Three years ago, Meghan MacLaren took a rare and bold stance against playing in the first women’s professional golf event ever held in Saudi Arabia, saying that competing in the Kingdom didn’t fit with her values. The 28-year-old Englishwoman withdrew over concerns that the country was “sportswashing” its human rights record.
As the presence of Saudi Arabia money continues to grow in women’s golf, however, MacLaren’s stance has evolved.
This week the three-time winner on the Ladies European Tour is one of 120 players who will tee it up in the Aramco Saudi Ladies International, which features a $5 million purse, the highest prize fund in women’s golf outside of the majors and the LPGA’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.
Considering that nearly a dozen events on the LET schedule last year featured purses below 300,000 euros, a non-major purse at $5 million offers a life-changing opportunity for many in the field, which features 60 Ladies European Tour players, 50 from the top 300 in the Rolex Rankings and 10 sponsor invites.
The winner at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City will receive $750,000.
“At some point, you have to reconcile,” said MacLaren. “This is my competitive nature and my profession versus how do I want to live my life? What do I want to stand up for?
“You have a voice to a certain point, but also, the better golfer I am and the more recognizable golfer I am, the louder I can use that voice.”
As things currently stand, abstaining from competing in events backed by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund would cripple an LET player’s chance to make a living and keep her card on that tour.
In addition to this week’s Saudi Ladies International, which features the same size purse the men played for earlier this month in Saudi, there are five stops around the world in the LET’s Aramco Team Series. Total prize money for all six Saudi-backed events on the LET is $10 million.
With two majors accounting for $13.8 million in prize money, Saudi money represents more than 40 percent of what remains.
“At the end of the day, money is power,” said MacLaren. “We live in a world where that is the truth, and you can’t get around that. How you choose to use that money will say a lot about who you are as a person.”
The Saudi Ladies International field will feature 15 of the top 30 players in the world, including No. 1 Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson, who won an Aramco event last fall in New York. Thompson will not play in the LPGA events in Thailand and Singapore the following two weeks.
Three-time major winner Anna Nordqvist was one of several female professionals personally sponsored by Golf Saudi. She recently told the Swedish news agency TT that she had ended her sponsorship deal with the Saudis. Nordqvist wore an Aramco Team Series hat when she won the 2021 AIG Women’s British Open at Carnoustie and had the Golf Saudi logo on her sleeve.
Her decision to part ways, however, had to do with the backlash she received rather than any moral conflict.
“It didn’t really turn out the way I thought it would,” Nordqvist told TT in an interview.
“I need to think about myself and I haven’t felt good about this,” she said, adding: “I wasn’t really prepared to get such an incredible amount of hatred and mean comments from people who don’t even know me.”
Nordqvist still plans to compete in this week’s event in Saudi Arabia and others on the LET schedule, citing her need to get in four LET events before August to be eligible for the Solheim Cup.
“It was never about money for me,” she continued. “I wanted to do something for ladies’ golf and especially for the European Tour.”
Nordqvist released a follow-up statement to those comments on Monday, noting that the Aramco team was fully supportive of her decision.
“I will always fight for women’s golf,” she wrote on Instagram. “This decision doesn’t change the respect I have for what the Aramco Team Series has done for the women’s game.”
MacLaren, one of the most thoughtful players in the game, has been “hyperaware” of the moral complications of playing for Saudi money since the beginning and still wrestles with how she feels.
“For some people,” she said, “it’s a lot easier to just not ask those questions in the first place.”
MacLaren has since taken a closer look at how other sports have dealt with similar issues, noting that she still backs her favorite British football team, even though they’ve been bought by the Saudis.
“Everywhere you look there’s red lines and conflict of interest,” she said, later adding: “For me, every decision that I make feels like it has a lot of complications attached to it, but not everybody thinks as introspectively as that.”
Alex Morgan, a popular forward on the U.S. women’s national soccer team, recently told reporters at the SheBelieves Cup that she found it “bizarre” that FIFA was considering bringing on Visit Saudi as a sponsor for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“I think it’s bizarre that FIFA has looked to have a Visit Saudi sponsorship for the Women’s World Cup when I, myself, Alex Morgan, would not even be supported and accepted in that country,” she said. “I just don’t understand it.”
Teammate Taylor Kornieck added that U.S. Soccer believes in partnering “with people who align with our values best.”
In recent years, the laws in Saudi Arabia have changed to allow women to travel abroad and drive a car. However, the male guardian system that’s still in place requires a male relative’s permission to marry, divorce or leave a prison.
Saudi activist Omaima Al Najjar, now a surgical doctor living in Ireland, was a prominent blogger who took part in the right-to-drive campaign in Saudi and fled when she felt the risks were too great. It’s still too dangerous for her to return now.
“It’s important to remind the women who are participating in this tour,” Al Najjar told Golfweek by phone last year, “that the Saudi women activists who made those changes happen are still on trial, being prosecuted, banned from activism and banned from traveling.”
Al Najjar wants players to speak out not only about the activists, but the conditions of many migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Women come from developing countries to work in the kingdom as maids and often have their passports confiscated as they are made to work seven days a week with no set schedule, “which is a sort of slavery,” Al Najjar said.
Meanwhile, Saudi-born women are fleeing the country, she continued, despite recent reforms because there are no safe houses in the Kingdom for victims of domestic violence.
“There’s an issue of killing women in Saudi,” said Al Najjar, “and a lot of husbands kill their wives or a lot of fathers kill their daughters and the Saudi authorities do not do much about it.”
These are the issues Al Najjar hopes that LET and LPGA players who compete in Saudi Arabia will speak out against, even it means financial loss.
To this point, female golfers who compete for Saudi money have received far less attention and criticism than what male players who joined LIV have faced. MacLaren said her honest answer to that disparity is that people don’t care as much. The profile of women’s golf is so much smaller compared to men’s golf, she continued, noting that there aren’t 15 journalists at press conferences asking tough questions.
“In terms of how golf is covered,” she said, “I don’t think the exposure is the same, and therefore, the criticism isn’t to the same level.”
MacLaren, an eloquent and frequent blogger, recently posted about her decision to compete in Saudi Arabia on Twitter, and said the public response to her decision, which was mostly positive, caught her by surprise.
“I will always believe it is better to look rather than to look away,” she wrote, “but the world is more powerful than single individuals with limited scope for change. Using these competitive opportunities and doing what is necessary to be the best golfer I can be is quite probably my best route to increasing my platform voice, and financial status.
“What I then choose to do with that platform, voice and financial status will hopefully make this world a better place in the long run … and that will always be my aim.”