Golf has long been burdened with clichés that are more heavily trafficked than the 405 at rush hour, and yet the sport’s lingua franca manages to grow still more insipid and hollow by the day.
To our catalog of greatest hits—‘One shot at a time,’ ‘Take dead aim,’ and ‘Growing the game’—we can now add ‘Not a politician,’ the deflection of choice among professional golfers competing at next month’s Saudi International.
“So, not a politician, first off,” Bryson DeChambeau tersely announced a few days ago in a media Zoom call promoting the event. “I’m a golfer, first and foremost, and I want to play where the best golfers in the world are going to play. And that is the end of the story for me.”
In a separate call, Shane Lowry echoed his fellow major champion.
“Obviously there’s no hiding from the people writing about this tournament or what they’re saying about us going to play, but at the end of the day for me, I’m not a politician, I’m a professional golfer,” he said. “I earn a living for myself and my family and try and take care of those, and this is just a part of that, and I need to go there. I’m not a politician, I’ll let everyone else take care of that, and I’ll go and do my job.”
Lowry is one of the more affable guys on tour. DeChambeau is, well, not. One of them at least made explicit why he’s going to King Abdullah Economic City: money. The other veils his motive with noble-sounding tripe about competition. (DeChambeau’s eagerness to pimp for the Crown Prince in a promotional call must have been edifying for Rocket Mortgage, given that he refused all media obligations in a snit last summer, despite being the sponsor’s defending champion and paid endorser.) That both men trotted out the same talking point suggests it will be a repetitive refrain as players try to disassociate themselves from the actions of the Saudi regime while still cashing its checks.
It will be an excruciating dance for them. And it deserves to be.
In my experience, most professional golfers pay little attention to geopolitical issues in the world. Ask their opinion on the Uyghurs and they’ll likely tell you they prefer FootJoys. Even the few with broader awareness will avoid political topics for fear of unlocking a Pandora’s Box of questions every time they compete in a jurisdiction where the government stands accused of objectionable conduct, from China to Texas. So be it.
But pleading ignorance—willful or feigned—is a sophistic defense when it comes to the Saudis. There can’t be a player left on any tour who is unaware of the regime’s effort to hijack professional golf via the Super League concept, or of the attendant criticisms about sportswashing its human rights abuses. And it’s sportswashing that makes the Saudi International an issue for golfers, not politicians, regardless of what Messrs. DeChambeau and Lowry say.
We know why golfers want to be in Saudi Arabia—appearance fees—but its important to not lose sight of why the government wants them there. Lowry is correct in saying he’s just going to do his job. That’s exactly the point. Mohammed bin Salman is not paying Lucas Herbert to grow the game or Jason Dufner to be a dinner-table raconteur. He is paying them to help present a normalized image of his Saudi Arabia as a place where run-of-the-mill golf events happen, just like any place else. Not every player will take part in publicity shoots or be as grovelingly obsequious as the Crown Prince’s finger puppet, Greg Norman, but they are still being used as stooges for sportswashing. No amount of artifice can disguise that.
Competing at the Saudi International can’t seriously be construed as professional golfers endorsing the regime or its practices, but it lays bare a reality that is no less dispiriting for being commonplace: that so many elite players can’t or won’t see beyond the perimeter of their wallets, that they consciously choose to ignore what they will contribute to an odious regime simply by doing their job. It was the case back when the game’s best turned a blind eye to apartheid so they could play for riches in South Africa, and it’s the case today. Sure, they just want to play golf. And Leni Riefenstahl just wanted to make movies.
Truth be told, golfers are not politicians. Politicians at least pretend to have principles.
Published at Golfweek.com, January 16, 2022.