At Pumpkin Ridge, it’s one big LIV party, but hard feelings and controversy hang over the golf

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NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Apart from three tense half-hour press conferences, the vibe at Pumpkin Ridge has been remarkably stress-free. The caddies can’t believe how well they’re being looked after. Coaches, too. On the PGA Tour, they paid for their travel and accommodations. At LIV, it’s taken care of. The members and employees are ooohing and aahing at seeing all these tour pros at their track.

Pat Perez feels like he won the lottery. They’re gonna pay me, a 46-year-old good-not-great tour pro, all this dough and I get to play less? Matt Wolff looks a completely new person, freed from the solitude of PGA Tour life and genuinely excited to be part of a team, no matter how silly the team concept may seem. Bryson DeChambeau’s walking the fairways with his full content team, something he could not do on the PGA Tour. It’s as if everyone here’s on an all-expenses paid vacation. Perhaps that vibe will change on Thursday, when the golf begins and they can play for even more money than they’re getting for being here. Perhaps it won’t.

The LIVers, however, are not a representative sample of the Portland area as a whole. Not even close. Multiple sources, some of whom spent years working at Pumpkin Ridge, described the local conversation around the first LIV event in the U.S. as tense, divisive and the last thing the Portland area needed. The issue has been a constant topic of conversation among the tight-nit Oregon golf community.

The concerns, of course, lie with the source of all that money that’s paying for the caddies’ hotels, the players’ new boats, and the upgrades to Pumpkin Ridge’s facilities that seemed to appear out of thin air. The Public Investment Fund, under direct control of the Saudi Arabian government, is bankrolling LIV Golf. That government’s abhorrent human rights record is no secret—to name just a few of the Saudis’ greatest hits: the 9/11 hijackers, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the criminalization of homosexuality—but their involvement in this community hits home extra hard given the 2016 death of Fallon Smart, a 15-year-old who was killed on a Portland street by a speeding gold Lexus. That car was believed to be driven by Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah, a Saudi national living in Oregon on a student visa. Per The Oregonian, Noorah had already racked up 17 parking tickets and had a suspended license at the time of the incident. Noorah was placed on house arrest but never faced trial—he cut off his tracking monitor and disappeared into a black SUV. It is widely believed that he was taken back to Saudi Arabia.

Why, then, would a club voluntarily align itself with such toxicity? Especially in Portland, which for the past two years has been cartoonized as a lawless liberal wasteland by powerful media outlets? Turns out it wasn’t exactly a choice.

Escalante Golf, the firm that purchased Pumpkin Ridge from its original ownership group in 2015, negotiated the deals without consultation from the membership. (Escalante also owns The International, which will host LIV’s Boston event later this year.) As such, a number of members and employees left the club in disgust. One current member suggested that 16 members left the club, though he was quick to add that over 30 had joined since the LIV announcement. The exact numbers cannot be known.

“I just wish Escalante weren’t so tone deaf to bring all this negativity into our community,” says Lacy Erickson, the former director of golf for Pumpkin Ridge’s two courses. (The layout for this week’s event is a combination of the public Ghost Creek track and the private Witch Hollow). She left the club in December to work in sales for apparel brand Johnnie O. “It just feels like they haven’t made any effort as far as community outreach, doing something for Oregon golf, or just bringing any positivity here.”

On the contrary, it’s brought significant controversy. A coalition of mayors in Washington County, which includes North Plains, sent a letter to Escalante pleading with them to review their decision. Before the invitational kicked off, mayors across Washington County wrote a letter to Escalante Golf. The mayors of North Plains, Tori Lenahan, and of nearby Beaverton, where Nike’s global headquarters lies, spoke to KATU2 about their opposition to the event.

“While mayors do not historically use our voices collectively, we came together to voice our concerns about the unwelcome potential risk that could have an effect on our community,” Lenahan said.

Beaverton added: “Our communities come from all over the world because of great businesses like Nike and Intel and Columbia. But it also brings a lot of fear when we allow these things to happen in our community, and so that’s one of the reasons we’re standing here today.”

On Thursday morning, hours before the 1 pm shotgun start of the first round, a group of 9/11 survivors and family members will hold a press conference in protest of the event just down the road in North Plains. Both Tuesday’s practice round and Wednesday’s pro-am were closed to the general public, so it’s not clear how many fans will attend the three-day tournament—or what the vibe might be.

The players, it should be noted, don’t seem too bothered. When asked if he had any concerns with the source of the money, Perez kept it simple: “No.” When asked to elaborate, he didn’t add much.

“I’m playing golf. This group has provided me an opportunity to play golf and have a different schedule, and that’s my only concern,” Perez said “So, yeah, I mean, I understand the topics you’re trying to bring up, and they’re horrible events, but I’m here to play golf. That’s my deal. I’ve got an opportunity to play golf, and that’s it.”

When asked a similar question, Martin Kaymer spoke of wanting to use golf as a force of good.

“Imagine you’re a child in Saudi Arabia and you’ve only saw golf on TV,” the two-time major winner said, “and then for the last three, four years, you were able to watch golf live in your country and you could even try it out, like a lot of other sports that Saudi Arabia brought to their country. I think you can also see it from that point of view, that you can inspire a different generation to do good, to do better, to do something with their lives that they never thought they would be capable of doing, and if we can inspire them to do something similar to what we are doing, I think it’s a great opportunity for the rest of your life, to try something that all the family members before you, all the generations have never done before.”

Gaylord Davis, a Portland businessman who purchased the land Pumpkin Ridge sits on in the late 1980s and helped develop the club, said he too is able to separate the golf tournament from the people paying for it.

“I put my golf hat on and I’m excited to have the pros here,” Davis said. “We weren’t going to get them here any other way. We weren’t getting a PGA Tour event. We weren’t getting a Ryder Cup. So this is how we get the best in the world here. Look at the Olympics. That’s where everyone gets together, no matter how much the countries don’t like each other, they get together through sport.

“They’ve already made so many improvements to the clubhouse. New roofs, new floors, and that money comes from LIV. The course is in perfect condition…Obviously they murdered Khashoggi, and there’s some terrible stuff going on. But I’m able to separate that from the golf. China isn’t too pure. There’s Saudi gas in everyone’s car.”

Davis played in the pro-am Wednesday alongside Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel, who won the $4 million grand prize at LIV’s inaugural event in London. His caddie for the day was Chris Smith, former director of instruction at Pumpkin Ridge who left years ago for the same position at Eugene Country Club.

“There’s enough division in the world,” Smith said. “Sport always brings people together.”

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