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EDITORIAL: Will Saudis spoil Wilmington’s golf spotlight?

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Delaware has never hosted a top-flight PGA Tour event, but that is about to change with the arrival of the BMW Championship at Wilmington Country Club on Aug. 18-21. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

In about six weeks, one of Delaware’s biggest tourism attractions in history is set to arrive in north Wilmington as the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship comes to the Wilmington Country Club.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

It’s a week that tourism and economic development officials have been anxiously awaiting for nearly two years since the host organization, the Western Golf Association, publicly announced its pick in November 2020. The news provided a shot of optimism amid the cloud of COVID-19 as something the First State could look forward to as the world hopefully moved into a post-pandemic future.

And there’s plenty of good reason to be excited about the impact of one of the golf world’s premier non-major tournaments.

Last year, an estimated 100,000 spectators attended the four days of play in the BMW Championship, leaving a more than $30 million economic impact in their wake. And last year’s host course of Caves Valley Golf Course is less than two hours away in Maryland.

Add to that history the fact that concerns over COVID-19 have receded even further over the past year and that the BMW Championship will be the first PGA Tour event ever played in Delaware. It will be the largest golf tournament held here since the LPGA moved its McDonald’s LPGA Championship from the nearby DuPont Country Club in 2004 after a 17-year run there.

“We’re Delaware. We don’t get Super Bowls. This is our Super Bowl,” New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer recently told me at a media day event held at the Wilmington Country Club to preview the tournament.

While all of these positives are on deck for Wilmington in August, however, the marquee event is carrying some considerable baggage with it these days. The PGA Tour is embroiled in controversy right now as some of its biggest stars and most-recognizable names are jumping ship for an upstart golf league bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian government.

The LIV Golf Tour, which held its first tournament in England in June, has seen the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel – all of whom have won a major PGA championship in the last 12 years – defect from the PGA Tour. LIV Golf, funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which is overseen by the Saudi royal family, offers pro golfers smaller, less frequent tournaments for larger sums of money than the corporate sponsor-backed PGA Tour can offer.

The deluge of cash coming into the upstart league organized by former golf champion Greg Norman, however, also comes with tainted origins. The Saudi royal family has been accused of a litany of human rights abuses against political opponents, women, LGTBQ+ people and media critics. Most notably, the family has been tied back to the 2018 murder and disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

That’s led to many in political circles and the sports industry to decry the support for LIV Golf as a shameless cash grab by golfers and an effort at “sportswashing,” or the funding of professional sports to paper over abuses elsewhere, by the Saudi Arabian government.

The golfers leaving the PGA Tour for a chance at easier riches with LIV Golf also leave the tournaments here with a more difficult task: get spectators through the gates when many of the sport’s biggest stars won’t be playing.

As the BMW Championship marks the midway point of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, the grand finale of a long season of play, only the top 70 ranked players are invited to compete. In most years, that’s a who’s who of golf’s elite players.

This year, however, Johnson, Koepka, Oosthuizen, DeChambeau, Reed and Garcia won’t be eligible to play due to their LIV Golf defection despite ranking high enough in the world rankings, along with other up-and-comers like Kevin Na, Talor Gooch and Abraham Ancer. That means lesser-known players like Yuki Inamori, Matt Jones or Christiaan Bezuidenhout may get an invite instead.

Vince Pellegrino, vice president of tournaments at the Western Golf Association, speaks during a June media day event for the BMW Championship. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Vince Pellegrino, senior vice president for tournaments at the WGA, told me he’s not concerned about the potential impact of the LIV Golf suspensions though, noting that other stars like major champions Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and recent U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick would make the BMW field.

“The PGA Tour has the best players in the world playing on their tour, and we don’t think that will change. We’re going to focus on the years of our planning to make this tournament special,” Pellegrino said.

It’s likely that Wilmington Country Club, on the back of the excitement of Delaware’s first major tournament, will do just fine without the major players, but I have to wonder how much enthusiasm may be lost by the arrival of LIV Golf and its impact on professional golf overall.

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