A Day at the Saudi-Backed Golf Tournament That Was Roiled in Controversy Before It Began

If you weren’t aware of the furor leading up to the tournament, it wouldn’t have been apparent in the slightest.

Even before it began, the high-profile golf tournament held at a private club just outside of Portland was roiled in controversy.

The newly founded golf tour, LIV Golf, is backed by the Saudi Arabian government’s investment branch, which has been accused of investing major bucks in sports in order to distract attention from the country’s human rights abuses. That gave the tour a dark reputation before it even began, as regional mayors surrounding Portland and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) offered scathing rebukes, as did family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks at a Thursday morning press conference just seven minutes away from the tournament course.

But on Thursday, when three WW reporters spent a day at the LIV Golf tournament at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, few of the attendees talked about the controversy without being asked. In fact, it felt cheerful, busy and sunny—like any other major sporting event, with a touch of Caddyshack. (Think pastel polo shirts and unscuffed white kicks.)

Two of our reporters were able to walk onto club grounds unimpeded, although one was promptly ejected for lacking press credentials.

There were no protesters visible nor any signs admonishing the tournament. No obvious disruptions occurred. If you didn’t know of the simmering conflict preceding the event, it would not be apparent that the tournament was mired in controversy for two months before the professional golfers even set foot in Portland.

Spectators WW spoke with throughout the day seemed undeterred by the controversy, although certainly aware of it.

“Everyone walking through these gates is aware of what’s going on,” said Daniel Laguatan, a longtime golf fan. “I don’t think anybody here agrees with the backing or what they’re doing but, on the other token, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because you want to see pro golf.”

Laguatan chose golf over guilt.

“It’s like, ‘Screw it, I’m still gonna go watch the golf.’”

Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club is the first stateside stop on the LIV Golf Tour, which has made the club in North Plains the subject of national scrutiny. The club is owned by Escalante Golf, a Texas-based company that owns 20 golf courses across the country, including the LIV tournament’s fourth U.S. stop, in Boston. It was founded by three former college fraternity brothers.

On Thursday, the property showed no signs of the controversy that caused as many as 40 members to resign.

Fans began filtering through security and ticketing right at 10 am, three hours before tee time at 1 pm. Spectators then walked under a series of decorative arches onto a black-carpeted path leading them into the smooth asphalt road, lined with bark chips, that wound through the fan village.

The course was sectioned off with black mesh fencing, and several fields surrounding the course doubled as de facto parking lots.

Portland-area food trucks, including Koi Fusion, Black Star Grill and Chop Chop Chicken Sundaes, were already dispensing lunch and drinks to the baseball cap- and polo shirt-clad crowds.

At 1 pm, a team of parachutists floated down to the ground, flying American flags and LIV Golf flags, as spectators cheered and craned their necks to watch.

The tournament had begun.

For the next three hours, it felt like any golf tournament: Hushed on the turf, polite golf claps after every botched or clean swing, spectators clustered together around tee boxes sipping water. Mount Hood looked magnified on the horizon in the idyllic 75-degree weather and bright sun.

Practice bays where spectators of all ages could practice their own golf swings with the help of LIV coaches sat in the shade and in a temporary building next to the fan village. A kids’ area, featuring toys and games and, later in the afternoon, a science demonstration, was staffed by workers from an events company. The sloping hill leading away from the main drag was decorated with wooden seating and colorful cushions. A DJ sat atop a hill playing music.

Near the entrance to the fan village, two young performers in technicolor outfits performed magic and juggling tricks for passersby. One of the two, 34-year-old Spencer Sprocket, who was on WW’s Best of Portland list in 2020, was working the event for a local circus management company. Sprocket said he wasn’t allowed to comment much about the event.

“Golf seems like kind of a serious sport,” Sprocket said. “Just trying to make sure some people have fun.”

WW reporters asked over a dozen spectators about the tournament’s controversial financial backing. One spectator compared LIV Golf to Uber disrupting the taxi industry.

“So, here’s the comparison. So Uber and Lyft came along and taxi companies throw a fit, OK?” the spectator said. “That’s exactly what’s happening again. It’s innovation.”

A parking attendant, who said his name was Jimmy, had a sightly more cynical take: Americans care only about money, so what can you expect when a company gets offered big bucks to host a high-profile tournament?

“It’s about everybody’s bottom line, the dollars. Like ain’t nobody going to turn down money, especially when they don’t really know the ins and outs of what’s really happening,” Jimmy said. “Look at LeBron James. He supports China, he still gets support from people. Nothing’s gonna change.”

Another spectator said equal criticism should be cast on every endeavor, not just LIV Golf. To be sure, he still attended the tournament.

“If we’re concerned about backing of governments, we could look at all kinds of different issues, like fuel,” he said. “Where do they come from? Which countries are they made in? Where do you draw the line?”