Lee Westwood has broken his silence on the Saudi-backed breakaway circuit and confirmed he has requested a release to play the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event next month.
Westwood revealed in February he had signed a non-disclosure agreement regarding his possible participation in what was then a proposed league of 14 events.
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman claimed on Monday that the league was ready to launch in mid-February until Phil Mickelson’s explosive comments about the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia were published and led to some players to back out.
“The ones who wanted to get out because of the pressure of the PGA Tour gave back their money and got out. Guys had money in their pockets,” Norman told ESPN.
Speaking during last year’s US PGA Championship, Westwood said it would be a “no-brainer” for him to sign a multi-million pound contract at this stage of his career, despite the threat of bans from the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, which would rule players out of the Ryder Cup.
And on Wednesday the 49-year-old confirmed that he has asked both Tours for the release required to contest the $25million event at Centurion Club from June 9-11.
“I’ve asked for releases for tournaments for as long as I’ve been on Tour,” Westwood said. “Not heard anything back yet. Ball is in the European Tour’s court and the PGA Tour’s court for that matter.
“I think some of my mates I grew up playing with in Worksop, if I went up to them and said I’ve been given an opportunity to play in a tournament, a 48-man tournament for $25million, they would probably pull me to one side and say ‘what is it you’re actually thinking about?’
“This is my job. I do this for money. It’s not the only reason for doing it. But if anybody comes along and gives any of us a chance at a pay rise, then you have to seriously consider it, don’t you?”
“I’ve supported the European Tour for 29 years. I’ve hosted events on this Tour.
“It’s being portrayed as an us and them (situation), whereas the people from LIV Golf have said that they want to stand side-by-side; they are not going up against any of the really massive tournaments.
“They want everybody to be able to play, have options. They are not forcing anybody’s hand, so I believe.
“People always have a problem with change, don’t they? They are sceptical about it and people like continuity, whereas change in competition is good in any walk of life I think. It shakes things up and keeps everybody on their toes and keeps everybody trying to improve and improve their product.”
In his interview with the author of a forthcoming biography, Mickelson acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has a “horrible record on human rights” but he was happy to overlook that in order to have leverage over the PGA Tour and “reshape” how it operates.
But asked if the source of the money – Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund – was an issue for him, Westwood insisted sport and politics should not mix.
“The first time I ever played in Saudi Arabia was on the European Tour,” he said. “The first three times I played there, the European Tour sanctioned it so they had no problem with where the money came from.
“I think Saudi Arabia are trying to become more westernised and make changes and they are trying to make changes quickly, and that’s probably worrying a lot of people and scaring a lot of people. But they are just trying to improve, aren’t they?
“I’m of a belief that sport and politics shouldn’t mix, as we have seen it doing in Wimbledon with the Russian players not being allowed to play there. I happen to disagree with what they have done there, as a lot of people do.
“So I don’t think they should mix. A lot of the times, they do. It all comes down to opinions at the end of the day, doesn’t it?”
Defending British Masters champion Richard Bland has also asked for a release to play at Centurion, but Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre said: “I won’t be there. Simple as that.
“I’m just starting out my career. I’m playing on both sides of the planet, America, DP World. So I’m in a great spot. I’m enjoying my golf, just got to get on with it.
“At the end of the day, there’s crazy, crazy money getting thrown at it. If you ask me, it’s obscene money to be throwing at sport. There’s only so much money that a human needs.
“So for me right now, I’m comfortable. I’ve got a house, a home, my family is healthy. I’ve got a car I can drive. I have clothes I can put on and I can still treat myself and my family. What do I need? Just now, I’m as happy as I can be in the life of Robert MacIntyre.”
Responding to Westwood’s comments, Felix Jakens, Amnesty International UK’s Head of Priority Campaigns, said: “Lee Westwood is obviously entitled to his opinion about the degree to which sport and politics should mix, but with the Saudi authorities pumping huge amounts of money into golf and other sports precisely to sportswash their battered international image it’s clear that golf tournaments like this one are already political through and through.
“Sportswashing is a major tool of international image management – not least in the hands of the Saudi authorities who have considerable funds at their disposal and an atrocious human rights record to distract from.
“Saudi Arabia’s persecuted human rights community will feel bitterly disappointed if well-paid golfing superstars take the LIV Golf cash but stay silent about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.”
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