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LIV golf lands in Oregon. Will it lead to a revolution in the sport?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Controversy has swirled around the professional golf series known as LIV since it launched in London last month. Now the tournament has come to the U.S. Today is the second day of the LIV event outside of Portland, Ore. While golf insiders debate whether LIV will change the game, critics are hammering the series because it is backed by Saudi Arabia. From Portland, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Day 1 of the LIV invitational Portland started dramatically but not on the golf course. Several miles away, in a small park on a gray morning, Gabrielle Scauso tearfully recounted the death of her dad, a firefighter in the 9/11 terrorist attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIELLE SCAUSO: In his firehouse, he lost 19 men. That left over 50 children without fathers to be there for their birthdays and graduations and those moments that they should've.

GOLDMAN: Scauso and 10 other 9/11 survivors and victims' family members from the East Coast delivered this emotion-packed message in that Oregon park. The country directly implicated in the killing of their loved ones is sports-washing its image by pouring $2 billion into LIV Golf. Before the first LIV event, another group representing 9/11 families sent a letter to the series' American-born golfers. It excoriated the players for accepting huge sums of Saudi money. Brett Eagleson, who also lost his father on 9/11, hopes yesterday's appearance hits the players even harder.

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BRETT EAGLESON: I invite them to look at the pain in our eyes, hear our stories and walk in our shoes, hear what we have to say about the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

GOLDMAN: The best-case scenario, Eagleson says, is for players to leave the LIV series. Short of that, he wants them to confront the realities of the Saudi regime, its actions on 9/11 and its ongoing human rights abuses. So far, Eagleson notes, players largely have dodged reporters' questions about these issues.

EAGLESON: Just acknowledge it. Step up. Accept the truth of who you're getting in bed with. Accountability and acceptance by these golfers is what we're looking for.

GOLDMAN: Local politicians already had put out an unwelcome mat for LIV golf. North Plains Mayor Teri Lenahan helped write a letter to the owners of her town's golf course that's hosting the event. The letter, signed by 11 Oregon mayors, said they were opposed to the tournament because of its Saudi ties. The owners never responded, but Lenahan doesn't regret the opposition.

TERI LENAHAN: If we had just turned our head or not say anything, I think that makes us all complicit.

GOLDMAN: Lenahan says, in response, she's heard a lot of what she calls whataboutism. What about this dubious sports league? Or what about that dubious funding source? Not surprisingly, there was plenty of that yesterday on the sun-splashed Pumpkin Ridge golf course. Joey Minnick from nearby Camas, Wash., was at the LIV event with his wife and two kids.

JOEY MINNICK: There's dirty money all over the world. There's people doing terrible things everywhere. Who's to say those other events aren't funded by nefarious funds? Golf is golf (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING, CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: This golf, though, is a bit different.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Round 1 of the LIV Golf invitational, Portland. Please, welcome to the tee Brooks Koepka.

GOLDMAN: The horn blast before Koepka tee shot on Hole 1 signaled what's called a shotgun start, where players tee off all over the course at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF CLUB HITTING, APPLAUSE)

GOLDMAN: Normally, it's one at a time. The LIV event is three rounds or 54 holes versus four rounds and 72. LIV, by the way, spells out the Roman numerals for 54. And there's no cut, meaning players don't leave the event early if they play poorly. Everyone starts, finishes and gets paid. Last play still gets $120,000. Players who've remained loyal to the older, more established PGA Tour say LIV is gimmicky and more exhibition than real tournament. Minnick, the fan from Washington state, loves LIV.

MINNICK: You know, there's always been a stuffiness around PGA Tour events. They're expensive. This was - heck, for all of us, it was only 90 bucks. This feels more accessible.

GOLDMAN: The PGA Tour, which suspended its former members who joined LIV, is taking note, especially as more players sign on with the breakaway series. Recently, the PGA Tour announced changes, including increased prize money at some events that are said to be a response to LIV. German golfer Martin Kaymer hopes it's an indication LIV ultimately can push the traditional tours.

MARTIN KAYMER: If LIV golf helps the PGA Tour and the European Tour to provide even better playing opportunities and financially to support players even more, I think it's a win-win.

GOLDMAN: The PGA Tour commissioner doesn't share that optimism, calling LIV an irrational threat, trying to buy the sport of golf. And LIV's critics say they're not going away. The 9/11 families vowed yesterday to show up at the four remaining U.S. LIV events, starting with the next one in New Jersey, an event that promised to generate attention even without their presence, considering the course is owned by Donald Trump.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENAHAN STREET BAND'S "QUEENS HIGHWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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