(CNN)The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series arrived in Oregon for its first tournament on US soil Thursday and faced protests from 9/11 survivors and victims' families who criticized golfers for working with Saudi Arabia, who they say was complicit in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Saudi-backed LIV Golf series faces 9/11 protest as it begins first tournament on US soil
"Saudi Arabia is trying to sports-wash their reputation," Sean Passananti, whose father died in the attacks, said in a press conference at the protest at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Oregon. "Instead of admitting their support and funding of al Qaeda, they are trying through the honorable game of golf to buy legitimacy."
The allegations of Saudi government complicity with the attacks on September 11, 2001, have long been the subject of dispute in Washington. Fifteen of the 19 al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked four planes were Saudi nationals, but the Saudi government has denied any involvement in the attacks. The 9/11 Commission established by Congress said in 2004 that it had found "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded" al Qaeda.
Still, the victims' families have pushed for further disclosures, and last year the FBI released a document that details the FBI's work to investigate the alleged logistical support that a Saudi consular official and a suspected Saudi intelligence agent in Los Angeles provided to at least two hijackers.
The 9/11 issue is just one of a number of criticisms of the LIV Golf series.
Fronted by former world No. 1 Greg Norman, the team-based LIV series is backed by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) -- a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia -- and has pledged to award $250 million in total prize money. Tournaments are held over 54 holes, rather than the PGA Tour's 72 holes, and there are no players cut during tournament play.
The huge sums of money up for grabs and less demanding requirements spurred a number of golfers -- many in the twilight of their careers -- to break away from the PGA Tour and join LIV, including six-time major winner Phil Mickelson, four-time major champion Brooks Koepka and former world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
LIV is expected to hold six further events across the world in the coming months, including at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, as well as in Boston, Chicago and Miami.
A coalition of families and survivors of 9/11 on June 10 sent an open letter to several players competing in the LIV Golf series, calling on them to reconsider their participation.
Brett Eagleson, whose father died on 9/11, said at Thursday's news conference he plans to be at Bedminster next month to protest.
"One important message to these LIV golfers and the Kingdom is that we're not going anywhere. Every tournament you're going to have to deal with us in bigger numbers, more stories, from the families," Eagleson said. "We're going to be in your face for every tournament that is on US soil."
A spokesperson for LIV Golf said in a statement, "We have tremendous respect and sympathy for the families of anyone whose loved one was killed on September 11, 2001. Al Qaeda's attack on the United States was a national tragedy. We continue to believe that sports, including golf, are an important way to bring change to the world. ... Golf is a force for good that entertains and teaches the values of fair play, competition, and excellence through hard work."
Saudi Arabia is one of a number of countries that have used the appeal of sports to try to whitewash other political concerns, a practice sometimes referred to as "sportswashing."
Golfers have faced sharp criticisms for choosing to accept the country's money given its dismal human rights record.
Bin Salman was named in a US intelligence report as responsible for approving the operation that led to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, though he has denied involvement. Human rights groups have also criticized the country for conducting mass executions and for its treatment of gay people.
Mickelson tried to reckon with these issues in a controversial 2021 interview with author Alan Shipnuck for his book "Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf's Most Colorful Superstar."