PGA Tour players apply for permission to play controversial Saudi events

by | Oct 22, 2021 | PGA

Eight PGA Tour players, including number 2 in the world rankings Dustin Johnson, are asking for permission to compete in the Saudi International tournament, Golfweek has learned. The tour had previously announced that it would refuse its members to participate in the controversial event.

Tour players must be given clearance to compete on other routes. A tour spokesman confirmed to Golfweek that a decision on applications for waivers is only required 30 days before the start of the tournament. The Saudi International takes place February 3-6 at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, which means players may not know if they can play until Tuesday January 4th.

PGA Tour members who enter a competition without permission will be subject to disciplinary proceedings, most likely in the form of a fine.

“We’ve requested a release and don’t know when we’re going to hear anything, but I’ve heard verbally that the tour is still considering everything,” said David Winkle, Johnson’s longtime agent.

The Saudi International is the latest front in a battle for the future of professional golf as the PGA and European Tour attempt to fend off a proposed rival stretch known as the Super Golf League, funded by the Saudis. The Super Golf League has courted golf’s biggest stars with the promise of huge paydays – in some cases more than $ 30 million. The concept has been pitched for more than seven years, but no player has signed up yet.

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell celebrates after winning the 2020 Saudi International.

PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has made it clear that any member joining the rival tour would face a life ban. Several prominent players have been known to flirt with the Saudi League. Others, notably world number 1 Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy, have publicly rejected Saudi overtures.

Since its inception in 2019, Saudi International has been widely criticized as part of the government’s efforts to “sport-launder” its human rights abuses. The kingdom has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in sports to improve its international image, including Formula 1, tennis, horse racing and wrestling.

The prize money for the Saudi International ’22 is $ 5 million, up from $ 3.5 million in 2021. Those are poor numbers for PGA Tour standards – the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which was sold opposite the Saudi The event taking place has $ 8.7 million in prize money – but the Saudis attract an elite field by paying lavish performance fees and charter planes for players.

Those who have been paid to play include Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Brooks Koepka.

Golfweek has received an up-to-date list of players who have already applied for clearance for a competition in Saudi Arabia in February. Including Johnson, the defending champion, who also won the title in 2019, and 2020 winner Graeme McDowell. The others are: Abraham Ancer, Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson, Kevin Na and Jason Kokrak, who is sponsored by Gulf Saudi. The PGA Tour policy requires players wishing to be published to indicate the event they wish to play, not just a week, on the calendar.

A PGA Tour spokesman asked the players named above to confirm waiver requests: “In practice, the PGA Tour does not comment on potential requests for conflicting event publications.”

Tommy’s wife and manager Clare Fleetwood confirmed that he has requested an exemption but said that a decision has not yet been made whether he will attend the event. Requests for comments from representatives of other players were not answered. An agent told Golfweek that some elite players are believed to have signed multi-year agreements to appear on Saudi International, deals that would be at risk if the tour refuses a waiver.

The PGA Tour previously granted its members clearances for the first three performances of Saudi International when it was approved under the European Tour schedule. When the PGA and the European Tour announced a strategic alliance last summer – a move widely interpreted as a joint effort to obstruct the Saudis’ rival tour – the tournament was dropped from the European schedule. The Saudi International 2022 will be held under the auspices of the Asian Tour, in which the Saudis made a $ 100 million investment after failing to get support for their Super League ambitions in Europe.

In July, Golfweek reported that the PGA and European Tours were planning to refuse entry to members wishing to compete in Saudi Arabia. At that time, the PGA Tour confirmed that no clearances would be given for tournaments that were not sanctioned. Given that the PGA Tour has previously granted exceptions to members to participate in the Asian Tour, Golfweek asked what could warrant a policy change to refuse publication this time.

“We have nothing more to add to our comments in July,” said a spokesman.

“It’s a complex subject for the tour,” confirmed Winkle. “I don’t know how you should see this internally, but Dustin has been 1st, 2nd, 1st for over three years and has put golf on the map in a new part of the world. He earned the right to to defend his title. ” . I hope it doesn’t turn into some kind of line in the sand. I don’t think anyone wins in this situation. “

Johnson has won the AT&T Pro-Am twice and played every year of his career except in 2021 when he retired two days earlier, shortly after his win in Saudi Arabia. Winkle says Johnson was torn over the deadline conflict in February but made defending his title a priority in the Middle East. “You can’t find a player at the top of the world rankings who has supported the AT&T Pebble Beach tournament more than Dustin,” he said.