Saudi-backed golf chain LIV brings its drama to Illinois

Thursday’s media briefing at the LIV Golf Invitational Series at Rich Harvest Farms made it abundantly clear that the event would not be a typical professional golf tournament.

Loud techno music spread all over the course as golfers like Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia swayed during a professional game. Many wore shorts, something they could do keep doing When the real friday play starts.

And about everything hung the ongoing controversy created by the main financial backer of the tour – the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, whose regime has been accused of numerous human rights violations.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin added to the criticism on Thursday, Twitter: “This weekend a golf glove will attempt to cover a bloodied hand as the LIV golf tournament arrives in Chicago in a desperate attempt by the Saudi government to clean up its image.”

But such a conviction was hardly recorded at Rich Harvest Farms, a private trail surrounded by cornfields 45 miles west of Chicago.

Course officials said they had not heard of any planned protests, while golf media, which had been flooding players with questions about Saudi Arabia in the series’ early days, moved on to other topics.

In response to the single question about “sports washing,” the practice of honing a nation’s reputation by associating with a beloved game, Indian golfer Anirban Lahiri took a pass.

“We’re all here just to play golf,” he said. I will not comment on anything political. It is clear that everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have my own, but I don’t think it’s related.”

“A lot of good things are happening,” added Joaquin Neiman, who is from Chile. “I’m also here to do well on the golf course and see how we can develop the game in a good way.”

LIV spokesperson Jonathan Grilla said: “We continue to believe that sport has the power to make change and bring people together. We appreciate and respect that not everyone will agree, but we believe golf is a force for good.”

The chain is said to offer nine-figure guarantees to some super golfers along with $25 million in prizes at each stop. Money chain leader Dustin Johnson has so far won nearly $10 million in just four events.

Extravagant spending and promises of approaching golf in new ways have attracted many top pros despite criticism both inside and outside the sport.

Human rights advocates say the Saudi regime is responsible for mass executions and persecution of women, gays, and dissidents, along with war crimes committed during the military conflict in neighboring Yemen.

US intelligence also concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, authorized the killing of US-based journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul (the crown prince denied this allegation).

Meanwhile, PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan suspended defectors from the LIV Tour, banning them from participating in marquee events while saying the US-based PGA “can’t compete with foreign ownership spending billions of dollars trying to buy golf.”

Rich Harvest Farms has tried to focus on the positives, saying the chain offers an opportunity to bring professional golf to the much-overlooked Chicago area, and will raise money for charities like the Kids Golf Foundation of Illinois, a caddy scholarship program and relief for Ukrainian refugees.

Protesters, including families of some of those killed during the September 11 attacks, have appeared at several stops since the series’ first event in England, but it was not clear on Thursday whether anyone would venture to Sugar Grove to show their displeasure.

Asked about the expected crowd, Grella said LIV does not publish specific numbers. Some Chicago-area golf fans told the Tribune earlier this year that the Saudi call would urge them to stay home, while others, citing a host of ethical concessions across the sporting world, said they were unfazed and were planning to come.

In another departure from golf tradition, Friday’s session will conclude with a performance by electronic St. Lucia musicians, while Saturday’s session will feature a concert by pop star Jason Derulo.

Golf itself would also be unusual. The LIV series features the start of the gun, which means that all 48 golfers will be on the course at once, and no one will be cut during the three-day event.

Golfers are also divided into four-man teams with names such as Hyflyers and Aces, which come in distinctive colors and logos. The winning team will split $3 million, while the top individual will claim $4 million.

afternoon briefing

afternoon briefing

daily

Chicago Tribune editors’ top picks are delivered to your inbox every afternoon.

David Puig, a prominent collegiate golfer from Spain who will make his debut Friday with the LIV Tour, said he appreciates the white glove treatment.

“All the things they have are really cool,” he said. “Obviously, when you come from the amateur world… you have to book your flights and book your hotel reservations, call the pro shop to book your tee time. Here at LIV, they take really good care of you, which is great.”

2020 US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who was among a group of LIV players suing the PGA for being fired, said the innovations may appeal to a younger generation of golf enthusiasts.

Although LIV founder Greg Norman tells the interviewer DeChambeau said this week that he has no interest in reaching a truce with the PGA, he can envision the rounds being together.

“I don’t like anything more than that,” he said. “It would be fun to do what football does – the AFC, the NFC, coming to the Super Bowl, that kind of thing. We probably do that.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman

Leave a Comment