Just on Sunday evening, LIV Golf, the men’s league awash in billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, scored its biggest sporting victory yet when one of its star players, Brooks Koepka, emphatically won the PGA Championship.
By Thursday morning, however, LIV’s road show had recombined with the political bent that ebbed the sophomore circuit as it disrupted professional golf: the chatty, spotlight-grabbing presence of former President Donald J. Trump, who hosts one. One of the leagues this weekend in the Northwest Washington tournament.
Whether and whether the LIV can outgrow Trump’s shadow can do a lot to shape the way the league is perceived in the years ahead, particularly in the United States, where it has struggled to gain a meaningful foothold against the PGA Tour. .
But for now, with major tournament winners like Koepka and Phil Mickelson joining the circuit, there is perhaps no non-golf figure more publicly associated with the LIV than Trump, who has time and again enthusiastically encouraged Saudi Arabia’s thunderous and euphoric entry into the sport. At his events, he often comes across as an enthusiastic presenter whose role is at once both obvious and very vague—neither the Trump Organization nor LIV has disclosed how much money the former president’s company makes for events—as the league looks to make inroads in a hidden sport.
“They want to use my property because it’s the best real estate,” Trump said Thursday, when he spent five hours appearing at a pro event with LIV players Graeme McDowell and Patrick Reed (and orchestrating what amounted to a rolling) press conference about politics and an informative announcement about his property More 18 holes along the Potomac River.
Trump’s portfolio already contains some exceptional courses, including the Washington-area location, once home to a major PGA Championship, and LIV executives have said in the past they were drawn to them because so many high-quality properties in the US have been. Not willing to host an arena that aims to rival the PGA Tour. But Trump’s continued and growing position in the LIV orbit also calls into constant questioning Douri’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’s sponsor, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and the kingdom’s emerging stature in professional golf, despite its track record of human rights abuses. And he still ignores the objections of family members of the 9/11 victims, some of whom believe Saudi Arabia played a role in the 2001 attacks, because, as he said Thursday, the LIV tournaments are “a major economic development.” He openly admires the millions and millions of dollars the Saudis rain down on players and, of course, possessions like his own, though he stressed on Thursday that hosting tournaments amounts to “peanuts to me.” This year, LIV will travel to three of its properties, down from two in its inaugural season.
He has remained steadfast in his loyalty even though a special counsel from the Department of Justice, Jack Smith, subpoenaed the Trump Organization to obtain records relating to LIV.
In an interview as he walked between holes Thursday, Trump called Smith’s aggressive approach “retaliation” because the Biden administration wants to “do something to highlight what’s going on.” He said he did not know why his relationship with LIV had drawn Special Counsel scrutiny.
Trump’s passion for LIV can be traced back, at least in part, to years of friction with the founding of golf.
In 2016, the PGA Tour ended a long-standing relationship with Trump’s track in Doral, Florida, near Miami, over what its then-commissioner described as “essentially a sponsorship issue.” And in 2021, after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the PGA of America — which is separate from the PGA Tour — abandoned its plan to host the flagship men’s tournament at Trump’s estate in New Jersey in 2022.
Trump hasn’t fared much better abroad. R&A, which organizes the British Open, has indicated it has no intention of handing the tournament back to Trump-controlled Turnberry, where LIV commissioner Greg Norman won one of his two Opens.
With that, LIV embraced Trump, and in return got a pass from a former president, along with a series of news coverage of events that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. It brings prestige and power, as may be mitigated by the cleavage it brings.
“They have unlimited money and they love it, and it’s been great propaganda for Saudi Arabia,” he said Thursday.
But every day Trump appears at a LIV event is a day that LIV might also omit as a day when he won’t get away with the pointed questions she’s spent a year trying to get past, or at least say she wants to move past.
It has been hard enough for the league, even on a day when Trump is not playing a round, for its players not to face questions about the ethics of accepting millions in Saudi cash.
“We contracted to play golf,” Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open winner who finished tied for fourth at the PGA Championship last weekend, said Wednesday. “I think the most important part is providing great entertainment wherever possible on any platform, whatever platform you provide. When you can talk about morality, that’s people’s perception. I completely disagree with it, but everyone has a right to their opinion, and I say, Was it worth it? Absolutely.”
But DeChambeau hardly has the same megaphone or presence as a previous occupant of the Oval Office. When Trump appears at a LIV event, the winners of the Masters Tournament or US Open are turned into the supporting cast.
LIV executives have generally brushed off questions about whether the former president was good for business, or just necessary to it, given their problems getting into quality quarters. They seem convinced that, at some point, sports will trump politics, which may be wishful thinking since Trump suggested 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 still involves a gamble that having one of the country’s most polarizing figures won’t scare away even more sponsorship contracts and television rights that have already proven difficult to come by for the process. And Trump can alienate potential fans as easily as he can entice them.
Trump himself insists that LIV craves him at his events and that he does not distract from the league’s stated goal of growing the sport and giving it needed doses of energy.
“They wanted me to be here, and I said sure,” said Trump, who said LIV’s contracts with his estate did not require him to appear at events like the pro.
Maybe all of this is true but as long as it is, LIV will remain in the political jungle, no matter how well Koepka plays on the game’s biggest stages.
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