LIV golfers draw fans and protests in 1st U.S. event

NORTH PLAINS, Oregon — Even as Phil Mickelson and other marquee players teed off to applause Thursday in a Saudi government-backed tournament outside Portland, Oregon, the golfers were excoriated in a protest and an affiliated television ad by family members and survivors of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It was a sign of the divisive nature of the startup LIV Golf series and a jarring contrast to the enthusiasm of the gallery that followed Mickelson around the course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, chanting such encouragement as “Man of the people, Phil, man of the people.”

The Sept. 11 family members held a news conference Thursday morning to express their vehement opposition to the first of five LIV tournaments being held this year in the United States. And they sponsored a television ad that pilloried the tournament and the involvement of such stars as Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.

The 30-second ad mentioned Saudi links to the terrorist attacks and noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. It also referenced the death of Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old girl who was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing a street in Portland in 2016. A Saudi community college student facing charges disappeared before trial and was apparently spirited back home by the Saudi authorities.

The ad showed photographs of Mickelson and other stars playing here, gave out the Pumpkin Ridge phone number and criticized the Saudis for using the tactic known as sportswashing to attempt to cleanse their dismal record on human rights.

“We’ll never forgive Pumpkin Ridge or the players for helping Saudi Arabia cover up who they really are,” the ad said. “Don’t let the Saudi government try to clean up its image using American golf tournaments.”

Ten Sept. 11 family members and one survivor of the attacks traveled to the Portland area to protest the tournament. They said they tried unsuccessfully to meet with some LIV golfers at a hotel Thursday morning.

Brett Eagleson, 36, whose father, Bruce, died in the collapse of the south tower of the World Trade Center, called the Saudi endeavor “shameful” and “disgraceful” and called on the LIV golfers to understand and acknowledge the kingdom’s links to the attacks, which took nearly 3,000 lives.

He called on Mickelson to “be a man, step up, accept the truth of who you’re getting in bed with.”

The Saudi government has long denied any involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sept. 11 Commission, in its 2004 report, found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida, which carried out the attacks. But there has been speculation of involvement by other, lower-ranking officials, and an FBI investigation discovered circumstantial evidence of such support, according to a 2020 report by the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica.

Tim Frolich, a banker from Brooklyn who escaped from the 80th floor of the south tower but severely injured his left foot and ankle while running from the tower’s collapse, said the golfers had been “bought off” and were accepting “blood money” from the LIV series. The Saudi-sponsored tour offered signing bonuses, some reported to be in the nine figures, to lure some golfers like Mickelson from the PGA Tour.

“This is nothing more than a group of very talented athletes who appear to have turned their backs on the crime of murder,” said Frolich, who will turn 58 this month.

Mickelson was not made available to reporters Thursday. In an interview published in February, he told his biographer, Alan Shipnuck, that the Saudis were “scary” and had a “horrible record on human rights,” including the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Mickelson later apologized for his remarks. He joined LIV Golf in June.

No official attendance figures were given for the three-day tournament’s opening round, played under a cloudless sky with temperatures in the 70s. But the crowd to watch mostly aging players in decline was perhaps only one-third of the daily attendance of 25,000 or so at a typical event on the rival PGA Tour. Mickelson, 52, finished the round at 3 over par, eight strokes behind the leader, Carlos Ortiz of Mexico. Still, Mickelson has a vocal and dedicated following.

A number of spectators interviewed said they were simply interested in seeing a sporting event and avoiding geopolitics.

“It’s messy, potentially, but I’m just here to watch golf and kind of block out all of that stuff,” said Stacy Wilson, 44, of Vancouver, Washington, a longtime fan of Mickelson’s who said she was taking advantage of an opportunity to watch him play in person. “I just choose to have tunnel vision about it and enjoy the game.”

Some spectators noted that President Joe Biden would be engaging with the Saudis during a trip there in mid-July. Others said they found it a double standard that golfers were being singled out when China has benefited from hosting two Olympics and from $10 billion in reported investments from NBA team owners despite the country’s poor human rights record.

“What happened in Pearl Harbor? We’ve got a pretty good relationship with Japan, don’t we?” said Chris Wilcox, 53, of Puyallup, Washington. “At some point, you’ve got to move on. Everybody here’s got something from China that they’re wearing. Nobody in the U.S. is boycotting the Olympics because of China.”

J.T. Davis, 65, a retired mechanical engineer from Albany, Oregon, said he was born in Saudi Arabia, where his father worked as a diesel engine mechanic in the 1950s for Aramco, the Saudi petroleum corporation formerly known as the Arabian American Oil Co. He said he had come to Pumpkin Ridge to see his favorite golfer, Sergio García.

“I’m OK with the Saudis,” Davis said with a genial laugh, “as long as they keep sending us oil.”

He added that competition between the LIV and PGA tours “is what America’s all about; it’ll probably make both tours better. And maybe it’ll make the prices cheaper to come see these things.”

At least some protests, though, were expected to continue through Saturday’s final round. Ricky Freeman, who owns an animal-rescue ranch just beyond the 18th hole at Pumpkin Ridge and pairs horses with veterans as therapy, said he would play loud music as a statement about what he considered the “reprehensible” Saudi response to the death of Smart, the Portland teenager.

“We can’t forget about this,” Freeman said.

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