Dustin Johnson shot a nine-under 61 to take the lead at the controversial Saudi International. 

By Daniel Rapaport
February 01, 2019

While most American golfing eyes are fixated upon the always-rowdy Waste Management Phoenix Open, the world's top three players are teeing it up at a controversial locale: Saudi Arabia.

One of them is in the lead. Another will be heading home early.

World No. 3 Dustin Johnson shot a nine-under 61 on Friday to take a three-shot lead heading into the weekend at the European Tour's Saudi International. Meanwhile, just one week after winning the Farmers Insurance Open in commanding fashion, Justin Rose's two-day total of two-over par saw the world's top-ranked player miss his first cut in 12 events.

Participants in this inaugural tournament—which marks the first time a major tour has hosted an event in the country—have come under scrutiny given the host nation's dubious human rights record. Saudi Arabia has come under intense scrutiny after Washington Post journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey last October; numerous news agencies, including the Post, concluded that Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the assassination. 

Johnson, Rose and world No. 2 Brooks Koepka (who is 10 shots back at one-under) are among a number of players who committed to the event, ostensibly in large part to collect lucrative appearance fees that are rumored to be as high as $1 million. Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Henrik Stenson are also in the field.  

Unlike the PGA Tour, the European Tour permits tournaments to offer appearance fees.

The tournament, which has a $3.5 million purse, is being supported financially by the Saudi government, which has recently used sports events to promote the country. World Wrestling Entertainment took head for hosting its Crown Jewel event in the country just weeks after Khahshoggi's killing, and a scheduled exhibition between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in King Abdullah Sports City was cancelled when Nadal pulled out with an injury.

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Rose, when asked about his decision to play in the event, said "I'm not a politician, I'm a pro golfer." Johnson offered a bit more when asked the same question: "Obviously, that was a concern with our team," the 19-time PGA Tour winner told the Associated Press. "I'm going over there to play a sport I'm paid to play. It's my job to play golf. Unfortunately, it's in a part of the world where most people don't agree with what happened, and I definitely don't support anything like that. I'm going to play golf, not support them. I'm not a politician. I play golf."

Not every player shares Rose and Johnson's feelings—Paul Casey, who does charitable work with UNICEF, declined to appear in the event. There were also reports that Tiger Woods turned down $3.25 million to play the tournament. 

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