Trump Courses Will Host Three Tournaments for Saudi-Backed LIV Golf
Former President Donald J. Trump’s golf courses will host three tournaments this year for the breakaway league that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is underwriting, deepening the financial ties between a candidate for the White House and top officials in Riyadh.
LIV Golf, which in the past year has cast men’s professional golf into turmoil as it lured players away from the PGA Tour, said on Monday that it would travel to Trump courses in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia during this year’s 14-stop season. Neither the league nor the Trump Organization announced the terms of their arrangement, but the schedule shows the Saudi-backed start-up will remain allied with, and beneficial to, one of its foremost defenders and political patrons as he seeks a return to power.
Part of LIV’s scheduling approach, executives say, hinges on the relative scarcity of elite courses that can challenge players such as Phil Mickelson and Cameron Smith — and the abundance of them in a Trump portfolio that is more accessible than many others to the new circuit. In a court filing last week, LIV Golf complained anew that the PGA Tour had warned “golfers, other tours, vendors, broadcasters, sponsors and virtually any other third parties” against doing business with the rebel league.
But Trump, whose courses hosted two LIV Golf events in 2022, has expressed no public misgivings about his company’s ties to the league, which has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and prompted accusations that the country was turning to sports to repair its reputation. A confidential McKinsey & Company analysis presented to Saudi officials in 2021 suggested there were significant obstacles to success and underscored the limited financial potential for one of the world’s largest wealth funds.
Long before Monday’s announcement, the Trump family was closely entangled with the wealth fund, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman oversees and the PGA Tour is now trying to draw directly into its legal fight against LIV.
A Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Several top players and former major champions have joined LIV Golf, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith. But many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.
Formally known as the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund has agreed to invest $2 billion in a firm controlled by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. In addition to the tournaments that LIV staged last year at Trump properties in Florida and New Jersey, the wealth fund was the “presenting partner” for a women’s golf series that held an October event at a Trump course in the Bronx.
The Trump Organization did not respond to questions on Monday about the financial terms of its arrangement with LIV Golf, which declined to comment. Instead, Eric Trump, one of the former president’s sons and an executive vice president of his family’s business, said in a statement that the company was “honored to be hosting” the league.
“What LIV Golf accomplished in their first season was truly remarkable and we are excited to raise the bar even higher together in 2023,” he added.
Beyond financial considerations, Donald Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of LIV Golf can be partly traced to his episodic clashes with the game’s establishment. The PGA Tour, which LIV is trying to challenge for supremacy in the men’s professional game, said during the 2016 presidential campaign that it was ending its long connection to a Trump club near Miami. (The tour commissioner, Tim Finchem, denied at the time that the decision was “a political exercise” and instead characterized it as “fundamentally a sponsorship issue.”)
After the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the P.G.A. of America, which is separate from the tour, abandoned its plans to host the 2022 P.G.A. Championship at a Trump property in New Jersey. And the R&A, which organizes the British Open, has essentially refused to return its championship tournament to Turnberry, a glimmering Scottish course that Trump now owns.
So it came as little surprise when Trump, who as president publicly resisted the conclusion of American intelligence agencies that the crown prince had authorized the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, closely aligned himself and his business with LIV in its debut season.
In an interview with The New York Times at LIV’s team championship event in October, the former president said he had no second thoughts about hosting the series’ tournaments. Pressed on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Trump, who that day had described Saudi officials as “good people with unlimited money,” replied: “We have human rights issues in this country, too. We have human rights issues here as much as anybody.”
Trump’s business ties to the Middle East reach beyond LIV and the wealth fund. In November, he reached a deal with a Saudi real estate company that is planning a $4 billion project in Oman, including a Trump-branded hotel and golf course. The government of Oman owns the land where the complex is expected to be built, and it is collaborating with Dar Al Arkan, the Saudi firm that signed the contract with the former president.
The full schedule, released on Monday after a run of scattered announcements and leaks, begins in late February in Mexico at the El Camaleón course at Mayakoba. The league will hold eight events in the United States, including tournaments at Trump courses in New Jersey and near Miami and Washington. Its schedule also includes a return to Centurion Golf Club, the property near London where LIV played its first tournament last year, and a debut at Real Club Valderrama, the Spanish course that hosted the Ryder Cup in 1997.
The season’s final tournament, days after the competition at the Trump-controlled property in Doral, Fla., will be in Saudi Arabia.
LIV’s format, built around 54-hole tournaments with shotgun starts and no cuts, has repeatedly drawn the ire of some of the PGA Tour’s remaining stars, who have sometimes complained that defectors like Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka are playing a watered-down game.
Suspicion and litigation linger, too, but LIV has secured two victories lately: a decision by Augusta National Golf Club to allow the league’s players to compete in this year’s Masters Tournament and a modest television contract with the CW Network.
There has been other turmoil, though. LIV’s ambitions to recruit the world’s top 12 players, a pivotal goal, appear to have stalled, and some of its top executives have left in recent weeks. Litigation against the PGA Tour has been acrimonious, and the two sides have clashed over the extent of Saudi influence in LIV’s day-to-day work.
LIV Golf has insisted that its “stakeholders take a long-term approach to our business model” and that it was “confident that over the next few seasons, the remaining pieces of our business model will come to fruition as planned.”
On Monday, not long before the schedule rollout, LIV nearly secured a win on the golf course: Patrick Reed lost to Rory McIlroy, one of LIV’s greatest antagonists, by a stroke at the weather-delayed Dubai Desert Classic.