Greg Norman batted away concerns over Saudi Arabia’s rights record and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as he defended his new money-spinning golf tour.
The Australian former world No 1 is heading the new multimillion-dollar LIV Golf Invitational Series which is heavily backed by Saudi financing and has sparked accusations of “sportswashing”.
A United States intelligence assessment found that the Gulf kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “approved” an operation to capture or kill critic and Washington Post columnist Khashoggi.
Saudi officials deny this and say that his murder and dismemberment in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018 – which sparked worldwide outrage – was a “rogue” operation.
“This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights, talk about it, but also talk about the good that the country is doing in changing its culture,” Norman said on Wednesday when grilled by reporters about Saudi involvement in the series, which starts in England next month.
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” the 67-year-old added.
The LIV series is threatening to tear golf apart.
Six-time Major champion Phil Mickelson and former world No 1 Lee Westwood are among the high-profile players who want to be released from established tours to play the opening tournament near London.
The 54-hole event at Centurion Club in St Albans boasts an eye-watering prize fund of $25 million.
But the PGA Tour is refusing to give its players permission to take part and those who go ahead and play in the 9-11 June event would be deemed to be in violation of Tour regulations, opening the door to suspension or exclusion.
Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported that officials on the DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour, had followed their US counterparts by taking a similar stance.
Mickelson has not played since triggering uproar in February following the publication of remarks made last year concerning the new series.
The 51-year-old described the Saudi financial backers of the series as “scary” with a “horrible record on human rights”, but said he was willing to deal with them in order to gain leverage to “reshape” the PGA Tour.
Mickelson subsequently apologised for the comments and announced he was taking some “desperately needed time away” from golf.
Norman, chief executive of LIV Golf Investments, accused the PGA Tour of “perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market”.
“The Tour’s action is anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive,” he said after the PGA Tour refused to give permission to its golfers to play.
“But no matter what obstacles the Tour puts in our way we will not be stopped. We will continue to give players options that promote the great sport of golf globally.
“No tour owns the game of golf and we feel we’re on the right side of history.”
The LIV series will offer purses of $25m per tournament – making each leg more lucrative than the richest event on the PGA Tour, and about double the prize money of each of golf’s four Majors.
The first year will feature eight tournaments across three continents, with players competing as individuals and in teams.
Norman said that he had offered unwavering backing to players who had expressed an interest in playing in the LIV series, including paying their fines.
“If you so choose to want, as an independent contractor, to come and play with us, we’ve got your back,” he said.
“I’ll break it down to three very simple things – we’ll defend, we’ll reimburse and we’ll represent.”
Asked if his legal team had injunctions in place to protect players in the face of any bans, including potentially from Major championships, Norman said: “Yes.”
“We’re going to back up the players, we’re going to be there for them, we’re prepared for that, whatever that is. We’re ready to go. We don’t want to go, but we’re ready to go.”
Norman said on Tuesday that an additional $2bn in funding had been lined up for a 10-event series in 2023 and a league beginning in 2024.
© Agence France-Presse