LIV Golf wants to talk about sports. Donald Trump is still looming.
It wasn’t until Sunday night that Saudi sovereign wealth fund’s billion-dollar men’s league LIV Golf had its biggest sporting triumph yet when one of its headliners, Brooks Koepka, won forcefully the PGA Championship.
By Thursday morning, however, LIV’s road show had been reinjected with the political bent that followed the sophomore circuit as it convulsed professional golf: the former president’s talkative, limelight presence Donald J. Trump, who is hosting one of the league’s tournaments this weekend on a course in northwest Washington.
That LIV can overtake Trump’s shadow, and even if it wants to, could go a long way in shaping how the league is perceived in the years to come, especially in the United States, where it has struggled to gain a significant foothold against the PGA Tour.
But for now, aside from major tournament winners like Koepka and Phil Mickelson who have joined the circuit, there is probably no figure beyond golf more publicly linked to LIV than Trump, who has repeatedly cheered and with enthusiasm Saudi Arabia’s booming and dazzling entry into the sport. At his events, he often comes across as an impatient MC whose role is both starkly visible and deeply mysterious — neither the Trump Organization nor LIV has revealed how much money the former president’s company makes for events – as the league seeks to make inroads into a hidden sport.
“They want to use my properties because they’re the best properties,” Trump said Thursday, when he spent five hours at a pro-am event with LIV players Graeme McDowell and Patrick Reed (and holding what amounted to a rolling press conference about politics and an infomercial about his 18-hole property along the Potomac River).
The Trump portfolio does indeed include exceptional courses, including the Washington-area location, which once hosted a senior PGA championship, and LIV executives have said in the past that they were drawn to them because of many high-caliber properties in the United States were unwilling to host a circuit intended to compete with the PGA Tour. But Trump’s persistent and growing place in LIV’s orbit also invites sustained skepticism about the league’s motives and intentions, which some critics see as a brilliant way for Saudi Arabia to rehabilitate its image.
The former president is unfazed by the league boss, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and the kingdom’s burgeoning place in professional golf, despite its record of human rights abuses. He still rejects objections from family members of 9/11 victims, some of whom believe Saudi Arabia played a role in the 2001 attacks, because, as he said on Thursday, LIV tournaments are “a great economic development”. He openly admires the millions and millions of dollars the Saudis are raining down on players and, of course, properties like his, even though he claimed on Thursday that hosting tournaments was like “peanuts to me. “. This year, LIV will visit three of its properties, up from two in its inaugural season.
He remained steadfast in his loyalty even as Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith subpoenaed the Trump Organization for LIV-related cases.
In an interview as he walked between the holes on Thursday, Trump described Smith’s aggressive approach as “retribution” because the Biden administration wants to “do something to distract from what happened. “. He said he didn’t know why his ties to LIV had come to the special counsel’s attention.
Trump’s affection for LIV can be traced, at least in part, to years of friction with the golf establishment.
In 2016, the PGA Tour ended a longstanding relationship with Trump’s course in Doral, Florida, near Miami, over what its then-commissioner described as “fundamentally a sponsorship issue. “. And in 2021, after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the PGA of America — which is separate from the PGA Tour — scrapped plans to host its flagship men’s championship at a Trump property in New Jersey in 2022. .
Trump hasn’t fared much better abroad. The R&A, which organizes the British Open, has signaled that it has no plans to bring the tournament back to Trump-controlled Turnberry, where LIV commissioner Greg Norman won one of its two Opens. .
LIV, however, embraced Trump and in return got the imprimatur of a former president, as well as bursts of media coverage for events that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. He brings prestige and power, diluted as both might be by the division in which he revels.
“They have unlimited money and they love it,” he said on Thursday, “and it’s been great publicity for Saudi Arabia.”
But for every day Trump appears at a LIV event, it’s a day LIV might as well cancel as a day he won’t escape the pointed questions he’s spent a year trying to get past, or at least to say that he wants to go ahead.
It’s been hard enough for the league, even on a day when Trump isn’t playing a trick, not to see his players face questions about the morality of accepting millions in Saudi money.
“We’re under contract to play golf,” said Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open winner who finished tied for fourth in the PGA Championship last weekend, on Wednesday. “I think the most important part is to provide great entertainment as much as possible on any platform, regardless of the platform providing it. When you can talk about ethics, it’s is people’s perception. I totally disagree with that, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and I would say, was it worth it? Absolutely.”
But DeChambeau hardly has the same megaphone or presence as a former occupant of the Oval Office. When Trump appears at a LIV event, even the winners of the Masters Tournament or US Open are relegated to supporting cast.
LIV executives have generally dismissed questions of whether the former president is good for business, or just essential for it, given their struggles to find quality venues. They seem convinced that at some point sports will overtake politics, which could be wishful thinking since Trump suggested on Thursday that nothing – not even a return to the White House – would easily dissuade him from doing business with the league. .
But LIV’s strategy is still to bet that the presence of one of the country’s most polarizing personalities won’t scare away the sponsorship deals and TV rights that are already proving difficult to obtain for the operation. . And Trump can just as easily alienate potential fans as he can attract them.
Trump himself insists that LIV craves him at his events and is no distraction from the league’s proclaimed goal of growing the sport and giving it needed doses of energy. .
“They wanted me here, and I said sure,” said Trump, who said LIV’s contracts with his properties didn’t require his appearances at events like the pro-am.
Maybe all of this is true. But as long as that’s the case, LIV will linger in the political thicket no matter how hard Koepka performs on the game’s biggest stages.