Female golfers should avoid any further Saudi sportswashing
Despite the lure of money this is a country in which women are second-class citizens
Dustin Johnson celebrates after winning the Saudi International. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia, a country that recently took the radical step of allowing women to drive, is now a stop on the European Tour. Surprisingly, given that until recently women weren’t even allowed to watch sporting events in Saudi Arabia, there is even talk of a women’s tournament being held in the kingdom. (Insert your joke about the country finally welcoming female drivers here.)
“The old story of Saudi Arabia that it’s segregated is no longer applicable,” Majed Al-Sorour, chief executive of the Saudi Golf Federation, said last week.
Would I have wanted to play there during my days on the professional tour? The answer is almost certainly “no” and I am sure many of my fellow female professionals would have felt the same. How comfortable would we be in a country where women and girls aren’t allowed to swim in public, play sports in public schools or have prolonged interaction with men they aren’t related to?
And can you imagine what the reaction would be to a female golfer had she destroyed greens in anger in the same manner that Sergio Garcia did? By all accounts, it’s safe to assume she would have been treated differently, seeing as wearing a mini-skirt can get you arrested and speaking up can end in torture.
And, of course, any gay players would be competing in a country where homosexual acts are punishable by death. That’s before we get into the other red flags, such as the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, and the country’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen.
The inaugural men’s tournament, funded by the Saudi government to help promote the country, teed off last week, and few of the professionals seemed bothered. Paul Casey stayed away, to his credit, as did Tiger Woods, although he spent his time golfing with Donald Trump, which is almost as dubious.
Journalists voiced their disapproval and the European Tour was forced to defend its decision to hold a tournament in the nation, arguing that the Middle East is one of the few regions that has the climate needed to play during the Northern Hemisphere winter.
But the golfers who agreed to play after receiving a hefty appearance fee? Well, according to them, golfers gotta golf. World No 1 Justin Rose said: “I’m not a politician, I’m a golfer,” while Dustin Johnson, known for his intellect and depth added: “I’m going over there to play a sport I’m paid to play. It’s my job to play golf.” And, presumably, to help sportswash a country where journalists end up dismembered in consulates.
Other golfers who made the trip included Garcia, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson. They are all multimillionaires, meaning there were no pressing financial reasons for them to play in the tournament. One could argue that there are ranking points at stake. However, there are plenty of other tournaments they could play that would undoubtedly make up any shortfall.
Nothing justifies holding or playing an event in Saudi Arabia, no matter how much financial trouble the European Tour is in, or whatever duty or these golfers felt they had to “play golf”, as Johnson put it.
As for the networks that aired the tournament, they are just as culpable, along with publications that covered the event extensively. It deserved zero meaningful coverage, expect to highlight how problematic it is to normalise a country where women’s rights activists are beaten and tortured.
The only type of coverage an event like this should receive is to call out every single person who played in it, every corporation that sponsored it, and the European Tour for bowing to the Saudi government in the same manner the US government did after the death of Khashoggi.
This European Tour’s dalliance with Saudi Arabia only highlights how far the sport has to go to stand for something more than the accumulation of cash. Instead, they abandoned one of the principles of golf: the importance of personal accountability.
Anya Alvarez is a former professional on the LPGA.