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Amid the MAGA hats at Trump’s Doral, LIV Golf finds niche

Former president Donald Trump (2nd R), with his sons, Donald Trump, Jr. (L), Eric Trump (R) and golfer Brooks Koepka at his Miami golf course during a LIV pro-am event. (Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images)

MIAMI — It had been years since they had been on vacation, just the two of them. So Thursday morning, Sania and Jeremy Harper dropped off their three older kids at school, the toddler with grandparents, and started the four-hour drive south.

They decided months ago to leave Orlando and attend two days of the LIV Golf team championship, and almost from the moment they walked into Trump National Doral on Friday, Sania noticed something familiar. The music, confetti, consequence-free party atmosphere — it had the distinct feel of a Donald Trump rally.

“It’s about the vibe and the attitude,” said Jeremy, 31. “You can be outlandish and in-your-face, and you’re not disrespectful or a bad person, quote-unquote.”

“Life is short,” Sania, 32, said.

“You can unbutton a little bit and let it all hang out.”

Just then, another fan approached and complimented Sania’s red “Make America Great Again” hat, which she had bought for $36 at the course’s merchandise shop. Trump apparel and campaign signs are a common sight here; Sania estimated that 20 people had stopped her to praise her hat. “It’s about being able to just be yourself,” she said. “That’s me, that’s LIV, that’s Donald Trump.”

For much of 2022, the first-year rebel golf series has been the focus of intense scrutiny. Much of it has focused on the jaw-dropping bonuses and prize money dangled in front of golfers to defect from the PGA Tour and the fact that the source of the cash is the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund.

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But as LIV’s inaugural season ends, what’s also clear is that the series has become undeniably intertwined with Trump and perhaps is most popular among his supporters. Two of its eight tournaments were at Trump courses, the former president has continually injected himself into golf’s civil war, and ahead of the midterms and a possible 2024 presidential campaign, Trump is again using sports — this time his favorite one — as a political lightning rod.

“The PGA is being destroyed by the PGA,” Trump told reporters Thursday after playing in LIV’s pro-am event with Brooks Koepka and Sergio Garcia. “They were stupid, and they shouldn’t be stupid.”

Other major sports and leagues have political leanings, largely dictated by their target audiences and various centers of power. College football and the NFL tilt right, the NBA left, though this is often discussed in whispered tones so as to not divide the wider audience and scare off advertisers. LIV, still searching for its voice and a foothold in the overcrowded sports-entertainment space, may be emerging as something never before seen: America’s first explicitly right-wing sports league.

There are obvious comparisons between LIV and Trump, from identifying themselves as opponents of a dusty and potentially corrupt establishment to digging in their heels amid a skeptical and largely critical mainstream media. The series hired Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary under George W. Bush, as a messaging consultant ahead of its launch. Greg Norman, the former PGA Tour star who is now LIV’s chief executive and commissioner, has maintained a friendship with Trump for decades and designed courses for some of his properties. Norman sought the former president’s messaging advice before LIV’s launch in the spring, and the organization’s preferred megaphone is Fox News, with Norman’s strategy appearing to be leaning into and occasionally stoking the controversy.

“Why are they picking on the professional golfers? Why? The male professional golfers?” Norman said during an appearance in July on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” LIV was facing heavy backlash for, in some cases, offering nine-figure contracts paid by Saudi money. “Females, the LPGA Tour is sponsored by Aramco, right? … Not one word has been said about them, right? But why is it — why is it on the guys? Why are we the ogres? What have we done wrong?” (In fact, Aramco sponsors several tournaments on the Ladies’ European Tour but not the LPGA Tour.)

Atul Khosla, LIV’s president and chief operating officer, said in a recent interview that appealing to a primarily Republican fan base is the “furthest thing from my head.”

“Our objective is to attract golf and sports fans. That’s it,” he said. “Whether they are left-leaning, right-leaning does not matter to us. … Our lens is very much, at the end of the day, just attract golf and sports fans. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Its association with Trump may complicate that mission. Norman has said LIV scheduled tournaments at Doral and Bedminster this season because it simply needed places to play. Trump quickly seized the chance to collect venue fees and also insert himself into, and take a side on, a radioactive conversation.

Kevin Madden, a veteran Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said both Trump and LIV seem unconcerned with history and tradition, sharing a mutual focus on transactional relationships. Referring to LIV’s “golf, but louder” slogan, Madden pointed out Trump essentially markets himself as “politics, but louder.”

“It’s taking on the establishment,” Madden added, “and what [fans] love about LIV is what they loved about Trump: They’re both pissing off the right people.”

The Shark is on the attack again

Five days after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the PGA of America canceled plans to hold the 2022 PGA Championship at Bedminster, saying moving forward at a Trump course would be “detrimental” to the organization’s brand. The British Open also announced it would remove Trump’s Turnberry Hotel from its rotation.

At Bedminster’s LIV event in July, Trump watched the tournament’s final round alongside Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), and right-leaning sports media figures Clay Travis and Sage Steele were seen in and around the course’s reception hall. Trump periodically emerged onto a patio overlooking the 16th tee to acknowledge an adoring gallery and, at one point, threw hats into the crowd.

“He has just been in the background, but in the foreground, if you know what I mean,” Norman told Carlson then.

This past week, LIV players assembled in South Florida to compete for a share of the $50 million team prize, the largest purse in golf history. Trump didn’t hesitate to put himself, and perhaps his political aspirations, in full view. Eric Trump, one of his father’s pro-am teammates, played out of a golf bag with “TRUMP 2024” embroidered on it.

“A beauty!” Garcia announced after Donald Trump hit a 3-wood to reach the green on the par-3 13th hole.

Great shot, sir,” an aide in a “MAGA” hat declared for neither the first nor last time after Trump swung.

Trump posed for pictures and chatted up onlookers, at one point waving two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson (working as a LIV broadcast analyst while he recovers from knee surgery) past Secret Service members to issue his support of Watson’s decision to flip to LIV. An autograph seeker later produced a 1990 issue of Playboy magazine with Trump on the cover, attracting the former president’s attention.

“I’ve got to show this to Sergio,” Trump said, and for the next 10 minutes Trump passed it among members of his entourage and occasionally flipped through the pages before signing and returning the issue.

It’s by no means the first time Trump inserted himself into the national sports conversation, and it’s certainly not new that a league had to weigh the cost-benefit of an alliance with him. In 2017, in response to NFL player protests, Trump suggested players be “fired” for on-field demonstrations and later instructed Vice President Mike Pence to abruptly leave an Indianapolis Colts game. Some franchise owners, such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, sided with Trump, effectively causing a deeper rift between the league’s mostly White billionaire management class and its majority-Black player workforce.

Championship teams’ visits to the White House turned into a political moment, with news outlets documenting who skipped the proceedings and who attended. Trump occasionally appeared at high-profile college football and baseball games, and he ordered an Air Force One flyby of the Daytona 500.

LIV’s leadership has said privately that it wishes to move past its contentious first year and expand its fan base as it pursues a media rights deal. Amid accusations of corruption, greed and Saudi Arabia’s attempts to “sportswash” a horrific record of human rights abuses, players were frequently asked to explain their decision to join LIV and accept money from the Saudi government, which has committed $3 billion to fund the series over its first three seasons.

“If it was solely for the economics, it was a no-brainer,” Bryson DeChambeau, who reportedly received at least $100 million to sign with LIV, said during his own interview with Carlson in August. The political reverberations were a different matter. He added: “I had to weigh all those consequences, the social [consequences], how I was going to be viewed publicly.”

Trump takes center stage in run-up to LIV Golf’s third tournament

If LIV hopes to detach itself from Trump, history would indicate that can be a challenging prospect. Shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, the NFL briefly united, and Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared in a video in which he said the league was wrong for its stance three years earlier and that, “We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.”

Trump went on the offensive, firing off tweets in which he criticized former Saints quarterback Drew Brees and calling the NFL “weak” in response to Goodell’s video. Fans of the country’s most powerful and popular sports league found themselves in a precarious position: having to choose between their favorite sport and their preferred politician, forces that had previously been aligned.

Though LIV hasn’t openly courted Trump, it also hasn’t rejected him. Now the association seems strong enough that some Trump supporters attend LIV’s events specifically because the former president is behind it.

“This is what the American people want,” said Alexander Davis, a 37-year-old fan who on Friday wore a red, white and blue TRUMP hat at Doral. He agreed to an interview with The Washington Post under the condition any associated article avoid “fake news.”

“It’s the freedom. The freedom to have fun, enjoy, bring people in that may not have looked at golf as a sport. Not only that, but just enjoy themselves and the camaraderie of people who don’t even know each other,” Davis said.

Another fan listening in said it seemed intentional that LIV’s Doral tournament was marketing itself to a pro-Trump audience with $8 beers, activities such as a chip-shot simulator and a Cam Smith-inspired mullet-haircut station.

“I wish I could put my finger on it,” said Ray Beninato, 67, who identified himself as a Trump supporter. “But it just seems like most of these people here are Trump — I can’t say that — but they’re moving more to the right than to the left. From what I see, the LIV thing is just open freedom.”

On Friday afternoon, Sania and Jeremy followed Koepka and Phil Mickelson (who has a villa named for him at Doral) before heading toward a set of bleachers overlooking the 18th green. Jeremy is a golf pro himself, saying he competes on mini-tours, and Sania sometimes tags along to courses. If her husband weren’t playing, she said, she’d be ready to leave after a few holes, bored by the sport’s silence and decorum.

But this is different.

“Go LIV! Go Trump!” she called toward another passerby who’d noticed her hat. “Here, I could say ‘PGA’ out loud and nobody will come attack me. Over there, at the PGA, I probably can’t even say ‘LIV’; they’ll probably ban me. You go to a Trump rally, you say ‘Biden,’ nobody’s going to say anything. You’re not allowed to be a human.”

Sania danced up the cart path as they approached the bleachers, running up to golfer Pat Perez, who initially looked startled before nodding at Sania and continuing on his way. Sania laughed, saying she’d “do anything” to see Trump, who, whether LIV wants it or not, has made himself into the series’s biggest star.