(Reuters) – England’s Paul Casey said his desire to be open-minded and Saudi Arabia’s commitment to using sport as a medium for change made him enter the 2021 Saudi International after he skipped the last edition due to concerns over the country’s human rights record.
The European Tour hosted its maiden event in Saudi Arabia last year against a backdrop of criticism over the choice of venue in the wake of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s human rights record.
Casey, a UNICEF ambassador, had told British newspaper The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/golf/paul-casey-interview-valspar-masters-saudi-arabia-leaderboard-score-watch-pga-tour-ryder-cup-a8794096.html that he would be a “hypocrite” if signed a deal to play in Saudi Arabia, whom human rights campaigners have accused of ‘sportswashing’ by using events to create a positive image.
“This isn’t a decision I’ve taken lightly. I wasn’t comfortable going in the past, but I’ve always been open-minded and willing to learn,” Casey told Reuters on Friday.
“I believe sport has the power to affect change. I’ve listened to the Saudi commitment to this and their vision for the future.”
Saudi Arabia hosted two professional golf tournaments for women for the first time this month even as women’s rights remain a contentious issue in the west Asian country.
“They have successfully hosted two professional ladies tournaments which shows that Golf Saudi have big plans not only for professional golf, but more so for grassroots and the next generation,” Casey added.
“It’s always better to include rather than exclude when eliciting change… I hope my participation will make a difference. I’m looking forward to seeing these changes in person.”
Casey will be joined by fellow European Ryder Cup members Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Tyrrell Hatton, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and holder Graeme McDowell at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club from Feb. 4-7.
The field also features Masters champion Dustin Johnson, U.S. Open winner Bryson DeChambeau, Open champion Shane Lowry, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed.
The tournament offers world ranking and Ryder Cup points to European players who will look to seal a berth in the 2021 Ryder Cup team.
Europe’s qualification process for the Ryder Cup was frozen when the biennial contest was postponed until September 2021, but will resume in January.
(Reporting by Manasi Pathak in Bengaluru; Editing by Nick Zieminski)