Rory McIlroy defends players’ right to boycott Saudi Arabia Masters

• Rory McIlroy attended Masters in 2017 but had another in protest • Organisers say he and others could potentially play

Rory McIlroy has defended the players’ right to boycott the Saudi Arabia Masters tournament on the basis of its sponsors’ ties to the Saudi royal family.

Saudi Arabia are barred from sponsoring Olympic sports because of the state’s human rights record.

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Four-time major winner McIlroy had previously indicated he would consider walking out after the event was announced, but he was at Royal Melbourne Golf Club on Thursday.

“It’s been going on for a couple of months now,” McIlroy said. “This is more the spectators – the fans that are passionate about golf and want to come out and enjoy it, seeing all the corporate tents and sponsors.

“It’s something we’re all for, we want to give the fans and people and the wider public that are in this event the same experience we get, but we’re all for the protesters and those wanting to say a little bit about something and raising their voices and standing up for what they believe in.”

The sponsors of the event, which is held annually on a weekly basis, include an official state partner, investment bank Jadwa Investment. The company has close links to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who engineered a sweeping shake-up of the Saudi leadership in a generational shake-up when he was appointed as deputy crown prince.

“In order to fulfil our contractual obligations to Jadwa, we had to come and we had to visit and meet the Tournament Director and people involved in the tournament,” McIlroy said. “Yes, we are aware of the controversy, and it’s something we will have to discuss in the future, but for now, there are other issues that are more important than golf.”

In 2017, McIlroy and other tour members walked out on the PGA Tour’s Crowne Plaza Invitational in Texas after the game’s biggest sponsors – FedEx and MasterCard – had signed a lucrative deal with Saudi Arabia. Other players who also boycotted in 2017 were Jamie Donaldson, Soren Kjeldsen, Tony Finau and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

“It’s something we all feel really strongly about – it’s been discussed many times and there’s a lot of people who are passionate about what we do and the players stand by what we do,” McIlroy said. “But there are other issues that are more important than golf and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

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Alvaro Espinosa, president of the German international golf association (DIZG), and Norman Gilbert, one of the driving forces behind the Oceania Golf Tour, claimed last week that players were withdrawing from the Masters because they are fearful they will be prosecuted for speaking out against the tournament.

Saudi Arabia deny they have a policy of arresting members of civil society.

“In general, I feel very strongly about the fact there are things that we are doing in this game and making sure that we’re doing things right, and as players and tour managers we can see that things aren’t always going as they should and the players are on the right track,” McIlroy said.

“There are certain events, especially the big tournaments, you don’t have to worry about it, but this event has already affected more than just the 14 players that have now said, ‘We won’t play this event, we won’t come here’, or a few hours before we walked out there, there were 30 to 40 players that came out, expressing their opinion.

“So I believe that’s the main issue with the Saudi team and why the tournament is still going ahead.”

The Saudi golf association declined to comment.

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