LIV kicks off in Oregon amid criticism of Saudi funding

NORTH PLAINS, Oregon (AP) — The second event of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour kicked off Thursday, angering a group of families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 and want the Saudi government held responsible for the terrorist attack. attacks.

About 10 family members and survivors spoke at a small park honoring veterans in tiny North Plains, home of the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

“This event is nothing more than a group of very talented athletes who seem to turn their backs on the crime of murder,” said survivor Tim Frolich, who was injured in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

The LIV Golf series, funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, made its first stop on US soil this week after debuting outside London this month.

Carlos Ortiz took the lead on Thursday with a 5-under67. Dustin Johnson, the winner of the 2020 Masters, was one shot back. Pat Perez, Brenden Grace and Hideto Tadihara were two shots from the lead.

“You have to have a good start and of course stick with that because you can’t really give up,” said Perez of the 54-hole format. “Each shot, I think, means a little bit more.”

The upstart series, led by CEO Greg Norman, aims to challenge the PGA Tour and has enticed players with big signing bonuses and rich prize grants. But critics are calling the tour an attempt at “sports washes” to debunk Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, including the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Locally, opponents point to the death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart in 2016. The Saudi national accused in the case cut off a surveillance device shortly before his trial and disappeared. US officials believe he was brought home by the Saudi government.

And then there’s the September 11 families, who contacted some of the individual golfers involved in the tour, but didn’t get an audience. The group produced an ad that ran on local television.

“These golfers who are in bed with the Saudis should know what they are doing. They should be ashamed of themselves. And to the golfers who say it’s just a game of golf, shame on them,” said Brett Eagleson, the head of the 9/11 Justice group, which lost his father at the World Trade Center. “I invite them to live with the pain in our eyes, to hear our stories and to be in our shoes, to hear what we have to say about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

At Pumpkin Ridge, there was a noticeable police and security presence, including officers at the gate. There were rumors of a designated protest area in one of the parking lots, but no one knew where it was. Tickets to the event warned fans not to display any political signs.

Phil Mickelson, a six-time major winner and a top draw on the tour, had one of the bigger galleries on opening day. He played in a group with Charl Schwartzel, who lost his ball on his first drive of the day. Fans along the fairway said they thought it had fallen into a tree.

“There aren’t many opportunities to see these guys in person in this area,” said spectator Will Knowles. “I’m staying out of politics.”

Because the event was played on two courses, it was difficult to get a handle on the size of the crowd and LIV Golf did not disclose attendance figures.

For golfers, money is part of the allure of LIV Golf. In addition to significant signing bonuses, the 48-strong field will compete for a $20 million scholarship, with an additional $5 million prize pool for a team competition. Schwartzel won the London event (and team portion) earning $4.75 million.

There is no cut and even the last place earns a $120,000 payday. The organizers promise exciting events that they say will attract new fans: With a shotgun start and Rihanna blaring from a huge sound system at the putting green, the tournament did indeed have a different atmosphere.

In addition to Mickelson, who shot a 75, fellow majors winners Johnson, Brooks Koepka (70) and Bryson DeChambeau (72) have also joined LIV — which rhymes with “give” — and play on the Roman numerals for 54.

The PGA Tour responded to LIV Golf’s challenge by suspending every active member who participated in the first LIV event. Those playing in Oregon will also be banned unless they cancel their tour membership.

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