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9 June 2023

On the Trumpist front lines of the Saudi golf takeover

At Donald Trump’s golf club in Virginia, I watched new money hijack a venerable sport.

By Kara Kennedy

Last July Donald Trump wrote: “All of those golfers that remain ‘loyal’ to the very disloyal PGA… will pay a big price when the inevitable merger with LIV comes. 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.”

Trump’s warning was also a prophecy. The PGA and DP World Tour announced a merger with the Saudi-funded LIV Golf this week. Many professional golfers have reportedly expressed anger at the union. Those who turned down the hundreds of millions offered to them to take part in LIV Golf tournaments before the deal are now working for them anyway. An important lesson: grandstanding doesn’t pay the bills.

I went to a tournament hosted by LIV Golf, a professional tour known for shorter tournaments (three rounds instead of four) with smaller fields, at the Trump National Golf Club in Washington DC a few days ago. I wasn’t expecting much; I always believed that the two most boring sports on earth were darts and golf.

At least with darts you get to have a knees-up while you’re watching overweight men launch a sharp object towards a painfully small target while pretending to know what the score adds up to. With golf, especially at those fancy clubs, you’re frowned upon if you strut to each hole with a hip flask, so you end up dehydrated and out of breath and waiting for the whole thing to be over with.

I never spotted Trump at his eponymous club. According to a guy on the 12th hole, the former US president was tucked away in a VIP tent somewhere. It turned out that to actually see Donald Trump at his own golf course on this particular day would cost me seven hundred and fifty smackers (and my pride).

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[See also: The chaos and confusion of Donald Trump on trial]

Viewed from the outside, the tent appeared to be littered with pretty blondes and bordered by obese men in “Make America Great Again” hats trying to catch a glimpse of their king. I was there for about five hours roaming around, and these disciples, brandishing old Playboy issues featuring Trump and various MAGA merch for “Donny” to sign, didn’t move a muscle and risk missing him on his way past.

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I don’t know much about the sport and won’t pretend to. I saw Phil Mickelson agonisingly miss a putt – as someone explained to me who Phil Mickelson was. But mostly, I spent the whole day gawking at the big-boobed blondes in tennis skirts and wondering if they were accompanied by their husbands or fathers.

For the takers-of-everything-too-seriously, though, this new Trumpist-Saudi hotdog cookout has sinister implications. After all, LIV Golf is financed by the $620bn Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. “Welcome to LIV, where the money is dirty and the golf doesn’t matter,” wrote the Washington Post in May, as if that was a damning indictment rather than making the whole thing sound ten times more attractive. Morals aside – and let’s be honest, morality is not always the point of sporting contests – if this merger makes golf not only tolerable but enjoyable, it’s Saudi Arabia 1 – Rest of the World 0.

As soon as you walked into the Trump club grounds, the music was pumping and multiple cocktails flowed from stands that appeared to outnumber water stations four to one. There were flags in fluorescent script that said “Golf But Louder”, and “Don’t Blink”, which, while I’m not really sure what they meant, reminded me of the time that I went to crazy golf in Magaluf. Except here there were actual professional golfers around like Brooks Koepka (who is coming off the fifth major championship of his career), Mito Pereira and Branden Grace, as well as the former president of the United States. I asked some Trump fans if they’ve been to a PGA tournament before, and how it was different from the show being put on here by LIV. They had, and the difference was “you’d never hear thumping music like this. Plus Don’s here, so that’s fun.”

[See also: Donald Trump is back in court, and this time it’s serious]

Then there were the outfits, so bright and ghastly I spent the whole day squinting. There were fluorescent green shirts tailored from an unknowable synthetic material that I realise now is the uniform of the MAGA Republican. Trumpists seem to have been born wearing it – a material that isn’t quite cotton and isn’t quite Lululemon either. Then there’s the whiteness of the crowds, though there was one trio of black men, one of whom wore a t-shirt saying, “Back Nines Matter.” There were various shades of yellow hair extensions or the ghastly coloured shirts at the Trump merchandise van. But the most noticeable colour at the LIV Golf tournament is green, 800+ acres of it and hundreds of millions of dollar bills cloaking it.

Before the merger LIV had been poaching the PGA players. Tiger Woods turned down an offer of more than $700m to join them. He didn’t need the cash, but he did need the good PR of snubbing the Saudis. Then there are the ones that said screw it. Mickelson got a reported $200m; Koepka, Dustin Johnson and the British Open champion Cameron Smith are said to have accepted around $100m each. Asked why he made the jump, Harold Varner III said, “I don’t care what anyone says. It’s about the damn money.” You have to respect the honesty, not that the Washington Post could understand it.

The unfortunate truth is that most people just don’t care which authoritarian regime is financing their fun day out. Hand on heart, I can say that I didn’t give a thought to even a single geopolitical atrocity during my day out at the golf. I drank overpriced cocktails while tottering around with the MAGA nuts. When asked about LIV Golf, Trump said, “They have unlimited money, and they love it, and it’s been great publicity for Saudi Arabia.” While he’s wrong about many things, after PGA’s latest announcement, it turns out that the old man knows a thing or two about golf.

[See also: CNN’s Town Hall let Donald Trump have the last laugh]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out