments relating to Saudi Arabia were published in February. Greg Norman, who is fronting the LIV scheme, has been in regular contact with Mickelson.

Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio García and Martin Kaymer are confirmed entrants for the 54-hole contest. So, too, is Graeme McDowell – raising questions over his viability as a future European Ryder Cup captain. Yet many of the 42 players listed are relative unknowns, a point not missed on McIlroy.

“I certainly don’t think the field is anything to jump up and down about,” McIlroy said in the buildup to the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament. “Look at the field this week. Look at the field next week in Canada. They are proper golf tournaments.”

Johnson has sparked fury at the Royal Bank of Canada, who have sponsored him since 2018. The same company backs the Canadian Open, in which Johnson was due to participate – and for which he was part of the promotion – before accepting a hugely lucrative offer to feature in England.

“Together with our partners at RBC, we are disappointed to learn at this late stage that Dustin Johnson has made the decision to play in the LIV Golf event,” the Canadian Open said in a statement. RBC says it is “extremely disappointed” with Johnson’s choice. Intriguingly, McDowell is also sponsored by RBC. The firm has not responded to requests for comment from the Guardian regarding McDowell’s future status.

Graeme McDowell
Graeme McDowell claims he is concerned by the consequences of taking part in the LIV Golf tournament. Photograph: Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

“The perceived consequences are definitely concerning,” McDowell said. “It was an exceedingly difficult decision. It is a difficult decision as a player when there’s so many unknowns. We do not know what the reaction is going to be. It just boils down to the fact that I am a business and I have operated all over the world for 20 years. This is a compelling opportunity.”

Amnesty International has called on those who play at Centurion to use the platform to shine a light on human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re not telling golfers to boycott this tournament but we’re pointing out that this is once again a sportswashing exercise for the Saudi authorities who are attempting to rebrand themselves and distract from their appalling human rights record.

“Sportswashing is all about PR and calculated diversion, so when Greg Norman recently attempted to minimise the murder of Jamal Khashoggi as a ‘mistake’ or when fellow LIV Golf backer Phil Mickelson referred to ‘scary’ people in power in Saudi Arabia, they effectively blew the lid on Riyadh’s attempt to use golf to reset its international image.

“We’re urging all golfers playing in this Saudi-bankrolled tournament to speak out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s persecuted human rights community will feel bitterly disappointed if well-paid golfing superstars take the LIV Golf cash but stay silent about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.”

The PGA and DP World Tours will inevitably at least try to penalise those among their number who tee up next week. For now, those organisations are staying silent about the severity of potential punishments.

A PGA Tour statement said: “As communicated to our entire membership on 10 May, PGA Tour members have not been authorised to participate in the Saudi Golf League’s Saudi event under PGA Tour tournament regulations. Members who violate the tournament regulations are subject to disciplinary action.”

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