Los Angeles (AFP) – The first US event in the Saudi-backed LIV Golf series teed off in Oregon on Thursday amid continued protests and threats of legal action that would further divide the global game.
Hours before the breakaway tour’s second event teed off at Pumpkin Ridge outside Portland, Oregon, family members of people killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks held a press conference to voice their outrage.
Andre Aiken, who was three years old when his father, Terrance, died at the World Trade Center in New York, was among family members who insisted Saudi Arabia should be held accountable for a role in the attacks, in which hijackers flew planes into the towers and other targets in the United States, leaving thousands dead.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals including Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who orchestrated the attacks.
“Because of the actions of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there were a lot of pivotal moments that my father couldn’t be there for. I’ll never know the sound of his voice, the feeling of him hugging me,” Aiken said.
“So for me to see, 20 years later, to see those very same people responsible think that they can come in and think they can just bide their time like nothing happened — it’s very hard for me to see,” Aiken said.
“I would also like to thank all the athletes who’ve decided for themselves that their silence can’t be bought and that they’re not just athletes, that they can stand for something bigger.”
The series spearheaded by Australian golf great Greg Norman is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, drawing stinging criticism from human rights groups which say the circuit is an effort to boost the kingdom’s image through sport.
The controversial series offers record prize money of $25 million per 54-hole event with shotgun starts and no cut, and this week’s event sees such luminaries as four-time major winner Brooks Koepka and former major champions Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed making their first appearances.
The series’ Saudi ties have hit close to home in Oregon, with 11 local mayors formally objecting to the event in a letter to Pumpkin Ridge’s corporate owner Escalante Golf.
In 2016, 15-year-old Fallon Smart was killed in a hit-and-run traffic accident that had Saudi student Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah facing a first-degree murder charge.
He removed his tracking device and disappeared before his trial began, with US authorities saying they believed the Saudi government helped him leave the country.
Golfers who have opted into the lucrative series — which also guarantees money to some stars just for appearing — have tried to distance themselves from any such concerns.
DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open champion, said in a testy pre-tournament press conference that people should “move on”.
Players threaten legal action
But the rebels aren’t averse to taking on the US PGA Tour and DP World Tour, as the established circuits take a hard line against players who opt into the new series.
That includes stripping players who jump ship of their US PGA Tour membership.
The DP World Tour confirmed that it had received a letter from more than a dozen players who had threatened legal action unless the sanctions levied against them for competing in the first LIV Golf event in England were rescinded.
The signatories included DP World Tour members Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood of England, who were each fined 100,000 pounds ($123,000) and banned from next week’s Scottish Open and two other events.
“The intention of this letter is not to further divide us, but to respond to Tour statements and to pose questions that the Tour should answer and we should discuss in detail,” the players wrote.
They requested a response by Friday, and called for a meeting between DP World Tour officials and players to discuss the issues.
“If not, you will leave us with no choice but to employ the various other means and methods at our disposal to rectify these wrongs,” the players wrote.
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