Former world number one Greg Norman told reporters “we’ve all made mistakes” as he fielded questions on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The 67-year-old Australian is fronting a new $255m (£207m) Saudi-funded competition, with the first of eight events taking place at Centurion Club, near London, in June.
But the golf was low on the agenda at an event to promote the new LIV Golf series, with the vast majority of questions centred around accusations of so called ‘sports washing’, and the murder in 2018 of dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Norman, who is LIV Golf’s chief executive, said: “Everybody has owned up to it, right? It has been spoken about, from what I’ve read, going on what you guys reported. Take ownership, no matter what it is.
“Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”
A declassified US intelligence report released in February 2021 asserted that the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in Khashoggi’s killing- an allegation Bin Salman has denied.
Bin Salman is chairman of the Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) that provides the money for many sporting events, including Formula 1, boxing, football and golf.
Norman, who won two Open Championships and spent more than 300 weeks as world number one in the 1980s and 90s told BBC Sport on Tuesday that he had secured an extra $2bn from PIF that would allow his LIV Golf plans to stretch for “decades”.
On Wednesday, Norman, who says he has not met Bin Salman, claimed he would have no problem if players who join his series speak out about human rights issues.
“Every player is entitled to their opinion and their voice,” he said.
“This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights, talk about it, but also talk about the good the country is doing to change its culture.
“There are not many countries that can stand up and be proud of that. They can’t be proud of their past – there are a lot of countries in this world that have a cross to bear too – but they are looking after the younger generation.”
Hatice Cengiz, who was Khashoggi’s fiancee, criticised Norman’s comments and use of the word “mistake”.
“It is so hurtful when Jamal’s brutal killing is brushed off as a ‘mistake’ and that we should just move on,” she said in a statement provided to BBC Sport.
“How can we go forward when those who ordered the murder are still unpunished, and continue to try to buy back their legitimacy?
“We should not fall for their wealth and lies, and lose our morals and common humanity.”
As well as dealing with issues around his backers, Norman also has the headache of the PGA Tour refusing to allow its members to play in his events.
On Tuesday, Norman told the BBC he had five of the world’s top 50 committed to the Centurion tournament but the PGA Tour statement countered that, with threats of bans to anyone flouting the ruling.
There are reports that the DP World Tour, given its strategic partnership with the PGA Tour, will follow suit in not allowing its members to play in the fledgling series.
Norman said LIV Golf had injunctions “ready to go” if the PGA and DP World Tours tried to ban players after denying them releases.
The inaugural 54-hole $25m (£20m) tournament is taking place at Centurion Club, 30 miles north of London, from 9-11 June.
Norman expects to announce some of the field next week, during the build-up to the US PGA Championship, the second men’s major of the year, with the final field set to be confirmed on 27 May.
Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood are among the players who sought permission from the PGA Tour to play.
“We are going to back up the players,” said Norman. “It will be the player’s choice. I’m not going to begrudge any player who makes a decision to play wherever he wants. We’re giving them the ability because we believe LIV is here for a long period of time.
“If you want to go exclusively to the PGA Tour, happy days, go do it. I guarantee that a lot of people will come eventually to play with LIV Golf.
“I’ve said to the players, ‘we’ve got your back, simple as that’. We will defend, we will reimburse and we will represent.”
Eight invitational events are scheduled for 2022, with Norman saying more will follow in 2023 with a team-based 14-event league running from 2024.
The first seven tournaments will each have a prize fund of $25m, with $4m (£3.2m) going to the winner, and a $50m prize pot for the final event.
And Norman insisted he could make a success of the venture, even if the world’s best players shunned it.
“We don’t need them,” said Norman when asked whether Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy – who said there was a “morality” to not taking Saudi money – would enhance his proposition.
“If none of the top 20 [players in the world rankings] come, it’s still going ahead.
“Imagine if a 15-year-old kid out of Asia came in and won the first event. He’s the next superstar. That would be the greatest moment in golf because it shows there’s the next generation.”
Norman says that he has tried to speak with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan about how the two could work “shoulder to shoulder” but claims to have had no reply.
In March, at the PGA Tour’s flagship Players Championship, Monahan said he would “not be distracted by rumours of other golf leagues”. – BBCSport