It was only on Sunday night that LIV Golf, the men’s league awash with billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, scored its biggest athletic triumph to date when one of its headliners, Brooks Koepka, won emphatically the PGA Championship.
Yet by Thursday morning, LIV’s road show had been reinfused with the political slant that has followed the sophomore circuit as it has convulsed professional golf: the garrulous and garrison presence of former President Donald J. Trump. , which is hosting one of the league’s tournaments this weekend at a course in northwest Washington.
If LIV can outrun Trump’s shadow, and if it even wants to, it could go a long way in shaping how the league is perceived for years to come, particularly in the United States, where it has struggled to gain significant foothold. against the PGA Tour.
But for now, aside from the big tournament winners like Koepka and Phil Mickelson who have joined the circuit, there is probably no figure outside of golf more publicly linked to LIV than Trump, who has repeatedly and enthusiastically applauded the uproarious and Saudi Arabia’s striking entry into sports. At his events, he often seems like an eager MC whose role is both decidedly flashy and deeply mysterious (neither the Trump Organization nor LIV have revealed how much money the former president’s company is raking in for events), as the league looks to make inroads. . in a hidden sport.
“They want to use my properties because they are the best properties,” Trump said Thursday, as he spent five hours appearing at a pro-am event with LIV players Graeme McDowell and Patrick Reed (and hosting what amounted to a rolling event). press conference on politics and an infomercial about his ownership of 18 holes along the Potomac River).
Indeed, Trump’s portfolio includes some exceptional courses, including the Washington-area location that once held a Senior PGA Championship, and LIV executives have said in the past that they were drawn to them because many Prime properties in the United States were unwilling to host a course intended to rival 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 his image.
The former president is not bothered by the league’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and the kingdom’s fledgling place in professional golf, despite its record of human rights abuses. He is still dismissing objections from relatives of 9/11 victims, some of whom believe Saudi Arabia played a role in the 2001 attacks because, as he said Thursday, LIV tournaments are “a great economic development.” . He is openly admiring the millions and millions of dollars the Saudis are pouring on players and, of course, properties like his, despite saying on Thursday that hosting tournaments is “insane to me.” LIV will travel to three of its properties this year, up from two in its inaugural season.
He has remained steadfast in his allegiance despite the fact that a special counsel for the Department of Justice, Jack Smith, has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records related to LIV.
In an interview while walking between holes on Thursday, Trump described Smith’s aggressive approach as “retribution” because the Biden administration wants to “do something to take the spotlight off what happened.” He said he did not know why his ties to LIV had drawn scrutiny from the special prosecutor.
Trump’s affection for LIV stems, at least in part, from 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, dropped its plan to host its flagship men’s championship at a Trump-owned property in New Jersey in 2022.
Trump has not fared much better abroad. The R&A, which organizes the British Open, has signaled that it does not intend to bring the tournament back to Trump-controlled Turnberry, where LIV commissioner Greg Norman won one of two Opens from him.
LIV, however, has embraced Trump and, in return, earned a nod from a former president, along with flurries of news coverage for events that might otherwise have gone under the radar. It brings prestige and power, diluted as both might be by the division in which it revels.
“They have unlimited money and they love it,” he said Thursday, “and it’s been great publicity for Saudi Arabia.”
But for every day that Trump appears at a LIV event, it’s a day LIV might as well write off as one where he won’t escape the pointed questions he’s spent a year trying to get past, or at least saying he wants to. to pass.
It’s been hard enough for the league, even on a day when Trump isn’t playing a round, for its players not to face questions about the morality of accepting millions in Saudi money.
“We have a contract to play golf,” Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open winner who finished tied for fourth in the PGA Championship last weekend, said Wednesday. “I think the most important part is to deliver great entertainment wherever possible on whatever platform it is, whatever platform it’s providing. When you can talk about ethics, that is the perception of the people. I completely 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 Oval Office occupant. When Trump appears at a LIV event, even the winners of the Masters or US Open are relegated to supporting players.
LIV executives have generally brushed aside questions about whether the former president is good for business, or simply essential for them, given their trouble getting quality spots. They seem convinced that, at some point, sports will trump politics, which could be wishful thinking as Trump suggested Thursday that nothing, not even a return to the White House, would easily deter him from doing business with the league.
But LIV’s strategy still involves a bet that the presence of one of the nation’s most polarizing figures will not further scare away endorsement deals and TV rights that are already proving hard for the operation to come by. And Trump can alienate would-be fans just as easily as he can attract them.
Trump himself insists that LIV craves him at its events and that he is not a distraction from the league’s proclaimed goal of growing the sport and giving it the necessary doses of energy.
“They wanted me to be here, and I said sure,” said Trump, who said LIV’s contracts with his properties did not require his appearances at events like pro-ams.
Perhaps all of that is true. But as long as it is, LIV will remain in the political thicket, no matter how well Koepka plays in the game’s biggest arenas.