Skip to main content

LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed tour, splits its host city in the Portland area

North Plains, Oregon, Mayor Teri Lenahan outside the city library.
North Plains, Oregon, Mayor Teri Lenahan outside the city library. (Leah Nash/For The Washington Post)

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Since the day she learned the golf tournament was coming to town, Teri Lenahan, the mayor of this town of 3,400 on the outskirts of Portland, has been worrying about things she doesn’t care about. didn’t expect to worry.

She worries about protesters who might show up in the streets, which are painted with murals of early 20th-century townspeople driving buggies and threshing grain. She worries about the inordinate media attention, the crowds, what might happen if something goes wrong in a town whose biggest annual frenzy is the Elephant Garlic Festival.

And although she knows it’s far-fetched, Lenahan even worried about whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might land in a helicopter.

“It’s something in the back of my mind,” Lenahan said. “I don’t know if we should expect that level of dignitaries, or what that might mean. I was a Girl Scout – you have to be prepared.

When LIV Golf, the upstart tour backed by bin Salman and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, kicks off on US soil for the first time next week, it will be at Pumpkin Ridge, a scenic country club in North Plains.

Bin Salman did not make an appearance at the first LIV tournament in London. But Phil Mickelson, LIV’s Hottest Rookie, Did It play with the governor of the Saudi public investment fund, Yasir al-Rumayyan, who is also chairman of English football club Newcastle United.

Pumpkin Ridge is not one of the most reputable golf clubs; it has been more than two decades since it hosted a major men’s tournament, the famous 1996 American amateur won by Tiger Woods. But when it welcomes LIV and its growing list of star golfers, who have shunned the PGA Tour in favor of the sky-high amounts of money offered by the Saudi fund, Pumpkin Ridge and North Plains will become, like LIV itself, the epicenter of division of an earthquake shaking golf.

More than a dozen Pumpkin Ridge members quit in protest at LIV’s arrival, two people with knowledge of the club’s operations said. Some members have spoken out against the tournament, criticizing the club’s owning company, Texas-based Escalante Golf, for aligning itself with what they call “sportswashing” – the Saudi government’s attempts to use the sport to divert attention from a long record of alleged human rights abuses. Bin Salman approved of the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to an intelligence report released by the US government.

Escalante is hosting two LIV tournaments this year. Two more will take place at properties owned by former President Donald Trump, whose family has close ties to the Saudis.

“Escalante Golf has sold our club’s honor and to some extent I feel like they’ve sold a bit of my honor as well,” said Andy McNiece, who sits on the board of directors of the club.

Another Pumpkin Ridge member, who said he was one of the club’s original members, put it more bluntly.

“You think differently in Texas – why don’t you host it there?” he said of Escalante, speaking on condition of anonymity due to concerns about professional repercussions. “For me, the [Jamal] The Khashoggi case is extremely troubling. As a matter of principle, I could never support him for this reason.

But there are many at Pumpkin Ridge who view LIV Golf differently, enthralled by the roster of golfing greats and the rare chance to see their clubhouse greens in the spotlight.

“There is no doubt that the Saudis have a horrendous record of human rights abuses, and we cannot condone this at all,” said Gaylord Davis, longtime member and co-owner of Pumpkin Till. to sell the club to Escalante. in 2015. “But when I put on my golf hat, I’m thrilled to see some of the best players in the world come here to play golf.”

The dozen members who have quit since the tournament was announced have been compensated by many more who have joined, Davis pointed out. “You don’t hear people talking on that side,” he said.

Escalante manager Ryan McDonald declined to be interviewed, but said the club had welcomed 34 members since announcing they would welcome LIV. “The reaction we have received from many members has been positive in anticipation of the upcoming event,” McDonald said in a statement.

In a statement, Allen Barrett, spokesperson for LIV, said the tournament was “pleased to see that our tournament has led to increased membership for Pumpkin Ridge, knowing that most people welcome sports into their homes. We also understand and respect the opinions of those who do not support us.

“Our tournament is about golf and we can’t wait to play it,” Barrett said.

Just as LIV Golf has dangled huge sums of money in front of experienced and newbie golfers alike, LIV’s deal with Escalante, the value of which has not been disclosed, has paid for major upgrades at Pumpkin Ridge.

An elaborate network of LIV-branded stages and structures sprung up almost overnight at Pumpkin, but there are also new roofs, floors and furniture in the clubhouses and pro shop that will last long after the game has gone. tournament. The Champions Grill’s rich brown wood-plank ceilings have been painted gloss black, and the ornate red carpeting has been replaced with dark gray laminate.

On a sunny afternoon earlier this month, when the club’s public course was already closed ahead of the tournament, the clubhouse was asleep, a contrast to the hubbub of construction equipment and work crews outside. outside. On TV in a dining room, the Golf Channel showed a PGA player lambasting LIV.

For McNiece, the new coats of white and black gleam with a kind of myopia. In meetings with members after the tournament was announced, he said, Escalante highlighted the improvements he would be able to make at the club.

“They didn’t indicate at all that they were thinking about morals,” McNiece said. “All I heard was, ‘We have a lot of money.’ ”

In North Plains, residents are divided even beyond the gates of Pumpkin Ridge. The city is less than 20 miles from liberal but politically diverse Portland, with rural conservatives mingling with exurbans occupying new developments. The town is surrounded by several golf courses, and a golf cart dealership is located on its 11-block-long main street. At the Rogue Brew Pub and Eatery, golf plays on the TV above the bar and groups of golfers mingle with locals over beers.

“I’m all for anything that makes golf more interesting,” said Jim Jenkins of Milwaukie, who had just finished a round of golf at another local course. “The [PGA] The tour is boring.

Jenkins insists on having the Golf Channel, he said, but found the PGA Tour stagnant and found himself frustrated by the lack of emotion from top players. LIV Golf’s format, which features teams drafted by captains, was at least something different. Jenkins knew of Saudi Arabia’s track record, he said, but said Saudi money was everywhere in the United States

Next to Jenkins at the pub table, one of his golf partners disagreed. “The issue of human rights is very important to me,” he said. He and Jenkins, both military veterans, had been offered free tickets to LIV, he said, but he planned to stay home. Jenkins had planned to go.

A few tables away, Bret Keller, an engineer in Portland, is just as careless as Jenkins about the origin of the money. But he worries about the future of the PGA Tour, and the athletes, like Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who have let him down. “I don’t like how they jumped out of the PGA just for the money,” Keller said. “I love golf. My feelings are about money – I don’t care who has it.

What’s most unusual about LIV, however, in the Northern Plains and away, is how he’s attracted people far outside of golf, like Lenahan and a group of 10 other mayors. from surrounding Washington County, who wrote an open letter to Escalante, expressing their opposition to the tournament.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), meanwhile, turned the tournament into a club in his long campaign against documented abuses by the Saudi government, shaming LIV players for siding with bin Salman. The abuses are even more personal in Oregon, he said, which has seen documented cases of Saudi nationals fleeing justice after being charged with crimes in the state – including in the hit-and-run murder. in 2016 of a teenager, Fallon Smart, in Portland.

“The Saudis are just trying to wash their bloodstained hands,” Wyden told the Post of LIV Golf. “I play golf. If you’re playing in a tournament 20 minutes from where a Saudi national ran over a woman, I’d say: how would you feel if it was your daughter?

When she thinks about the upcoming tournament chaos in North Plains, Lenahan worries that something similar to Smart’s case is happening in her town. Smart’s accused killer, a Saudi student, disappeared before being tried in Portland. “Knowing the history of the Saudi government, it has become a real safety and security issue for me and my community,” Lenahan said.

There are other, smaller ways LIV Golf’s sudden arrival in North Plains is disrupting the city.

North Plains had planned to host a July 4 fireworks display at Pumpkin Ridge, an event it launched last year. “People loved it,” the mayor said. But the rushed assembly of the LIV tournament, scheduled for the weekend of July 4, replaces the display. McDonald, the Escalante representative, said they never again committed to holding fireworks and by the time the city requested, the tournament had already been scheduled.

There will be an “old fashioned parade,” Lenahan said, and a barbecue, but no city-sponsored fireworks. Instead, LIV will hold its own fireworks display at the end of the tournament, with free tickets for children, veterans and healthcare workers. It’s the Saudi involvement, Lenahan said, that makes him see this as a kind of “slap in the face.”

North Plains resident Zion Rodgers ignored the on-screen golf game in front of him as he sat in the Rogue Pub. He had heard about what was going on at Pumpkin Ridge and had only one thought: “I’d rather have a fireworks display than a golf tournament.”