When LIV Golf and Trump converge, sports and politics are inextricable

liv presidential suite

A viewing box by the 16th tee at the LIV Golf event at Trump Bedminster this week.

Alan Bastable

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Seven years ago last month, when Donald J. Trump announced he was running for the U.S. presidency, virtually no one, regardless of their political leanings, believed he could actually win. Perhaps Trump’s outsized personality could command a board room — a talent he showcased over 14 seasons of his hit show, The Apprentice — but Commander in Chief? In the eyes of most pundits, Trump was the longest of long shots.

You know what happened next: The Donald’s brand of right-wing populism and promise to “Make Great America Great Again” galvanized conservative voters, and on Nov. 9, 2016, he did what was once thought unthinkable, edging his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in a contentious, tightly contested election. Ten weeks later, Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America.

As the third LIV Golf event kicks off this week at Trump’s property in the rolling hills of New Jersey horse country, you needn’t work hard to draw parallels between Trump and the upstart golf league. Just as no one gave Trump a chance in the early days of his campaign, no one believed LIV posed a serious threat to pro golf’s long-standing structures. LOL, like a Greg Norman-led global circuit could lure away superstars from the cushy confines of the PGA Tour?

But then the Saudi-funded contracts and purses got real, as did the host venues, as did the steady drumbeat of commits. Suddenly the PGA and DP World tours had a crisis on their hands, one that has sent shockwaves and deep anxiety through the professional golf establishment.

Patrick Reed at Trump Bedminster on Tuesday. getty images

Trump is here this week, staying in a house on property. On Tuesday evening, he hosted about 20 players for dinner. On Wednesday, he was out working on his game and making nice with tournament workers. On Thursday, he will play in the pro-am, alongside his son, Eric, and two of LIV’s shiniest recruits, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. A LIV representative said that Trump’s pro-am participation is the only formal role he will play in the proceedings this week, but if history is any measure, it’s not hard to imagine the golf-obsessed former president taking in some of the action from the ropes or making a Sunday-evening cameo on the 18th green during the awards ceremony.

That moment surely will be too sweet for Trump to resist, given it wasn’t all that long ago his properties had been all but excommunicated from pro golf’s upper echelon. One of his two courses here in Bedminster was scheduled to play host to last May’s PGA Championship, but that changed in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — which the Justice Department is still investigating, including Trump’s own involvement. The PGA of America quickly scrapped its contract with Bedminster, with CEO Seth Waugh saying afterward, “The damage could have been irreparable. The only real course of action was to leave.”

Around that same time, Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief, threw cold water on the chances of Trump Turnberry playing host to another Open Championship. “We will not return until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship,” he said. (The PGA Tour severed ties with its own Trump site, Trump Doral, back before Trump took office in 2016.)

And now here we are just 17 months later, with 10 of the top-50 players in the world descending on a Trump course to play for a $20 million purse, with every player guaranteed to go home with no less than $120,000. Free markets at work, you might say.

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Capitalism was also in motion during the Wednesday-afternoon practice rounds at Bedminster, where Englishman Ian Poulter was spotted on the 9th green handing a wad of cash to his countryman Sam Horsfield; Poulter and his partner Lee Westwood had lost a costly press to Horsfield and recently ousted European Ryder Cup captain Henrik Stenson. Over on a thirsty-looking putting green, Hudson Swafford was grooving his stroke, while Dustin Johnson and Pat Perez fired their tee shots into the green at the par-3 16th. It looked and felt like any other practice day. But not entirely.  

First, there were no fans. LIV doesn’t allow spectators on site until the tournament rounds, which makes practice days eerily quiet. Tony Horsfield, who was following his son’s money match, said the players enjoy the quiet and dearth of distractions. They can just go about their work. Tony said that he and Sam’s team also like that they can commute as a pack, given caddies and family members move more freely at LIV events than they do on the other tours.

“We’ll all just go for a nice lunch now,” he said looking back at the clubhouse. “Where else can you do that?”

And then there was, well…the Trump factor. Even if he’s not in view, you can still feel his presence. Black SUVs were parked around the property, presumably some of which belonged to the Secret Service. Ivanka Trump, the former President’s daughter, zipped around in a golf cart with her youngest son, two-year-old Theo, on her lap. By the pro shop, LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman came motoring toward her in another cart. They stopped and chatted. “Hey, little buddy,” a smiling Norman said to Theo.

On the far side of the clubhouse, by the 16th tee, was a private glassed-in viewing space that looks fit for, well, a former leader of the free world. When the U.S. Women’s Open visited Bedminster in 2017, Trump spectated from a makeshift skybox with bulletproof glass behind the 1st tee. The pen by the 16th tee this week is ground level, with six tables, each of which is surrounded by four leather club chairs. There’s a Persian-style rug on the floor, and on the wall a huge decal that reads 45th U.S. President Donald J. Trump.

The irony is, if LIV has its druthers, this week’s press conferences will be entirely devoid of politics, not to mention the torrent of sticky moral and ethical questions that the league and its participants faced at the first two LIV stops in London and Oregon. Dozens of political reporters from across the globe applied for media credentials to the Bedminster event. All were denied. No Jim Acosta or Maggie Haberman in the press tent Wednesday. Just the familiar golf-writer crowd.

Truth is, of course, you can’t possibly untangle the two, sports and politics — this week especially.

Ask Paul Casey, who is making his LIV debut at Bedminster.

“Anybody who says sport isn’t political, that’s rubbish,” Casey said. “Sport is very political.”

The Englishman said that in 2019 when he was asked why he had elected to sit out that year’s Saudi International, a DP World Tour event. Casey, who was then a UNICEF ambassador, said playing in the event “just didn’t sit well with me,” adding, “certainly signing a deal and being paid to be down there … I would be a hypocrite if I did that.”

Casey later changed his tune on Saudi Arabia after visiting the country and witnessing what he described as societal “change.” On Wednesday, he elaborated on his evolving perspective, saying that he played in the Saudi International pro-am earlier this year with a 17-year-old Saudi girl, her father and another woman, who he said was a human-rights lawyer.

New LIV signees, from far left, Charles Howell, Jason Kokrak and Paul Casey speaking with the media on Tuesday. getty images

“They were brilliant company, entertaining, and that young girl spoke of how things have changed and that just in the last couple of years since she took up the game of golf, how things have radically changed for her and her family and that that opportunity wouldn’t have been there more than a couple of years ago,” Casey said

“There’s many places on the planet that I’ve been to, that I’ve been paid to go to, which I’m not sure I can say the same thing in terms of their trajectory,” Casey continued. “But I can honestly look you in the eye and say that I see a trajectory, a positive trajectory in the Kingdom, and it was a really good experience that I’ve had when I’ve been there, and I hope it continues.”

Not all observers have such a cheery outlook.

LIV’s ties to the Saudi government have drawn the ire of 9/11 activist groups who view the tournament as a kick in the teeth, given the country’s ties to the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people. In addition to Osama Bin Laden, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. (The Saudi government has repeatedly denied its involvement in the attacks — a finding that was not disputed by the 9/11 Commission.)

There were no obvious signs of protests around the club Tuesday, but on Friday representatives of the survivor group 9/11 Justice are holding a press conference near the club. Another group, 9/11 Families United, released an ad Tuesday decrying Trump’s decision to host the event at Bedminster, just a short drive from Ground Zero. In response, LIV released a statement that said, in part, “these families have our deepest sympathy. While some may not agree, we believe golf is a force for good around the world.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump added: “I don’t know much about the 9/11 families, I don’t know what is the relationship to this, and their very strong feelings, and I can understand their feelings. I can’t really comment on that because I don’t know exactly what they’re saying, and what they’re saying who did what.”

The games will go on, of course. There’s no going back now. With nine-figure contracts inked, a full schedule and more commits on the way, LIV is officially here.

Toward the end of their Tuesday press conference, Casey and two other LIV newbies — Charles Howell III and Jason Kokrak — were asked whether they would feel culpable if the fragmentation of pro golf damaged or entirely derailed the PGA and/or DP World tours.  

“I know the fabric of this game pretty well on the inside, on the Tour level,” said Casey, who has sat on player advisory boards on both the PGA and DP World tours. “At no time have I ever tried to damage the Tour in the decision that I’ve made. If it’s damaged, I think the questions have to be asked somewhere else.”

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