NASSAU, Bahamas — Tiger Woods twice turned down offers to play in the controversial Saudi International tournament on the European Tour, but he defended Phil Mickelson‘s decision to play the event early next year.
Woods, who begins play in the Hero World Challenge on Wednesday at Albany Golf Club, was offered in the neighborhood of $3 million to play the tournament each of the last two years. He declined.
“I just don’t want to go over there,” Woods told ESPN. “It’s a long way.”
Woods declined a spot in the 2019 event won by Dustin Johnson before the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in September 2018. The Washington Post writer, who was living in the United States at the time and had been critical of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkish officials said.
That led to heavy criticism of the European Tour for going on the with event, which is being played for a second time, Jan. 30-Feb. 2. Rory McIlroy also turned down an offer to play.
The crown prince was a prominent figure at last year’s golf tournament. His government is putting up the $3.5 million purse as well as seven-figure appearance fees to several players.
Johnson will return as defending champion, as will Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Tony Finau, Open champion Shane Lowry and Henrik Stenson. Mickelson came under criticism for accepting an invitation to play in the event and skipping the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he has played 27 straight years and 30 times overall.
“I understand the politics behind it,” Woods said of the controversy during his Hero World Challenge news conference. “But also the game of golf can help heal a lot of that, too. It can help grow it. 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.”
Mickelson was heavily criticized — although he also had a good number of supporters — after his decision to play was reported. And he responded on Twitter with his reasons.
“After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I’m excited to go play and see a player in the world I’d never seen,” said Mickelson, who played in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in 2011 and 2014. “I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be OK. I’m excited to experience this for the first time.”