Greg Norman has risked a further backlash over the controversial Saudi Arabian rebel circuit by saying “we have all made mistakes” when asked about the state-sponsored murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Australian Norman was at the Centurion Club outside London on Wednesday to promote the first $25 million (A$36m) event in the $255 million eight-tournament LIV Golf Series that kicks off at the venue in four weeks’ time.
Inevitably, Norman, who is chief executive of LIV Golf, the entity set up to run the Saudi attempt to revolutionise the top of the professional game, was asked about the country’s human rights record, including the 2018 murder of Khashoggi, the 59-year-old United States citizen.
US intelligence agencies concluded last year that Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and deputy prime minister, had approved the execution of the Saudi dissident. MBS, as he is widely known, has never admitted direct involvement, but in one of a few tense exchanges at the St Albans course, Norman stated his belief that people should be given the chance to learn from their “mistakes”. “From what I heard and what you guys reported,” Norman said, “just take ownership of what it is.
“Take ownership, no matter what it is. Look, we have all made mistakes, and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
Pushed later on whether he really believed that dismembering a journalist’s body with a saw was “just a mistake”, Norman said: “I’m not going down this road, guys. Let’s just stay focused on the golf. That’s all I’m going to do.”
“I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”
Norman’s controversial comments are certain to intensify the spotlight on the Kingdom’s rebel circuit and the accusations of “sportswashing”. On Tuesday, he claimed that he did not “answer to MBS”, despite the 36-year-old crown prince being in charge of the Public Investment Fund that is fully financing the LIV Series.
Norman announced that he has secured an extra $2 billion in funding until 2025 from the PIF in an effort to create a 14-event global league by 2024. But he stressed “we are independent”, and reiterated that stance yesterday.
“I haven’t had one personal connection with MBS, I’ve never even met the guy, he said. “But at the same time, I do read that the Saudi government has made their statements about it, and they want to move forward.”
The press conference continued with Norman being asked whether any gay friends had bemoaned Saudi discrimination against the LBGT community. He said: “I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”
Greg Norman in Saudi Arabia in February.Credit:Getty
And when asked what he thought when he heard two months ago that 81 Saudi men had been executed on the same day, he said: “I got a lot of messages, but quite honestly I look forward, I don’t look back. I don’t look into the politics of things.
“I know the mission I have as CEO of LIV Golf and that’s how we can grow the game globally. I’m not going to get into the quagmire of whatever happens in someone else’s world. I heard about it, and I just kept moving on.”
On Tuesday night, the PGA Tour refused to grant waivers to roughly 30 players who had applied to play at Centurion and it is understood that the DP World Tour, formerly known as the European Tour, will soon do the same.
It means Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter must break Tour rules if they want to tee it up in the 54-holer from June 9-11, with the opportunity of collecting $4 million if they finish first in the 48-man event – and being guaranteed $120,000 if they come dead last.
The PGA Tour warned that any players who compete anyway will be at risk of sanction, including a fine or a ban. Norman vowed to pay for the players’ fines, and also revealed that his legal team have injunctions ready should the Tours or the majors issue any suspensions.
LIV believes this will allow the rebels to keep competing in the game’s biggest tournaments as the case goes through the courts.
“We are going to back our players. We are going to be there for them, for whatever it is,” Norman said. “We are ready to go [with injunctions].
“We don’t want to, but we are ready. I’ve told the players, ‘It’s your choice. If you want to stay exclusively with the PGA Tour, happy days, go for it’.
“But I’ve also told the players [who take part regardless] ‘We’ve got your back’. Simple. We will defend them, we will reimburse them, and we will represent them.”
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