By Andrew Both
(Reuters) - European Tour Commissioner Keith Pelley says the tour will play again in Saudi Arabia in 2020 and is "perplexed" at the criticism received for staging a tournament there for the first time in January.
Following the murder of American-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey in October, and the country's human rights record in general, some thought it inappropriate the European Tour staged a new tournament in the Middle East nation four months later.
"It was the right decision for our tour," Canadian Pelley told Reuters.
"We will be back in Saudi and we'll continue to grow that event. We believe our role will help the evolution of the country."
Pelley's comments came as the European Tour seeks to find its footing in the brave new world of golf, in which the U.S.-based PGA Tour is playing a new schedule this year that has reverberated across the professional game.
Though the European Tour visits pretty much every corner of the globe apart from the Americas, it remains very much in the shadow of its behemoth U.S. counterpart, where most of the top Europeans play the majority of their golf from February through June, and in August.
While deep-pocketed corporations almost line up to sponsor PGA Tour events, the European Tour has to work harder to provide lucrative playing opportunities for its members.
Former PGA Tour winner Brandel Chamblee, now a Golf Channel analyst, was among the most outspoken critics of playing in Saudi Arabia.
"By participating, the players, they are a ventriloquist for this abhorrent regime," he said.
That criticism notwithstanding, the tournament went ahead with a $3.5 million purse as well as large appearance fees that lured the likes of top Americans Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, Englishman Justin Rose and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
It was won by Johnson, the current world number one, in front of sparse crowds.
The 55-year-old Pelley, the European Tour chief since 2015, says he has no qualms in stating that the Saudi International will be on the schedule again next year.
He cited Cristiano Ronaldo and Mariah Carey as examples of celebrities who have visited the country since Khashoggi's murder.
"After the incident (murder), many blue-chip businesses and many governments continued to do business in Saudi, (and the) entertainment business is still flourishing," said Pelley.
"There was Italian Super Cup with AC Milan and Juventus (in January) and Ronaldo scored the winning goal and celebrated, and we tried to find any kind of criticism for Ronaldo, yet our players were criticised. Why was golf singled out? I was perplexed why we were.
"I went over there first and listened to his Excellency (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) at a sports conference, talk about how ... the country wanted to change, needed to change, wanted to use sports as a catalyst, was committed to golf."
Pelley also pointed out that American singer Carey staged a concert in Saudi Arabia the week of the golf tournament.
Asked whether any country’s human rights record would preclude a visit from the European Tour, Pelley did not directly answer the question, saying the safety of players and tour staff was the first factor considered.
"We would look at where they would be playing. After that you would evaluate and go through a bunch of different things," he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond)