EXCLUSIVE

LET players split on Saudi Arabia event

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Opinion is split among players on the Ladies European Tour over the decision to stage a new event in Saudi Arabia in 2020.

The as-yet-unnamed event, announced last week, will be the first-ever women's professional golf tournament in the country.

Taking place from March 19-22 and, with a prize fund of $1million, it will be one of the richest events on the LET schedule.

It will be played at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, within King Abdullah Economic City, which also plays host to the European Tour’s Saudi International.

The tour's acting CEO, Alex Armas, called the new event an "exciting prospect”, and Beth Allen agrees.

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“The Ladies European Tour have decided that the event is good for women’s golf and I am keen to support the tour and the growth of the game,” said the 38-year Scottish-based American. “I also want to compete for the highest purses and the event in Saudi will be one of the biggest on the schedule.

“I know that there are plans for the development of opportunities for young people and women to play golf as the country goes through large-scale social change.”

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Allen, who topped the LET Order of Merit in 2016, added that that it will be “a special experience” to be part of what she hopes will be significant change in the country.

“It is my understanding that this event is being played to have a lasting impact on the country domestically. By showcasing women’s golf at the highest level, simultaneous to the roll-out of grass roots participation programmes which we know are planned, we can inspire a new generation of players in the same way as me and my LET colleagues from all over the world have been inspired by watching our predecessors.”

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Meghan MacLaren, however, believes the tour is making a mistake in visiting the country, not least because of its recent record on women's rights.

The World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 141 out of 144 countries for gender parity, down from 134 out of 145 in 2015

It wasn’t until 2015 that women were allowed to vote and be appointed to the Consultative Assembly. Until 2017, women needed to have consent from a guardian in order to gain access to government services such as education and healthcare.

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In the same year, King Salman also issued a decree allowing women to drive, lifting the world's only ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia.

“I’m against the tour going there,” said MacLaren. “I don’t think any sport is doing the right thing going to a country where, on a day to day basis, people are being treated the way it is reported they are. As a human, it’s not somewhere I’d be comfortable being.

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“It’s something I’ve thought a lot about and it’s certainly tricky. It comes down to where do you draw the line on a financial front versus a moral front? You’re almost forced to split yourself into two separate identities: one as a human, and one as an athlete. Again, that’s not something I’m comfortable with. In everything I’ve ever done, I’ve always tried to be the same person and try to be true to what I represent.

“There is a lot of talk about what the event might do in terms of growing the game – and, particularly, the women’s game – in Saudi Arabia. That’s a question that can only be answered in hindsight.”

Not that MacLaren is suggesting that those who don’t share her opinions are less moral.

“Other people might have a different view on it and that’s absolutely fine,” she added. “I just wish that sport wouldn’t keep putting those of us whose livelihoods depend on it into these kinds of positions.”

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