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Trump hosts controversial Saudi-funded golf tournament as he mulls 2024 bid

Marc Caputo
Former U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a press conference announcing a class action lawsuit against big tech companies at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 07, 2021 in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

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.

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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.

Members of the team Majesticks GC (From L) English golf player Laurie Canter, English golf player Ian Poulter, English golf player Sam Horsfield and English golf player Lee Westwood pose during a press conference ahead of the forthcoming LIV Golf Invitational Series event at The Centurion Club in St Albans, north of London, on June 8, 2022.
Adrian Dennis | AFP | Getty Images

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.