The outcry, marking the start of the first US stop of the Saudi Arabia-funded LIV Golf Series, eased a bit on Friday, with the focus on the drama at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
Modest crowds and mild temperatures in the mid-70s greeted players on the upstart series – controlled by Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund – that is trying to shake up the PGA Tour. But Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses have drawn widespread criticism.
2020 Masters winner Dustin Johnson shared the lead with Carlos Ortiz of Mexico going into the final round of the 54-hole tournament on Saturday. Johnson shot at 4-under 68 on Friday to reach 8-under.
Johnson said, “I’m really happy with the way I’m swinging it. Tomorrow, I just need to go and do the same thing, just drive across the fairway. I feel like I can get my iron going really I’m doing well, so if I can get into the fairway, I’m going to have to look great. And obviously I’m going to play that well too.”
Ortiz scored the final hole for 69 to pull even with Johnson.
“I felt like I played really solid,” Ortiz said. “I’ve put myself in a good position.”
There was a lone protester outside the club gate about 20 miles west of Portland, carrying a sign that read “Fallen Smart 2000-2016.”
Smart was 15 when she was murdered by a hit-and-run driver in Portland. A Saudi national attending school in Oregon was charged with his death, but a surveillance device was removed and disappeared before his trial could begin. US officials believe the Saudi government helped steer them away.
The mood was light inside Pumpkin Ridge, with food carts offering jugglers and other entertainment, interactive fan activities, and an array of dishes. Organizers did not announce attendance figures, but said Saturday’s final round was sold out.
Brandon Grace was two shots behind the leaders at 6 under after 69. Justin Harding was 5 under after 67, the best score of the day among 48 players.
Johnson had the largest number of galleries with Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, and Bryson DeChambeau, all major winners who have signed on to the new venture fronted by CEO Greg Norman.
The PGA Tour has previously responded to LIV Golf’s challenge by suspending every active member who participated in the LIV event. Those playing in Oregon were suspended until they resigned their tour memberships.
A big lure for LIV golfers is money. In addition to a massive signing bonus, 48-man Field is competing for a $20 million purse, with an additional $5 million in prize money for a team competition. Charl Schwartzel won the London event (and team portion) and earned $4.75 million.
There are no deductions and even the last placed person earns a payday of $120,000.
Critics say the Tour is sportswashing, using golf to detract from Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights, including the 2018 murder of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A group of families who lost loved ones on September 11 protested the tournament on Thursday. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on that day in 2001 were Saudi citizens.
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