ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: Phil Mickelson of the United States talks to His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan during the Pro-Am ahead of the LIV Golf Invitational at The Centurion Club on June 08, 2022 in St Albans, England. (Photo by John Phillips/LIV Golf/Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson defends joining Saudi-funded LIV Golf
02:45 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and has written an award-winning piece on golf. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

As 40 pros chase little dimpled balls around his course this week in New Jersey, at least four of former President Donald Trump’s favorite things will converge: publicity, cash, conflict and golf.

Michael D'Antonio

Long his passion, the game has been roiled by controversy over a new tour (comparable to a league) that’s backed by a Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Players must choose between tradition and the big money offered by this new tour, burdened with the association with Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record.

In typical fashion, Trump has inserted himself in the middle of this squabble. Players should “take the money” offered by the new LIV Golf tour, he says, rather than stay loyal to the venerable PGA Tour, predicting an inevitable merger. “If you don’t take the money now,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social account, “you will get nothing after the merger takes place, and only say how smart the original signees were.”

To be clear, only Trump is talking about possibly merging the organizations. Instead, according to CNBC, the PGA is hiring lobbyists to fight the LIV because of what its commissioner calls “an irrational threat, one not concerned with the return on investment or true growth of the game.”

The American tour is also investing in the allied European Tour and banning LIV players from its events. Of course, this blow will be softened by large payouts in prize money LIV will offer this year, according to Forbes.

At the center of it all is the Saudi sovereign wealth fund’s chairman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who must be credited with LIV’s ambitious effort to challenge the golf establishment.

Trump supporting LIV by urging players to go for the cash is wholly consistent for a man who once said in “The Art of the Deal,” “You can’t be too greedy.”

But money is not the only benefit LIV golfers get; on the new tour they’ll actually have to play less golf. LIV events will be three-day, 54-hole events. (The name LIV is the Roman numeral version of 54.) PGA tournaments are four-day affairs requiring 72 holes of play. More money for less work – what is there to lose?

Trump apparently figured that he too he had nothing to lose, and much to gain, when he accepted LIV’s request to host an event in its inaugural season. This calls to mind Trump’s 1980s involvement with an upstart football league called the USFL. Trump, then the owner of the New Jersey Generals, led an effort to file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Though the USFL won the case, the NFL was only made to pay a symbolic $1, and in the end, the lengthy court battle sunk the nascent football league. Trump may be reliving that experience – and perhaps re-litigating his failure vicariously with golf.

There are other perks, too, for Trump. There’s the fee Trump will receive for leasing his Bedminster, New Jersey, course along with the valuable free publicity as the press covers both the event and the added controversy of a former US President working with an organization controlled by a state with a terrible human rights record. (A State Department report notes that Saudi Arabia’s “(s)ignificant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances.”) The murder and dismemberment of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 focused world attention on the kingdom’s record.

Trump’s connection with Saudi Arabia was surely on the minds of members of 9/11 Justice, an advocacy group that represents families of those killed in the September 11 terror attacks. Fifteen of the 19 attackers, who killed almost 3,000 people that day, were Saudi nationals. They were affiliated with al Qaeda, which wealthy Saudis allegedly help to fund, according to analysis from BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera. Nevertheless, Trump is sticking with the Saudis. (The Saudi government denies any involvement in 9/11.)

Trump seems immune to others’ effort to make him feel ashamed, so the fact that he plans to host the tournament is unsurprising. Add the longstanding evidence that he considers the kingdom good business partners and vital allies and his choice to pick the Saudis over the American tour and objections of the 9/11 families seems inevitable.

In the 1990s, as Trump faced financial peril, Saudis bought a big yacht and hotel from him, according to The Washington Post, and the Riyadh government also paid $4.5 million for a Trump apartment. The Post reported that while campaigning for president in 2015, he said of the Saudis, “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

As President, Trump made Saudi Arabia the first stop on his initial trip abroad. When Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Trump’s response to the scandal was muted to say the least. Indeed, after the CIA reported that the killing was ordered by MBS, Trump put out an official statement saying, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” (The Saudi Foreign Ministry dismissed a similar US intelligence report assessment about MBS in 2021.)

Reaffirming his interest in money, he also stressed a pending $20 billion to $30 billion US arms sale to Saudi Arabia. It was just part of an overall package that Trump claimed to be $110 billion in sales over the course of 10 years, brokered by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, early in the Trump administration. (In fact, less than $4 billion in arms agreements had been concluded when Trump made this claim, NPR reported, citing a Brookings Institution official.)

After Trump left office, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, which is led by MBS, invested $2 billion in Kushner’s equity fund, according to The New York Times.

If the financial elements of Trump’s decision are a bit difficult to follow, the golf aspects are quite clear. Trump has long sought the prestige that comes with having pro tournaments at his courses. To date the courses have hosted seven tournaments for major golf organizations. A few years ago, Trump’s Bedminister club had been slated to host its first major tournament, a category that includes the Masters, the US Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. However, in the wake of the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by Trump’s supporters, the PGA moved the 2022 Championship from Bedminster to a course in Oklahoma called Southern Hills Country Club.

During the 2016 campaign, the PGA Tour moved a tournament from Trump’s Doral course in Florida to Mexico City. Although the tour had once raised concerns about Trump’s provocative statements about Muslims, lack of a sponsor to help foot the bill was the reason given when the decision was made, according to The Washington Post.

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    Trump’s support for LIV may be an act of revenge directed at the American golf establishment. But in picking LIV, he won’t get the valuable attention garnered by PGA Tour events. As of now LIV doesn’t have broadcasting contracts, so it won’t appear on TV. The tournaments can be viewed online, but as The New Yorker recently noted, viewership there has been “pitifully small.”

    How will Trump tally up his experience with LIV? From a financial standpoint, he won’t get all the publicity he could expect from another tour. However, he has, by urging players to defect and siding with LIV, stuck a thumb in the eye of the powers that be who rejected him. Among the notable names who have been recruited to LIV are Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

    Trump’s support of LIV will likely please MBS, who is Kushner’s investor and who played the key role in LIV’s development. Best of all, for a man who owns golf courses, plays often, and loves to talk about the game, the LIV event offers Trump a chance to play with a professional in pro-am match. Can you imagine him passing it up?