AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National Golf Club was very pleased to display a photo of its Masters Champions Dinner Tuesday night on social media for all the world to see. Thirty-four men in green jackets, decades worth of Masters champions surrounding club chairman Fred Ridley, all of them smiling for the camera enjoying a celebration of the most famous brotherhood in golf.
You know who else was especially thrilled to see that photo spreading across the globe?
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the mastermind of the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, as well as his golf-bro buddies in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the nation responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States nearly 22 years ago and the abysmal human rights violations against women and the LGBTQ community in particular to this day.
Six men who left the world of real golf tournaments to go into business with bin Salman and the Saudis in the exhibition-style LIV Golf league were conspicuously present in that photo: Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel. They were interspersed with golfers they have been fighting and arguing with for months, if not face to face, certainly in interviews, on social media and in the occasional legal document.
But all apparently is forgiven now. This was a picture of happiness, of harmony, of guys who all appeared to be friends again. This was Augusta National, the public face of golf, the best known club on earth, welcoming bin Salman’s boys with open arms.
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It also was a picture of something else: Sportswashing. That photo is the textbook definition of the word. By allowing the six Masters champions who escaped to LIV, and the 12 other LIV golfers who met the qualifications to be in the 88-player field, Augusta National has done something both historic and repulsive: it is legitimizing, even dignifying, LIV Golf.
In one photo, it has given the Saudis and LIV Golf much more than they ever could have hoped for when they set off to careen through the staid game of golf. It has not only given LIV Golf a publicity shot for the ages. It has given the silly, no-cut circuit an undeniable sign of respect.
I asked Ridley about this Wednesday morning at his annual press conference:
My question: “Back in December you used the words, “Regrettably…diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it,” and you said you were “disappointed,” presumably because of the golfers who left their jobs and went into business with the Saudis responsible for 9/11, the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi and terrible, abysmal human rights violations.
“So now they are here, obviously. You have 18 here. The picture last night was six of them (at the champions dinner). Are you at all concerned that you are actually helping the Saudis sportswash because of their joy in seeing a picture like that last night? Are you helping them actually sportswash their reputation?”
Ridley’s reply: “Let me go back – let me go back to our statement – that was a long question, Christine, but I’ll try to start from the beginning.
“Our statement in December, and particularly the comment that these actions had diminished the virtues of the game, I want to make a couple points. The first is I know many of these players who are no longer on the PGA Tour. Some of them I would consider friends. So anything I might say is not a comment, a personal comment, against their character or anything else.
“What I was trying to point out, and I alluded to it in my comments, the platform that these players have built their careers on were based on the blood, sweat and tears of their predecessors, people like Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods.
“I had the privilege of being a member, a partner in a law firm that’s 180 years old, and we exist today because of many generations of lawyers who thought it was important to leave our organization better than they found it. So this is just my personal opinion. Doesn’t mean that everyone has to think this way.
“So my comment in December was really more that I was expressing some disappointment that these players were taking the platform that had been given to them – that they rightly had earned success on, by the way – and moving to another opportunity, perhaps not thinking about who might come behind them.
“As relates to your comment about sportswashing, I certainly have a general understanding of the term. I think, you know, it’s for others to decide exactly what that means. These were personal decisions of these players, which I, you know, at a high level, don’t necessarily agree with, but it really wasn’t intended to go beyond that.”
Terry Strada, the national chair of 9/11 Families United whose husband Tom was killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, was watching Ridley’s press conference from her Florida home after appearing at a press conference of her own Tuesday in Atlanta to protest Ridley’s decision to allow LIV golfers into the first men’s major tournament of the year. Strada and Ridley also had a private conversation on the phone Monday, Strada said.
“What Mr. Ridley fails to understand is his actions cause real pain to real people,” Strada said Wednesday afternoon in a text message. “By insinuating there is no issue with the Saudi-backed sportswashing entity because the boys are all partying together is disingenuous.
“Last week, I wrote a letter to him highlighting why it is problematic for the 9/11 community to give the Saudis and LIV Golf an international platform and certainly expected he would acknowledge the issue and not pretend it doesn’t exist. On Monday, we had a candid conversation on the phone on the Saudis’ goal of sportswashing. Then, today in his press conference, he completely dismissed the 9/11 community’s position by acting like, hey, if they’re all having fun, I’ve done nothing wrong by having them here.”
In the last year, the Saudis have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps as much as $1 billion, to buy golfers who they hoped would help the world forget all about their atrocities. It looks like they got their money’s worth with one simple, iconic photo at Augusta National.