Former president Donald Trump joins hands this week with the biggest controversy in sports when his New Jersey golf club hosts the latest event in the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series, further cementing his relationship with Saudi Arabia and angering families of 9/11 victims who have decried the start-up venture as “sportswashing.”
While the renegade golf circuit has staged two other events, including another in the United States, this week’s event at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., promises to be an even more glaring flash point, given its proximity to Manhattan and the involvement of the ex-president.
In recent days, Trump has publicly and privately dismissed human rights concerns about the Saudi kingdom and railed against the professional golf establishment. He is expected to attend every day of this weekend’s event and has been in contact for months with organizers on event details, according to an adviser, who said Trump remains livid with PGA of America officials who moved the 2022 PGA Championship from his Bedminster club following the Jan. 6 insurrection. Doral, his club outside Miami, will host another LIV Golf event in October.
Trump and his spokesperson didn’t respond to requests to comment.
Financed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, the LIV Golf venture has landed high-profile players with exorbitant guaranteed paychecks and lavish perks. But while the players have pocketed big money — some signing bonuses reportedly have amounted to eight- and nine-figure paydays — they also have faced stiff questioning about allegations against their benefactors, which include the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist.
Some 9/11 families protested at the LIV event this month at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Ore., and last week members of the 9/11 Justice group sent Trump a letter urging him to cancel this week’s event and requesting a meeting with the former president. Brett Eagleson, whose father died in the 9/11 attacks, said a Trump aide reached out to him Saturday to discuss the letter.
“It was a frustrating and frivolous call and made me more angry,” Eagleson said. “I wish they’d never even called.”
According to Eagleson, the aide said that the LIV contract was binding “and there’s no way out” and that Trump was “grateful and thankful for the letter” from the 9/11 families.
“My response was: You have to appreciate that what you’re saying, the words are ringing hollow,” Eagleson said. “If it’s so important, why is he having you call me? Why isn’t he calling me himself?”
Trump repeatedly defended Saudi Arabia while he was president. He made his first foreign trip to the country, over the concerns of some advisers. Since leaving office, son-in-law Jared Kushner has attracted large investments from the country’s sovereign fund, according to multiple reports.
In an interview this week with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said: “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.”
Trump met with a group of 9/11 family members in the Oval Office in 2019, according to two people in attendance, and promised to declassify and release records related to the attack. More than a dozen family members were in the meeting, and some left in tears after years of trying to access records about the Saudi Arabia government, they said.
“We all left overjoyed. We were crying; families were hugging each other,” Eagleson said. “He told us all: ‘We’re going to help you. Don’t worry about it. It’s already been done.’ ”
But soon, William P. Barr, Trump’s attorney general, classified the documents as top secret, and the White House made no effort to follow-up with the families, according to two people present at the meeting.
“Trump was a disappointment as a sitting president, and he’s a bigger disappointment now as a former president,” said Terry Strada, national chair of 9/11 Families United, whose husband, Tom, worked in the North Tower during the attacks. “He knows more than anybody the level of depravity of the kingdom, and he knows — he’s a New Yorker — he knows how families were affected by the attacks. Seven hundred and fifty people were lost in New Jersey. It’s right in our backyard and just, what, six weeks before the anniversary? It’s just beyond insulting.”
LIV Golf has been throwing unheard-of amounts of money at golfers, course operators and even broadcasters. It has created a sharp divide in the sport; the PGA Tour has suspended defectors, and others opted to resign their membership from golf’s top tour.
Trump has long been passionate about the sport and has counted many of the world’s best golfers as friends. But he has struggled in recent years to gain formal entrance to the world of professional golf; many stakeholders, especially in recent years, have steered clear of his properties and at times butted heads with Trump himself.
The PGA Tour hasn’t held a tournament at a Trump course since 2016. Doral hosted a PGA event for more than a half-century in South Florida. After purchasing the resort out of bankruptcy in 2012, Trump renamed it Trump National Doral. But after losing Cadillac as a title sponsor, the PGA moved the event to Mexico City in 2016. In response, Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee at the time, told Fox News host Sean Hannity, “I hope they have kidnapping insurance.”
Following the Jan. 6 insurrection, the PGA of America terminated its agreement to stage its 2022 PGA Championship at the Bedminster course. The R&A said Trump’s Turnberry club in Scotland wouldn’t be considered as a site for the British Open for the “foreseeable future.”
That left Trump with few options to host a tournament with any level of prestige. The Trump Golf portfolio includes 19 properties around the world — but no major tournaments in sight. LIV was the only imminent option, creating a marriage of two controversial entities that have tried to elbow their way to mainstream acceptance.
Because LIV’s finances are not public, it is not known how much Trump stands to make hosting the LIV events, but several industry experts estimated multimillions.
The Bedminster event is likely to see protesters this week — family members of 9/11 victims held a news conference Tuesday and have another scheduled for Friday — and has been swathed in controversy from Day 1. The sport has been thrust into a state of chaos, if not full-blown crisis. The tour has lost several stars — Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau among them — and can’t match the deep pockets of the Saudi-backed group.
This weekend’s winner at Bedminster will pocket $4 million, the last-place golfer will take home $120,000, and no golfer will be cut for high scores. By comparison, the winner of last weekend’s PGA Tour event, the 3M Open, took home $1.35 million, and just 11 golfers in the 153-man field earned more than $105,000.
In a statement about LIV last week, Trump made no mention of the Saudi support or controversy surrounding the event. For him, it’s a matter of money.
“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,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
Multiple high-ranking executives in golf said while Trump stands to make a lot of money off the event and his course will receive international exposure, the former president probably also relishes the opportunity to tweak the PGA Tour, which will stage its own event this week in Detroit, the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Greg Norman, the LIV commissioner and a Hall of Fame golfer, has been friendly with Trump for years, and the two spoke several times about the start-up circuit. “He loves it,” Norman said in a recent interview.
“He loves the concept, he loves the whole — and he thinks I’m the perfect guy for it,” Norman said. “We’ve had many conversations.”
Bedminster has long served as a key hub in Trump’s world; the former president spends much of the summer months based out of the New Jersey club. A Washington Post report estimated Trump spent 106 days at the club while president, squeezing in nearly three dozen rounds of golf there.
Trump has played 18 to 36 holes of golf four to five days per week since leaving office, one adviser said. In recent months, he has talked or played with a number of professional golfers, including Johnson, Norman, Jack Nicklaus and Ernie Els, the adviser said.
Hosting a top-tier golf event at Bedminster has always been a Trump dream. He purchased the property, more than 500 acres of farmland that formerly served as automaker John DeLorean’s estate, in 2002. At the groundbreaking, Trump brandished a shovel and boasted to reporters: “This is a special place. We have so much to work with, we’re going to make this beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and expectations.”
Ashley Cooper, who managed the property in the early days and later ascended to managing partner of Trump Golf, said in an email, “We knew from day one it was destined to host majors.”
Kent Babb contributed to this report.