Estimates are that the government of Saudi Arabia has already spent in excess of $3 billion launching LIV Golf—a new golf tour designed to compete with the long-established PGA Tour and, according to experts, help bolster the Saudi government’s battered reputation.
LIV Golf launched several weeks ago with a tournament outside of London, where South African Charl Schwartzel won and took home $4 million in prize money. The tour’s next stop? Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, just 20 miles northwest of Portland, on Thursday afternoon.
The tournament has quickly made Saudi Arabia’s "sportswashing" efforts—its attempts to use athletic events to improve its battered reputation—Oregon’s problem.
“It’s the same with any kind of oppressive or authoritarian government anywhere in the world,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “They try to use whatever resources are at their disposal to try to clean up their image—and the Saudis have an unusual amount of resources.”
For the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), the state-owned investment fund backing the tour—believed to be worth roughly $620 billion—the tour's $3 billion price tag is a drop in the bucket. The Saudi government has used the fund to invest in sports as a key part of its public relations strategy in the aftermath of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The PIF made its first major foray into sports with the purchase of storied English Premier League club Newcastle United in October 2021. The LIV Tour, meanwhile, has attracted a number of high profile golf stars like Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, and Phil Mickelson who are risking their PGA Tour memberships to join the Saudi-backed operation. PGA Tour golfers are required to get releases to participate in other, conflicting golf tournaments, and the PGA has not granted releases for LIV Golf tournaments—putting those tournament participants in violation of PGA regulations.
Sportswashing is not an exclusively Saudi phenomenon. The upcoming World Cup in Qatar, a nation with an abominable human rights record, is another example. The United Arab Emirates, Russia, and, arguably, the United States have all been guilty of sportswashing.
But for Jules Boykoff, a politics professor at Pacific University and an expert on the intersection of sports and politics, this event is different.
“When [countries] are doing the events on their own turf, like Qatar coming up, athletes have very little say in where they occur—almost no say,” Boykoff said. “Whereas with what we're seeing at Pumpkin Ridge, athletes are fully implicated in the authoritarian-backed sports that are transpiring there.”
Pumpkin Ridge is owned by Escalante Golf, a private equity firm based in Fort Worth, Texas that owns and operates golf courses in 12 states. Its website promises that the firm is able to “consistently grow bottom line revenue (even in down markets) while increasing member satisfaction.”
According to Boykoff, it stands to reason that hosting LIV Golf at one of their properties is plenty lucrative.
“With that kind of money flowing through the system, it stands to reason that Pumpkin Ridge is doing pretty well for themselves — not just the golfers, but Pumpkin Ridge,” Boykoff said. “After all, Pumpkin Ridge is not some kind of altruistic organization. It’s a capitalist organization. The point is to make money.”
Officials at Escalante Golf and Pumpkin Ridge did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Escalante Golf’s relationship runs deeper than the tournament at Pumpkin Ridge. In September, LIV Golf is hosting a tournament at another Escalante property—The International Golf Club in Boston.
It is not entirely clear how or why Escalante chose Pumpkin Ridge and the International Golf Club out of their 20 US clubs to host their LIV tournaments.
Pumpkin Ridge’s communications to club members regarding the LIV tournament has been limited. In mid-March, the club sent an email to members that, after announcing a sizable total membership fee increase to $25,000, also mentioned the imminent arrival of the Saudi-backed tournament.
“We are excited to announce that Pumpkin Ridge has been chosen as a venue in the upcoming LIV Golf Invitational Series,” the email read. “Along with six other phenomenal Clubs across the globe, Pumpkin Ridge will welcome players, fans, and Members to participate in what will be a unique and unprecedented golf opportunity.”
According to club member Kevin Palmer, who joined Pumpkin Ridge last year, displeased club members had the opportunity to meet with Escalante Golf officials. But from what he heard, those concerns were mainly brushed aside.
“They just didn’t give a shit,” Palmer said. “They’re getting a giant bag of money, and they don't really care what the members think. Because it’s a corporate owned club and not owned by members, we have no say in it. Members don’t have a say in it, the local staff people don't have a say in it, Escalante Golf has all the say in it.”
Palmer said that he considered resigning his membership, but hasn’t because he doesn’t want to lose his $15,000 member initiation fee. A number of other club members, he said, have quit over the LIV tournament.
“It's tough, because as a club member, it’s embarrassing,” Palmer said. “I don’t necessarily want to be associated with that."
Political figures have been more outspoken about their displeasure with the arrangement in the days leading up to the event. On Saturday, Sen. Ron Wyden and the mayors of North Plains, Hillsboro, Forest Grove, and Beaverton held a press conference in Portland to denounce the tournament and the Saudi government more broadly.
A group of 11 local mayors also signed a letter to Pumpkin Ridge officials outlining their opposition to the event, arguing that they have a “moral obligation to take a stand and speak out against this event in order to protect the people we serve.”
Elected leaders don’t have to look far to see the Saudi government’s negative impact on the Portland community. In 2016, a 15-year-old Portland high school student named Fallon Smart was struck and killed by a motorist in a hit-and-run crossing SE Hawthorne St. The motorist, a Saudi student named Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, was facing first degree murder charges in the incident before he disappeared from the country.
US officials believe that Saudi Arabia provided Noorah with assistance and transportation to flee back to his home country and evade prosecution. Earlier this month, Wyden tweeted that the tournament’s placement in Oregon is a “cruel insult” to Smart’s family.
Palmer’s understanding is that there is little Pumpkin Ridge officials can do.
“A lot of what we’ve heard is people's hands are tied — and I feel bad for the local staff, because they’re all pretty nice and they're good people and you can tell in talking to people — they can't say it — but… you can tell they're put in this position and are very uncomfortable,” Palmer said.
It remains to be seen what kind of reception the tournament will get when it tees off on Thursday—whether the discontent from club members and denouncements from area politicians will translate to overt protests. Tickets to the event forbade fans from displaying political signs and elite club golf has not traditionally been a hotbed of progressivism, but Portland sports fans have a very recent history of vociferous social protest.
Boykoff, for one, is clear on where he stands.
“For the thinking sports fan, this is a no-brainer to stand up against this kind of sportswashing happening in our own backyard,” Boykoff said. “If you don’t appreciate [the] Saudi Arabian regime using Pumpkin Ridge to, in part, erase the memory of Jamal Khashoggi, maybe one should stand up against this sort of thing.”