Tiger Woods has revealed that he turned down a big-money offer, reported to be $3 million, to play in the European Tour’s Saudi International at the end of January for the second year running.
At the same time, the 15-time major winner defended Phil Mickelson’s decision to become one of the latest world stars to sign up for the £3.5 million event, joining the likes of world No 1 Brooks Koepka and defending champion Dustin Johnson.
Last year’s inaugural tournament at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club attracted widespread criticism due to the Middle East country’s human rights record, with a reported 156 executions having been carried out in 2017.
A few months before that tournament, Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had spoken out against Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Istanbul.
Speaking on the eve of the Hero World Challenge, the event he is hosting this week at Albany Golf Resort in Nassau, Woods confirmed that he had been asked to be in the field both this year and next but had turned down both offers.
“I just didn’t want to go over there - it is a long way to go,” he said in reply to being asked why he had made that decision.
Since announcing he is ending a run of 27 successive appearances in the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open to play in next year’s event, Mickelson has come under fire for his decision to accept a whopping appearance fee.
Responding to that, the five-time major winner wrote on Twitter: “After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years [though he did, in fact, play in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in both 2011 and 2014], I’m excited to go play and see a place in the world I’ve never been.
“I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be OK. I’m excited to experience this for the first time.”
Woods was asked for his opinion on the backlash being felt by Mickelson as he prepared to tee off his bid for a sixth Hero World Challenge win alongside Justin Thomas in Wednesday’s first round in the Bahamas.
“I understand the politics behind it,’’ Woods said of the controversy. “But also the game of golf can help heal a lot of that, too. It can help grow it [the game]. And also a lot of top players are going to be playing there that particular week.
“It’s traditionally not a golf hotbed, the Middle East. But it has grown quite a bit. I remember going to Dubai for my very first time [where he has won twice] and seeing maybe two or three buildings in the skyline. Now there is a New York City skyline.
“Again, golf has grown. There were only a few courses when I went to Dubai and now they’re everywhere. Same with Abu Dhabi, and maybe eventually in Saudi Arabia.’’
Others confirmed for the Saudi event, which will again be the final leg of a three-tournament Middle East Swing after visits to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, include Open champion Shane Lowry, Ryder Cup record points-scorer Sergio Garcia and US duo Patrick Reed and Tony Finau.
Jon Rahm, the newly-crowned European No 1, is not among those due to make the trip and neither is world No 2 Rory McIlroy.
“I’m not shocked this question came,” said Rahm, who is also playing in this week’s PGA Tour event. “I haven’t figured out my schedule. For sure the tournaments that I’ve won, I’ll defend. So there’s four weeks mapped out.
“But I haven’t thought that far ahead. Let’s just say it is Torrey Pines and Phoenix [around the same time] and my success on the West Coast Swing on the PGA Tour has been important and that’s the last few years I’ve gotten a lot of my points.
“As of right now I’m not sure because it is enticing. It’s a nice golf course, it looked great on TV, I heard great things about the tournament, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. It is a home week, Phoenix, because I do live in Phoenix, and the week before, Torrey, is also important for me.”
Rahm was speaking after being announced as European Tour Golfer of the Year, having pipped Lowry in a close contest for the prize, voted for by a panel of golf writers, broadcasters and photographers.
“You could have made an argument for either of us,” said Rahm. “I think just because maybe I might have been a little bit more consistent than him. I did have three wins, but he did win The Open, that’s always big, and I think the Race to Dubai, winning that is what might give me the edge.
“It could have gone either way honestly. I would have been perfectly happy if he would have won just because of how big that Open Championship win is, and how he did it, that Saturday performance was quite impressive.”