The Golf World Is Taking a Stronger Stand Against Saudi Arabia Than the White House Is

On Thursday, the PGA Championship began at Southern Hills Country Club in Oklahoma. Phil Mickelson, the defending PGA Championship titleholder, is not playing. He’s healthy, and he didn’t retire. He’s just not there.

Mickelson has essentially been in hiding since February, when writer Alan Shipnuck reported comments he’d made about the Saudi Arabian government’s role in the 2018 kidnapping and murder of dissident U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi regime, through a sovereign wealth fund, is backing the LIV Golf tour—a startup competitor to the PGA Tour that Mickelson was planning to work with.

“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi,” Mickelson said, “and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” (By that, he likely meant leveraging the PGA into being more deferential to the interests of top stars.)

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In the backlash against this crass rationalization, Mickelson lost endorsements from KPMG, Heineken, and the business software Workday. Then things settled down a bit, and Mickelson was preparing to play this weekend. But last Wednesday, 67-year-old LIV Golf CEO (and former tour star) Greg Norman held a disastrous press event in London during which he responded to a question about Khashoggi by saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes” (sure, but maybe not that mistake) and to another, about the recent Saudi execution of 81 alleged criminals on a single day, by saying, “I’m not going to get into the quagmire of whatever else happens in someone else’s world. I heard about it and just kept moving on.”

Norman’s comments made headlines on ESPN, CNN, and other outlets, and two days later Mickelson’s agent announced that Mickelson was withdrawing from the PGA field. LIV Golf itself issued a statement in which it assured the public that it believes Khashoggi’s killing was “reprehensible.” The PGA Tour, meanwhile, denied multiple golfers’ applications for permission to miss a PGA event in order to play a LIV date in London in June. Mickelson and Sergio Garcia were among those who’d sought a clearance.

The consensus in the world of golf is clear: You can’t give Saudi Arabia a pass for its human rights record just because you want to do business with it.

A very different consensus obtains in the world of United States foreign policy—even now that it’s in the hands of President Joe Biden, a nominal supporter of human rights and the so-called liberal international order. Biden promised during the presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s killing and has described his administration’s support for Ukraine as part of the wider struggle between “democracy and autocracy,” “liberty and repression,” and “a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

Force doesn’t get any more brute than it did in Khashoggi’s case—which was, in fact, part of a wider repressive effort to strengthen the position of de facto Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s autocratic regime.

Biden has not exactly brought the hammer of righteous rules-based liberty down upon the Saudis. His administration, soon after taking office, chose not to formally ban the crown prince from the U.S. for his role in the killing. Some observers felt this was defensible even as a matter of enlightened diplomacy—though others did not, and it didn’t stop there. Biden staffed his administration with a number of individuals who worked at think tanks and private firms that either did business with or took donations from the Saudi regime, and in November 2021, he approved the sale of $650 million in weapons to the kingdom. According to various reports, including this one in the Intercept, his administration has made multiple recent diplomatic contacts with the Saudis in an effort to persuade them to increase oil production. (It hasn’t worked.)

None of these engagements generated as much news and outrage as Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman explaining why they planned to be involved with Saudi-funded tournaments. Why? For one, the PGA Tour has a financial interest in defending itself against the LIV tour, which gives it an incentive to be hostile to the Saudis. The U.S. in general, though, has a financial interest in cheap gasoline, which gives it an incentive to be forgiving.

The press and public, for better or worse, also tend to reflexively criticize Democratic politicians for not being “tough” when it comes to subjects like crime and foreign policy. A liberal president being too tough—implicitly agreeing to trade a Washington Post columnist for weapons money and lower oil prices—doesn’t fit into a classic political-media trope. (You can see the phenomenon at work in coverage of immigration. Biden and Donald Trump have maintained similarly restrictive border policies that have had similar consequences, and the current rise in undocumented migration began during Trump’s presidency. But while the subject was generally covered during Trump’s term as humanitarian crisis, it’s covered under Biden’s as a chaotic “surge” that he is under pressure to crack down on.)

There’s also the matter of how Mickelson responded to his comments becoming public—by claiming they had been off the record, which Alan Shipnuck says is false. If you act like you wish that everyone hadn’t heard what you said, or strain to rationalize your behavior like Greg Norman did, it heightens the sense that you did something wrong to begin with. The U.S.’s national compromises with Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, are out in the open.

It’s probably too much to ask Biden to follow his convictions when any country with a spare oil well has him over a barrel (although sports fans who are disgusted by Phil and Greg Norman might think about whether they were also planning to vote Republican because the price of gas is too high). However, it should not be too much to ask that the collective D.C. foreign policy blob (from which Democrats recruit when they take the White House) try to maintain the same level of scruples about whom they take money from as the golf industry does. The imperatives of the real world might require the U.S. to maintain relationships with “scary motherfuckers” from time to time, but must they be spotted such a generous handicap?

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