Henrik Stenson leads LIV event but Donald Trump circus steals limelight

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP</span>
Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

It didn’t take long for the barely veiled political undertones surrounding the LIV Golf tournament at Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf club to burst to the fore on Saturday afternoon.

The several hundred spectators filling the grandstand behind the first tee erupted into rollicking chants of “Four more years!” that resounded across the grounds when the former US president emerged in a white polo shirt and red Make America Great Again cap to watch the leading group of Henrik Stenson, Patrick Reed and Phachara Khongwatmai begin their second rounds after the horn sent off the shotgun start at quarter past one.

Related: LIV Golf’s latest stop brings together Trump, Saudi Arabia and plenty of criticism

Several feet away Greg Norman, the CEO and face of the controversial Saudi-financed breakaway tour, raised the roof with a sheepish grin, embracing the rowdy atmosphere even as it was deftly avoided by the official broadcast, which streamed on YouTube to around 70,000 viewers in the absence of a TV deal. And that was before a surprise appearance by Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican congresswoman and self-avowed Christian Nationalist from Georgia.

If day one was a Diet Maga rally, this was Maga Classic. The crowds for Saturday’s second round of the 54-hole, no-cut tournament were slightly larger and certainly louder than Friday’s opening session, when no more than 2,000 spectators descended on the 500-acre grounds of Trump National in this central New Jersey farm town 45 miles west of New York City. The previously deserted grandstands and grassy knolls along the fairways were peppered with fans as the $25m tournament’s middle act played out beneath pristine blue skies and comfortable 88F (31C) temperatures.

Stenson, the joint overnight leader fresh off his removal as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain last week, shot a two-under-par 69 to widen his lead on the field to nine-under, three strokes better than Dustin Johnson and four ahead of Patrick Reed, Carlos Ortiz and Talor Gooch.

But it was the former US president who once again soaked up the spotlight, even as the star-studded field of PGA Tour defectors made the simultaneous circuit around the 7,591-yard Old Course. A constant mass of several hundred supporters spent the afternoon stationed outside the enclosed terrace next to the 16th tee where Trump took in the second half of the day’s play. Many of them wore shirts branded with familiar slogans: Let’s Go Brandon; Miss Me Yet?; Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Trump.

Their patience was rewarded when he finally emerged from the fishbowl to delirious roars for an impromptu performance of God Bless America and was joined by Taylor Greene, the conservative firebrand who has coolly angled for a place on Trump’s 2024 ticket. The atmosphere was far more sedate a few hundred yards behind the 514-yard, par-five first tee, where a plaque and bouquet of white flowers marked the plot of freshly turned soil where Ivana Trump, the former president’s first wife, was interred this week.

Trump’s illicit use of the presidential seal at his Bedminster club has drawn a stern tut-tut from ethics watchdogs, but many of the other signposts of his White House tenure on the grounds fall on the right side of federal law. Anyone who left their Maga hat at home could pick one up at the pro shop: unsigned for $35, autographed for $500. Same for copies of his pictorial memoir, Our Journey Together, which go for $75.

Critics have accused the Saudi government of using their reported $2bn investment in LIV Golf to “sportswash” the kingdom’s abhorrent human rights record, alleged ties to the September 11 attacks, severe repression of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and the 2018 murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But while the Washington chattering class has spent the week pondering whether Trump’s about-face toward a regime he once accused of a role in 9/11 will cost him politically, the scenes on Saturday appeared to put the question to rest – with golf remaining firmly in the back seat.