BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Against a backdrop that included sprawling New Jersey farmland, swirling investigations, a potential reelection campaign and a fractured professional golf universe, Donald Trump stepped up to the first tee box Thursday, wearing his familiar red cap and showing off a rickety golf swing. He was ostensibly promoting a rogue tour that his private golf club will host this weekend but also sending a pointed message to the sport’s power brokers who have rebuked him in recent years — and making sure to dash his outing with some Trumpian controversy.
Trump’s golf properties aren’t slated to host a PGA event in the near future, so he has joined forces with a Saudi-backed start-up and Thursday took part in a rare public golf outing, ceremonially opening the latest LIV Golf Invitational Series tournament at his Trump National Golf Club. Wearing a white, short-sleeved polo, Trump teed off to a clattering of cameras in LIV’s pro-am tournament, which was closed to the public but open to media. While Trump’s presence surely invited attention to the event, it also underscored that the chatter surrounding the breakaway league has rarely focused on the actual competition.
“They’ve been great for golf,” Trump said Thursday.
The former president has long coveted a major golf tournament at one of his courses and was asked whether he had any regrets that his Bedminster club was hosting a LIV Golf event and not one sanctioned by the U.S. Golf Association or PGA Tour.
“No, no regrets. That’s their problem,” he said. “This course blows every other course away.”
An adviser said Trump remains upset the PGA Championship was relocated from Bedminster following the Jan. 6 insurrection. His Doral course in Miami lost its PGA event in 2016.
Trump has aligned himself with the Saudi regime, which is bankrolling the LIV series, and his remarks in the days leading up to Friday’s opening round revealed no reservations about the partnership. He downplayed concerns over human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and told the Wall Street Journal this week the controversy surrounding the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has “totally died down.” Before Thursday’s round, Trump dismissed concerns voiced in recent days by family members of 9/11 victims, telling ESPN, “Nobody’s gotten to the bottom of 9/11, unfortunately.” (Trump has, in the past, highlighted Saudi involvement with the attacks, and the 9/11 commission did conclude that 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks were from Saudi Arabia.)
Asked by a reporter on the first tee box whether he intended to announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election, he said: “You’re going to be so happy. . . . We’ll let you know pretty soon.”
On the course, Trump kept his focus on golf. His private club was swathed in LIV signage, much of it trumpeting the organization’s slogan, “Golf, but louder.” The former president and his son Eric were paired with Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, two of the biggest names to make the jump from the PGA Tour, long the world’s highest-profile golf circuit.
Trump has boasted about the earning potential LIV offers players but declined to reveal how much money he stood to earn by hosting the organization’s events.
“I don’t do it for that,” he said Thursday. “They’ve been very generous, but I don’t do it for that. I do it because I think it’s great for golf.”
That’s a hotly debated point within the sport, which has watched some of its biggest names peel off from the PGA Tour, jeopardizing their spots in the majors or the Ryder Cup. The no-cut, shotgun-style LIV tournament is a three-day, 54-hole affair that rankles many traditionalists. The Bedminster tournament begins in earnest Friday and will feature 48 professional players from across the world.
But Thursday morning’s pro-am, which included an assortment of celebrities, social media influencers and conservative voices, unofficially opened the event. Caitlyn Jenner teed off with English golfers Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. Charles Barkley was paired with Spain’s Sergio Garcia and South African Louis Oosthuizen, and radio host Clay Travis played with four-time major winner Brooks Koepka.
The banter in Trump’s foursome remained light. The group teed off in front of reporters and a few dozen volunteers and event staffers, including LIV Golf chief executive Greg Norman. The two professionals clapped and cheered when Trump sent his first drive straight but just off the fairway.
Following the shot, Trump turned to a group of observers, which included his daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, former White House adviser Jared Kushner, and said, “Glad that’s over with.”
Later, when DeChambeau scraped out a meaty divot, Trump remarked: “That’s not a divot. That’s a foundation.” And when he took selfies with groundskeepers, he joked, “No one has covid, right?”
After watching the pros tee off from the back tees on the 446-yard second hole, Trump looked down the hill toward the blue tees.
“I’m going to find a more comfortable tee,” he said, settling back into his cart, which featured a presidential seal and a red, white and blue golf bag on the back. Eric Trump was in a separate cart with a bag on which “Trump 2024” was stitched prominently.
Trump occasionally turned to the small crowd that shadowed him around the course to brag about his courses and boast about the LIV series.
The former president is an avid golfer whose loose adherence to the game’s rule book has been scrutinized. Thursday’s round was not a competitive affair, and there was no reported score. At times the golfers played a single drive, and in a couple of instances, Trump opted not to putt out a hole, though he did lay claim to a couple of birdies.
This week marks the third event of the controversial LIV Golf series and its second in the United States. Family members of 9/11 victims already have called on Trump to cancel the event and had two news conferences planned for this week in Bedminster to shine a light on Saudi involvement in the attacks and make sure golfers are aware what they have signed up for.
“They’ve been given their talking points. And their talking points are to defend their actions for joining the LIV tournament and to say that the kingdom is not a bad actor,” Terry Strada, national chair of 9/11 Families United — whose husband, Tom, worked in the World Trade Center’s North Tower — said in an interview. “And we’re going to challenge that. They are misguided thinking that they can just now say what they want to say about the kingdom.”
Matt Bonesteel contributed to this report.