Trump Seeks Money and Revenge in Hosting the New Saudi Golf League
On Sunday, the families of some 9/11 victims sent a letter to Donald Trump about his decision to host a professional golf tournament sponsored by the Saudi government next week at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. “It is incomprehensible to us that a former president of the United States would cast our loved ones aside for personal financial gain,” they wrote. “We hope you will reconsider your business relationship with the Saudi golf league and will agree to meet with us.”
The group of families, which calls itself 9/11 Justice, has been pressing a lawsuit for years that claims the Saudi government was complicit in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. During the 2016 campaign, Trump himself suggested that Saudi Arabia was responsible for 9/11, the families reminded him. Trump didn’t reply to their letter immediately, which wasn’t surprising given the financial ties that he and his family have established with the Saudis. In 2018, as President, he protected Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as M.B.S., after Saudi agents brutally murdered and dismembered the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (“I saved his ass,” Trump subsequently boasted to Bob Woodward.)
Last year, the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which M.B.S. heads, agreed to invest two billion dollars in a fledgling private-equity fund that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, was setting up. The Saudis overruled objections from some of their advisers regarding Kushner’s firm and its lack of experience. Earlier this year, the new Saudi-backed professional golfing league, LIV Golf, which has been spending money like water to recruit players and rival the long-established P.G.A. Tour, reached an agreement with Trump to stage two of its tournaments at courses he owns. (The second tournament is scheduled to be held at Trump National Doral Miami, in October.) The financial terms of this arrangement haven’t been disclosed, but hosting the LIV events will certainly help bolster the finances of Trump’s golf business, which has lost hundreds of millions of dollars over the years, according to a 2020 Times investigation.
On Monday, Trump finally delivered a response of sorts to the 9/11 families: a kiss-off. Writing on his struggling social-media platform, he advised those professional golfers who haven’t joined the Saudi tour, known in some circles as the “Bonesaw Tour,” to “take the money now” or risk getting nothing when LIV’s dispute with the P.G.A. Tour is eventually settled. In typical fashion, Trump didn’t mention 9/11, the protest letter he received, Jamal Khashoggi, or the fact that the Saudi government, through its investments in golf, soccer, and other professional sports, is clearly trying to divert attention from its repressive and autocratic nature.
“This is part of a broader play by the Saudi regime,” John Hursh, the program director at Democracy for the Arab World Now, a research and advocacy group that Jamal Khashoggi co-founded before Saudi agents lured him to the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, told me. “It’s designed to change the narrative so that people aren’t looking at things like 9/11 or the recent execution of eighty-one people in one day.” Rather than acknowledging any of these things, Trump, in his social-media post, wrote, “All of those golfers that remain ‘loyal’ to the very disloyal PGA, in all of its different forms, will pay a big price when the inevitable MERGER with LIV comes, and you get nothing but a big ‘thank you’ from PGA officials who are making Millions of Dollars a year.”
In its moral bankruptcy, clumsy timing, and thinly disguised score-settling, this was a typically Trumpian outburst, and it will surely be followed up by more. When the tournament starts next week in New Jersey, Trump will almost certainly be on hand to wallow in the attention; greet his fellow-sucklers of the Saudi teat, such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson; and raise a middle finger to the P.G.A. Tour, which last year had the temerity, in the wake of the January 6th attacks on the Capitol, to switch its flagship event, the P.G.A. Championship, from Bedminster to a non-Trump course: Southern Hills, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It’s no secret that Trump’s passion for golf is only exceeded by his craving for attention and approval. Even as he talks openly about the possibility of launching a 2024 Presidential bid in the next few months, he remains fixated on the game. Since buying the New Jersey course, in 2002, he has invested heavily in making it worthy of staging one of golf’s four major championships. He regarded the P.G.A.’s switch, which was announced four days after the riot at the Capitol, as a personal betrayal. “My son, who’s a great guy, called,” Trump told the golf writer Michael Bamberger. “My son said, ‘Dad, they’re canceling the PGA Championship [at Trump Bedminster]. I said, ‘That’s terrible. Really? Are you serious?’ ”
Hosting a glorified exhibition match like next week’s event, the third of eight tournaments that LIV Golf is holding this year, doesn’t compare with hosting a “major” like the P.G.A. Championship or the British Open, which provided a thrilling finish at St. Andrews on Sunday. But, in addition to fattening Trump’s wallet, the Bedminster tournament will heighten the pressure on the P.G.A. Tour, which is still trying to come to terms with a Saudi challenge that is being fronted by the two-time major champion Greg Norman.
With LIV Golf having so far failed to obtains a U.S. television deal, and with its first two tournaments—in London and Portland, Oregon—having attracted a pitifully small online audience, it is tempting to conclude that the M.B.S.–Norman–Trump axis is destined to fail in its effort to mimic in golf Trump’s surprise takeover of the Republican Party. It’s too early to reach that determination, though. In professional sports these days, money usually prevails. And, with a reputed budget of two billion dollars, Norman and his colleagues seem determined to soak up financial losses and sweep away the existing structure of golf, which is dominated by the P.G.A., a not-for-profit organization based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.
The sums they are offering players to sign long-term contracts with LIV are unheard of in the sport. (Mickelson and Johnson are said to have received more than one hundred million dollars each.) So far, most of the top-ranked players have rebuffed the Saudi entreaties and stuck with the P.G.A. Tour. (The loyalists include Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, and Scottie Scheffler.) Many of the defectors are older players who appear to regard the LIV tour as a lucrative pension scheme. But Norman and his colleagues aren’t done yet. Last month, they recruited three younger American stars: Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, and Brooks Koepka. The golf world is rife with talk of further defections emerging before the Bedminster event, including possibly Cameron Smith, the Australian winner of the British Open, and Hideki Matsuyama, the Japanese winner of the 2021 Masters. The ambitions of LIV Golf are global: Smith and Matsuyama are both big stars in Asia.
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