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Perfect storm: Trump, LIV Golf and 9/11 protests collide

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Later this week, the LIV Golf tour will play its third event of the season at former President Donald Trump’s Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. Days before the shotgun start, it’s already the most contentious event on a tour that’s known nothing but controversy in its nine months of formal existence.

LIV has enticed many of the biggest names in golf, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, away from the PGA Tour with the allure of massive signing bonuses and guaranteed payouts at 54-hole, no-cut events. Backed by the vast wealth of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf has drawn accusations of “sportswashing” – that is, using spectacles such as sports to distract from, or normalize, human rights violations committed by the Saudi regime.

After two YouTube-broadcast events, the LIV tour now arrives at a club owned by Trump, who remains in the news more than 18 months after he lost the 2020 presidential election. Trump has sparred with the PGA Tour and other golf governing bodies ever since he first announced his run for president in 2015, and LIV represents an opportunity for him to return his golf business to the public eye at large.

However, the location of his Bedminster club — just 50 miles from New York City — as well as LIV’s foundational ties to the Saudi government have drawn criticism from activist groups who decry the tournament as an insensitive insult to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Protests are taking place all week in New Jersey prior to the tournament’s shotgun start Friday.

It’s a golf tournament where the actual golf ranks well down on the list of most newsworthy items.

BEDMINSTER, NEW JERSEY - JULY 26: A general view of Trump National Golf Club during a practice round prior to the LIV Golf Invitational - Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 26, 2022 in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/LIV Golf/via Getty Images)
A general view of Trump National Golf Club during a practice round prior to the LIV Golf Invitational in Bedminster, New Jersey. (Mike Stobe/LIV Golf/via Getty Images)

Trump’s long history with golf

Trump’s connection to LIV is a direct result of the broken connections with the world of elite professional golf. Decades before he became involved in politics, Trump built a portfolio of golf courses that reached from New Jersey to Los Angeles, Florida to Scotland. He secured, or maintained, multiple PGA Tour and LPGA events at his courses. His ultimate intention was to bring one of the three rotating men’s majors — the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Open Championship — to a Trump-owned course.

“Tournaments attach prestige to the golf course, and also to [Trump’s] name,” said Michael D’Antonio, a CNN contributor and author of "The Truth About Trump." “They generate lots of free publicity. Then it has the imprimatur of whatever tour is hosting the event. It becomes not just Donald Trump bragging about his own golf course, but outside authorities saying ‘this is a really good course.’”

The year 2014 should have marked the point when Trump entered golf’s highest echelons. He purchased Turnberry, one of the courses on the Open Championship rota and site of the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in 1977. Turnberry – swiftly renamed “Trump Turnberry” – was already slated to host the 2020 Open Championship. Two days after the purchase, Trump was awarded the 2022 PGA Championship at his Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.

Then Trump decided to run for president, and everything in his golf world changed.

Trump’s aggressive, uncompromising America-first rhetoric won him admirers — and, ultimately, the presidency — but lost him the support of golf’s gatekeepers. The R&A, the organizing body of the Open Championship, was the first to cut ties with Trump. After deeming Trump’s anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric disqualifying, the R&A withdrew the 2020 Open and removed Turnberry from the Open rota.

Six months later, in 2016, the PGA Tour followed, removing its WGC tournament from Doral because of an inability to find sponsors for a Trump-backed event.

"I know everybody's talking about politics, but it's actually not that, in my view," then-PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said at the time. "I think it's more Donald Trump is a brand, a big brand, and when you're asking a company to invest millions of dollars in branding a tournament and they're going to share that brand with the host, it's a difficult conversation.”

The PGA of America — a separate organization from the PGA Tour — remained on track all the way through Trump’s presidency to play the 2022 PGA Championship at Bedminster. But after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, the PGA, too, cut ties with Trump, removing the major from Bedminster and placing it at Southern Hills in Oklahoma. Justin Thomas won the event earlier this year.

“We find ourselves in a political situation not of our making,” Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America, said in the wake of the riots. “We’re fiduciaries for our members, for the game, for our mission and for our brand. And how do we best protect that? Our feeling was given the tragic events of [Jan. 6] that we could no longer hold it at Bedminster. The damage could have been irreparable. The only real course of action was to leave.”

There is no indication that any of golf’s organizing entities will have anything to do with Trump or a Trump-owned property in the foreseeable future. An R&A spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo Sports that there are no plans to expand the Open rota, and reiterated the organization’s 2021 statement on Turnberry: “We have no plans to stage any of our championships at Turnberry in the foreseeable future and we will not return until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the course itself.”

“With any potential PGA Tour event, there are a number of ingredients necessary to stage a tournament — among them a title sponsor, a host facility, a host 501(c)3 organization that operates the tournament, an engaged community and an open position in the Tour’s calendar,” a PGA Tour spokesperson told Yahoo Sports. “ At the present time, it’s that last point — an open position on the Tour’s calendar — that is worth noting.”

The Tour indicated that it is currently fully sponsored and scheduled, and will be announcing its 2022-23 schedule in the coming weeks.

FILE - Signage for Trump National Golf Club is shown on approach to the entrance in Bedminster, N.J., on Oct. 2, 2020. A group of Sept. 11 victims' family members are condemning former President Donald Trump for hosting the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour at his New Jersey course later this month. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Signage for Trump National Golf Club is shown on approach to the entrance in Bedminster, New Jersey. A group of Sept. 11 victims' family members are condemning former President Donald Trump for hosting the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour at his New Jersey course. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Trump, LIV Golf join forces

Trump’s grievances with the PGA Tour and other golf entities — along with his long-standing business relationships with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — made him a natural ally for LIV Golf, which has spent the past several months ripping the way the Tour does business, and winning over many well-known players as a result.

LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman has locked horns with the PGA Tour for decades over the Tour’s refusal to let players compete on alternate, concurring tours. Earlier this year, their battle exploded into outright hostility when the PGA Tour levied indefinite suspensions on any player competing in a LIV event.

Norman retaliated by accusing the Tour of serving its own interests, not those of the players, even as he criticized figures ranging from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy for their stances on LIV.

“Why does the PGA Tour have 23 sponsors within the PGA Tour doing 40-plus billion dollars worth of business with Saudi Arabia? Why is it OK for the sponsors?” he said in June. “The hypocrisy in all this, it’s so loud. It’s deafening.”

Enter Trump, who appears to have a different view of LIV’s future than Norman has expressed publicly.

"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 last week. "If you don't take the money now, you will get nothing after the merger takes place, and only say how smart the original signees were."

The concept of a rival sports league merger is not new for Trump. In the early 1980s, he bought into the USFL, purchasing the New Jersey Generals franchise. (The Generals’ marquee attraction was running back, and current Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who remains a Trump ally to this day.) Trump spearheaded radical moves with the intention of having the NFL acquire USFL teams, the way the NBA had acquired multiple ABA teams several years prior. The move failed and the USFL dissolved shortly thereafter.

The Trump Organization, which runs Trump’s golf interests, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on LIV Golf. A spokesman for LIV declined to comment on any element of this weekend’s tournament.

“He loves golf, but he loves money more,” D’Antonio said. “There’s no doubt he sees this gambit as a financial win. I also think that he’s not worried about the PGA or the PGA Tour because he believes they’ll come back, that everybody will come back.”

LIV Golf isn’t likely to fade as quickly as the USFL did. LIV’s value proposition has been compelling enough that players have abandoned sponsors, longtime tournament commitments, and even — in the case of Henrik Stenson — a Ryder Cup captaincy. With a reported $2 billion in Saudi funding backing LIV’s ambitious plans for the future, LIV appears committed to remaining a force for the short term. With speculation swirling about future LIV signings following the end of the PGA Tour season in early September, the tour is looking to ensure its viability by picking up familiar names and amateurs looking for a quick, lucrative entrance into the professional ranks.

This weekend’s tournament at Bedminster will test LIV’s viability in a major market. Lacking a television contract, LIV has been forced to stream its events on YouTube and rely on a series of on-property attractions to draw in fans. In addition to the shotgun start, where every player tees off at once, Bedminster will offer fans everything from a Navy SEAL parachuting demonstration to a Chainsmokers concert. (The Chainsmokers have also jumped from the PGA Tour to LIV, having played at the Players Championship back in 2020.)

9/11 protests will accompany golf

The tournament will also be taking place in a state that lost 750 people in the 9/11 attacks. Saudi Arabia was home to 15 of 19 hijackers and had a still-undisclosed role in the planning, financing and execution of the attacks, and so the fact that a Saudi-funded golf league is playing in the state has infuriated the families of victims lost or injured in the attacks.

This week, 9/11 groups will gather at a local public library about 4 miles from the club’s entrance.

“We’re trying to educate the golfers and the public in the dangers of sportswashing,” 9/11 Families United chair Terry Strada said. “It’s evident that MBS [Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman] is trying to improve the kingdom’s image by manipulating U.S. public opinion. What they’re trying to do, mostly, is erase history with the 9/11 community, and whitewash the responsibility they have to victims’ families and survivors.”

"As we have said all along, these families have our deepest sympathy,” LIV Golf said in a statement. “While some may not agree, we believe golf is a force for good around the world."

Trump has put more distance between himself and the protests. “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,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Monday. “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.”

Strada has criticized all prior presidential administrations for their handling of 9/11 investigations — Bush, Obama and Trump — but indicated that Trump reneged on a 2019 promise to release documents from investigations into the connections between Saudi Arabia and the terrorist attacks. The Biden administration has since declassified some of those documents, but has yet to take a hard line with Saudi Arabia over 9/11, including during his recent visit to the kingdom.

“We’re deeply disappointed in a former president who knows the atrocities the kingdom has committed on U.S. citizens,” Strada said. “He more than anyone should not be supporting any part of the LIV tournament.”

This weekend’s LIV tournament will take place from Friday to Sunday. LIV has five more events on its 2022 schedule, and will conclude the weekend of Oct. 27-30 in Miami at Trump’s Doral course.

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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