Money. Revenge. Disruption. International intrigue.
These hallmarks of Donald Trump’s business brand are all colliding in his latest political controversy involving the world of professional golf.
Later this month, Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey hosts its first tournament for the new LIV Golf series, funded by Saudi Arabia, which is upending the sport’s establishment with a $2 billion investment and contracts with top players that reportedly reach $150 million or more.
The series closes in October with a $50 million purse at Trump’s signature Florida course, Trump National Doral Miami, promising an infusion of unknown millions into Trump's golf empire, which began to noticeably struggle after he began his run for president in 2016.
The huge Saudi sums could not only benefit Trump financially as he mulls a comeback bid in 2024, but they also pose a mortal threat to the PGA Tour, which reacted to LIV Golf by suspending players from competing in its tournaments — a move that landed the tour in the crosshairs of a federal antitrust investigation, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
Meanwhile, the survivors and families of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have lined up against LIV Golf and protested its first U.S. event last month in Oregon because of Saudi Arabia’s involvement and the kingdom’s multiple connections to the hijackers. Now, Trump is in their sights, and Trump’s team is firing back.
Trump’s decision to tee off with LIV highlights his close ties to Saudi Arabia; he made his first foreign visit there as president, and its wealth fund injected $2 billion into his son-in-law’s company last year. The Trump-LIV partnership also represents a measure of paybacks. The PGA Tour and PGA of America yanked tournaments from Doral and Bedminster, respectively, following bigoted remarks he made on the campaign trail in 2016 (the PGA Tour said the move was financially motivated after losing the sponsorship for the event), and then his role in inciting the mob that ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump sued PGA of America and the case was settled in December.
“Trump is loving this. He’s loving the revenge. He’s loving the attention. He’s loving the money,” said Gary Williams, a golf analyst with the marketing firm Signature Golf and a former host of an NBC-owned Golf Channel show who played with Trump at Doral in 2014.
“Trump had a seat at the table in the professional golf world and lost it, and now he found this sort of rogue organization in the golf world that’s an existential threat to the establishment,” Williams told NBC. “And he cannot get enough of it.”
The unprecedented spectacle of a former president enmeshed in a feud among sports organizations involving a foreign power is as extraordinary as the simultaneous controversies bedeviling Trump this month: the House committee examining the Jan. 6 riot; a related federal probe; a Georgia investigation into possible vote-counting interference; and a deposition he has to sit for Friday in a New York civil investigation concerning his business practices.
At the same time, Trump is gearing up for a comeback presidential bid, making his foray into the politics of golf look like a distraction to some. But those who know him say it’s part of his take-on-all-comers anti-establishment mentality that invariably dominates discussion in the worlds of media, politics and sports.
Trump was a key player in the effort to challenge the hegemony of the NFL with the United States Football League. But it failed after the 1985 season, the same year he bought his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, where he prevailed in clashes with the town’s government and clubby old-money society. It foreshadowed, on a small scale, Trump’s outsider political campaign that upended and took over the Republican Party and, ultimately, the presidency in 2016.
Throughout, Trump has been an avid and obsessed golfer and clawed his way into the sport’s world, amassing and improving world-class properties such as Doral and Trump Turnberry in Scotland. But Trump was still viewed as unworthy in the upper echelons of golf, said Alan Shipnuck, an author and golf commentator who has analyzed the finances of LIV tournaments.
“The key to understanding Trump’s obsession with the golf world is that he was never accepted at any of the great East Coast citadels of golf. He couldn’t break into Augusta National, or Pine Valley or Shinnecock Hills. And that burned him,” he said. “It was the ultimate repudiation of his gauche, new money Outer Borough striving. That’s why he built his own clubs. So he could be king of his own castle.”
After Trump lost the golf tournaments — and the money and status that came with it — LIV Golf gave him “another way to buy a new seat at the table,” Shipnuck said. “It’s about vengeance. It’s about validation.”
And that perception isn’t limited to Trump. The CEO of LIV Golf, golf legend Greg Norman, has also had a tense relationship with some in the golf establishment and last weekend was disinvited by the R&A from its Celebration of Champions event on Monday and its Champions’ Dinner next week in St. Andrews.
“What is the PGA Tour afraid of?” Norman reportedly asked at a news conference last month. On Monday, he twisted the knife after news broke of the antitrust investigation, telling The Palm Beach Post that it was “a testament to their [PGA’s] stupidity, quite honestly.”
Eric Trump, one of the former president's sons, focused on the positive.
“The Trump Organization has the best portfolio of golf properties anywhere in the world and we are honored to host LIV and the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and many others. The field of players is unparalleled, and Trump Bedminster will be the ultimate test for these amazing individuals,” he said.
Unlike the first two LIV Golf events — in London in June and Oregon at the start of the month — the Bedminster tournament promises to be the highest-profile spectacle because of Trump’s direct involvement, the multiple controversies and the course’s closeness to the heart of both the national media in New York and the 9/11 families. They’re in the “early stages” of organizing a protest that could involve the Democratic U.S. senators from the tri-state area, according to Brett Eagleson, a spokesman for the group 9/11 Justice, who lost his father, Bruce, in the World Trade Center attack.
“This is a golf story, but it’s impossible not to become a political one,” said Eagleson, who joined a dozen others to protest the Oregon tournament. “It’s totally egregious. It’s in your face. And it’s adding insult to injury to the entire 9/11 community that we would allow the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — which we now have FBI documents to show their culpability in 9/11 — to have this tournament in New Jersey.”
Eagleson met Trump at the White House in 2020 and said the president personally promised to release classified information about Saudi complicity in the attacks, but the Department of Justice then petitioned a court to keep the records sealed. Some were declassified last year after the families told President Joe Biden that he wouldn’t be welcomed at the 20th anniversary commemorating 9/11.
The Saudi government has denied complicity. A spokesperson at the Saudi Embassy couldn’t be reached for this article. The PGA Tour and the United States Golf Association declined to comment to NBC News, and PGA of America did not immediately return a request for comment.
Financing golf also gives Saudi Arabia an ability to “sportswash” its reputation, according to critics who say its reputation was badly damaged after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was linked to the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was critical of the Saudi government, in Turkey. The Saudi crown prince has denied involvement in the murder.
But high gas prices have softened U.S. opposition to the regime as Biden, who promised to make the crown prince a “pariah,” heads Friday to the kingdom for talks, which the Post's publisher criticized.
Oil aside, Trump’s political advisers note, Saudi Arabia invests in many U.S. companies that go unchallenged. They say the effort to tarnish LIV and the former president is an act of hypocrisy by critics.
“The smear campaign against LIV Golf is nothing more than disgusting corporate protectionism, peppered with hints of racism,” said a Trump adviser, who did not want to go on record with the remarks. “The reality is, the Saudi Investment Fund is woven into every part of corporate America, with significant ownership in companies like Uber, Boeing and Citibank — all who happen to be sponsors of the PGA Tour. Yet, the media happily ignores that reality in a desperate attempt to take another cheap shot at Trump for having the gall to run a successful business.”
Martin Davis, a top golf historian, said he believes Trump’s involvement with the Saudis “could be a train wreck because he wants to be president again.”
The loss of the PGA tournaments at Trump’s golf courses probably cost Trump, and “the Saudis with the LIV are throwing around incredible sums,” he said. “The question is, how many Saudi riyals are they stuffing in his pocket?”
But experts like Williams, the golf analyst and former Golf Channel host, point out that Trump is probably popular with many rank-and-file golfers. And though Trump’s involvement in the sport and the LIV tournament is controversial, it elevates the sport to its benefit as people talk about it as never before.
“There’s this rebel quality to LIV where people can’t look away,” Williams said. “And then you add Trump to it, and it’s going to be next level in terms of the interest and the noise coming from Bedminster at the end of July.”