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LIV Golf tournament at Pumpkin Ridge brings star power, big money, plenty of controversy to Portland

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As Phil Mickelson strolled to the tee box for his first shot on the LIV Golf Invitational Series, a fitting line of lyrics delivering a not-so-subtle musical message blared from loudspeakers at Centurion Golf Club outside London:

“Money, money, money, moooooooney!

“Mooooney!”

Yes, The O’Jays iconic 1970s hit, “For the Love of Money,” welcomed the legendary golfer and the contentious golf tour to the world, providing an ironic backdrop for the new, polarizing professional sports endeavor. After months of debate and doubt, the LIV series officially launched earlier this month, carrying controversy, hubris, drama and, perhaps more than anything, mountains of money.

The novel professional golf series — and all of its baggage — will arrive in the Portland area this week, when Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains hosts the first stop on U.S. soil. The visit has sparked both curiosity and outrage from area golfers, spurred outcry from local politicians and stimulated threats of protests, thrusting Portland into the crosshairs of controversy.

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Under normal circumstances, the event’s arrival would be hailed as a coup for the local sports scene, as the LIV series will bring to town a smattering of the most high-profile golfers in the world, boost the local economy and cast an international spotlight on Portland. But the LIV series is anything but normal; it’s funded by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, a deep-pocketed group affiliated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi government, which boasts an unsavory record of human rights violations and connections to criminal activity.

LIV Golf has tried to overcome this distasteful reputation with a staggering financial commitment, reportedly pledging to spend $2 billion on the league over the next four years. Along the way, it has threatened the foundation and future of professional golf by luring prominent names from the popular PGA Tour. But most in the sport — and beyond — have condemned LIV Golf and its backers, and sports organizers in the U.S have resoundingly distanced themselves from the series.

“This is not an event that we feel aligns with the values of our sports community,” said Jim Etzel, CEO of SportOregon, a nonprofit designed to drive local economic growth through sports.

LIV Golf’s stated mission is to enhance golf and “unlock the sport’s untapped worldwide potential.” But, so far, perhaps its biggest accomplishment is managing to pull off the impressive feat of uniting seemingly everyone in opposition, from golfers to activists to politicians.

Eleven mayors from Washington Country, in a letter sent to Pumpkin Ridge owner Escalante Golf, publicly denounced the event on moral grounds. Multiple Pumpkin Ridge members left the club in protest. And Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has decried LIV Golf as nothing more than a vehicle for Saudi “sportswashing,” a tactic in which professional sports are used to repair a dubious reputation.

“I just think that Oregon isn’t interested in Saudi blood money,” Wyden told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “This is just the latest effort by the Saudis to sportswash their bloodstained hands. The Saudis are trying to cover up injustices by misusing athletics in hopes of normalizing their abuses. It’s a disgusting disgrace.”

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So how did Oregon come to host a controversial Saudi-backed golf tournament, mere hours before the most patriotic of holidays? Well, the tale involves a group of former fraternity brothers, a blindsided golf club, a reluctant small town and mounds of money.

LIV Golf’s inaugural tour will feature seven events on three continents, including five in the U.S., and distribute $250 million in prize money. Among the host courses, two are owned by former President Donald Trump and two are owned by Escalante Golf, a Texas-based corporation run by four former University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers.

Escalante, which owns and operates 20 golf clubs in 13 states across the U.S., bought Pumpkin Ridge is 2015, acquiring a renowned course situated 20 miles west of Portland on farmland in North Plains. It has hosted numerous prestigious golf tournaments over the years, including the U.S. Women’s Open Championship, the U.S. Amateur Championship and the Safeway Classic.

LIV Golf and Escalante inked the deal in March, informing Pumpkin Ridge members via email. The club’s board and its members, who were not consulted beforehand, were shocked and the deal spurred immediate discourse and protest. Interview requests from The Oregonian/OregonLive sent to Pumpkin Ridge, Escalante Golf and LIV Golf were ignored. But one source speculated that between 20 and 40 members quit as a result.

Tom Etzel, a lifelong Portlander who had been a member at Pumpkin Ridge since 2007, was one of them.

“I was very surprised when I saw the announcement and quickly became very disappointed,” said Etzel, the brother of the SportOregon CEO . “My initial reaction was that Pumpkin Ridge and our community doesn’t need this. I just wondered: Why are we doing this? Why is Pumpkin Ridge doing this?”

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Seeking answers to those questions, Etzel asked to speak with Escalante, and was put in touch with Ryan McDonald, the corporation’s director of organizational development. In a phone call, Etzel says, McDonald offered “very corporate and calculated responses, similar to what we’ve seen from the LIV tour and the players.”

“She said they wanted to be a part of an opportunity to change the golf landscape,” Etzel said. “I didn’t agree with most of the responses. I’m an individual and we all make choices as individuals — where we want to spend our time and who we want to spend our time with. There are plenty of other options where I can play golf. Quickly, right after the call, I officially resigned and chose not to be a member there or play golf there in the future.

“It was an easy decision. For those that are opposed to or not supporting this newly formed league, it’s 100 percent based on the human rights issues of the Saudi Sovereign Fund and the leadership there. It just doesn’t match with my core values. I felt that continuing to spend money and spend time at a facility that is partnering with that tour didn’t match my core values and so I decided to make a change.”

In addition to its discrimination against women, gay people and those who speak out against its policies, the Saudi government has been linked to the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, numerous executions and even the September 11 terrorist attacks. Locally, the Saudi Kingdom’s potential involvement in criminal activity was exposed in a 2019 investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive that found more than two dozen cases in which Saudi students studying in the U.S. vanished while facing manslaughter, sex crimes and other felony charges. Seven of the cases were in Oregon, including one that involved the hit-and-run death of 15-year-old Fallon Smart.

The tournament at Pumpkin Ridge — and its connection to these atrocities — has not only sparked a moral dilemma for club members, but also for people who live in towns scattered across Washington County. Teri Lenahan, the North Plains Mayor, said reaction in the community has been mixed. On the one hand, the event will bring tourists and golf enthusiasts to Washington County, providing a boon to the local economy. On the other hand, those ties to the Saudi government taint any potential positives.

“Some people are not really following the details,” said Lenahan, one of the 11 Washington County mayors who signed the letter denouncing Escalante. “But when I talk to them about everything, they kind of take a pause and go, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that.’ It’s really a mixed bag of opinions. Obviously, we’re not in a position to stop it. But also, since this is in my backyard, I feel like I have a moral obligation to speak out and take a stand against these events, to protect the people that I serve that live in my community. It’s important to talk about the atrocities from the Saudi government and the Saudi Nationals, the human rights violations, the oppression of women and the mass executions. It’s despicable.”

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