Tiger Woods has said he rejected the opportunity to play in a European Tour event in Saudi Arabia for the second year in succession but defended Phil Mickelson’s decision to travel to the Middle East.
Woods could have earned $3m from appearing in the Saudi International in late January, with 2020 the second playing of the tournament.
Mickelson is the latest and most high-profile player to be subject to a backlash for being part of the field in Saudi Arabia. The country’s appalling record on human rights and role in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi has raised questions about golf’s willingness to stage an event there. Players are paid significant appearance fees but a lucrative cheque was not sufficient to coax Woods.
He did not say this troubling backdrop was behind his decision not to take part, however. “I just didn’t want to go over there,” the Masters champion said. “It’s a long way.”
This week Amnesty International accused the Saudi government of trying to “sportswash” the country’s image.
Asked whether it is fair Mickelson has been criticised, Woods replied: “I understand the politics behind it but also the game of golf can help heal a lot of that, too. It can help grow it [the game], and also a lot of top players are going to be playing there.
“It’s traditionally not a golf hotbed, the Middle East, but it has grown quite a bit. I remember going to Dubai for my first time and seeing maybe two or three buildings in the skyline. Now there is a New York city skyline. Again, golf has grown. There were only a few courses when I went to Dubai and now they’re everywhere. Same with Abu Dhabi and maybe eventually in Saudi Arabia.”
Mickelson, a longtime darling of golf fans, took to social media to post a series of bizarre defences of his Saudi trip. The 49-year-old said his critics will “be OK” and added: “After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I’m excited to go play and see a place in the world I’ve never been.”
Mickelson has twice played at the European Tour’s annual event in Abu Dhabi. He insisted it would be “stupid” to visit Saudi Arabia privately “given the opportunity I have to go play and compete while visiting”.
Jon Rahm, the European Tour’s player of the year, claimed the Saudi Invitational was now a Rolex Series event. While that will not be the case in 2020, the possibility remains live in the future. Rahm has not ruled out a Saudi appearance but cited his preference is to play on the US west coast at that time of year.
Woods will have Justin Thomas for playing company in the first round of the Hero World Challenge that begins in the Bahamas on Wednesday.