Golfers, Beware the Saudi Sportswashing Trap | Opinion

With its strict etiquette and fondness for clubhouse rules, the game of golf has long prided itself on being one of the last bastions of honor and decency.

The reality, of course, is a bit different: tales of racism and sexism have haunted it ever since a "No dogs or women allowed" sign first went up at the home of the sport, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews, Scotland. Across the water, the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club did not admit women until 2012.

Now the charge of sportswashing can be added to the list, after both the men and the women's tours announced plans for tournaments in Saudi Arabia.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, "sportswashing" is when countries with poor human rights records use the lure and excitement of glamorous sporting events, such as golf tournaments, to remove stains on their reputation and pretend everything in the garden is rosy.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world's worst offenders, reaching international pariah status when it emerged that the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) "most likely" ordered the brutal killing of the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, just over a year ago.

Riyadh also stands accused of waging a five-year bombing campaign In Yemen, which has caused 100,000 deaths, and sparked a humanitarian disaster which has left 85,000 infants on the brink of starvation.

Then there's the continued jailing and torture of women's rights activists, the stonings and mass executions, including of people who are gay.

With so much to atone for, Saudi Arabia has seemingly turned to sport and entertainment to not only cleanse itself of its bad behaviour but also to occupy its very young population, 70 percent of whom are under 30 years old.

To this end the authorities are building a £5.9bn entertainment city in the desert which is due to host the country's first Formula One Grand Prix, and earlier this month the British boxer Anthony Joshua beat Andy Ruiz Jr to regain his world heavyweight title—and net himself £66m—in the much-hyped 'Clash in the Dunes'.

In recent months Amnesty International has changed its tune on what sports stars should do when offered huge sums of money to go to the desert kingdom.

While previously it said they should boycott Riyadh altogether, the human rights charity now accepts they will probably go anyway but while they're there they should speak out about abuses going on in the country.

But there's not much chance of this happening, judging from their initial responses.

"I'm not a politician, I'm a pro golfer," said the British player, Justin Rose.

"I'm not going to get into it," said the American, Brooks Koepka.

While last year's winner (yes, they really did play in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi's killing and dismemberment) Dustin Johnson said simply: "It's my job to pay golf." And don't you get paid well for it.

The most insulting response came from the former Masters, PGA and Open champion Phil Mickelson who said: "I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You'll be ok."

He justified breaking a 30-year run at the Phoenix Opens to go to Saudi saying: "After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I'm excited to go play and see a place in the world I've never been."

When golf writer Ewan Murray suggested Mickelson could still visit the country without doing the high-figured appearance fee and sportswashing bit he replied: "I could, but given the opportunity I have to go and play and compete while visiting, your recommendation just seems stupid to me', later telling the journalist 'You do you, I'm gonna do me."

Another former champion, Rory McIlroy, could not have been clearer where he stood in the issue.

"No, I won't go and it's one hundred percent a morality issue," said the Northern Ireland player. You're dead right it is—so where did Mickelson leave his moral compass?

Tiger Woods turned down an offer of $2.5m to play, diplomatically saying the Middle East was too far away to travel to, and the Englishman Paul Casey cited being a UNICEF good will ambassador. Good call, Paul—would have been tricky for a children's charity spokesman to sportswash a country whose bombing campaign is killing all those Yemeni infants.

So, barring them all suddenly coming to their senses, it looks like the European Tour will go to Saudi Arabia next month, where Mickelson says he is looking forward to "doing my bit to grow the game in the kingdom."

Somehow even more shocking is the decision by the Ladies European Tour to play in Saudi Arabia in March, given the country's appalling record on women's rights.

Despite reforms giving women the right to drive and travel abroad, the oppressive male guardianship system still means women have to get permission from a male relative to get married or leave a shelter where they have fled to escape abuse.

More than a hundred women have agreed to take part in the tournament which is being held in Jeddah. Maybe they will reflect on their decision when they realize they will have to ditch their skirts and shorts as women golfers are only allowed to wear long trousers in Saudi Arabia, despite temperatures reaching up to 90F in March.

At least they can drive themselves to the golf course now!

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of The Daily Mail.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Correction: This article was amended to reflect the fact St. Andrews golf club displayed the sign disallowing "dogs or women" from its premises.

Golfers, Beware the Saudi Sportswashing Trap | Opinion | Opinion