Like everything Trump touches, LIV Golf has become about him

Last updated on October 31, 2022

MIAMI — Jordan Gilbert, a professional golfer, had always felt a little out of place at PGA Tour events.

It was for the rich “country club kids,” said Gilbert, as he paused along the Trump National Doral grounds. His wife, Allie, explained that he didn’t fit in at the PGA because “he’s patriotic.”

For them, like many others who gathered here over the weekend, LIV Golf provided an antidote to all that. It was an everyman’s event — the populist version of a golf tour. Its chief executive, Greg Norman, was a swashbuckler as a player who would prove to be an iconoclast as a tour leader. It was a place where people like Gilbert could be less buttoned up, less shy about their politics.

As evidence, Gilbert, who was not playing this weekend, sported a “Let’s Go Brandon” shirt while near the first hole.

“To me honestly, PGA Tour did Trump dirty whenever they took the tour away from here,” Jordan said, referencing the tour’s decision to move an event from Trump’s Doral course years ago.

Allie Gilbert wasn’t wearing garb mocking the current White House occupant. She had on a LIV Golf T-shirt instead. “Ninety-nine percent of the community here” were Donald Trump supporters, she offered, saying she couldn’t understand why the PGA made the move. “I just don’t get it.”

Like many things that the former president touches, professional golf is quickly fracturing along the fault line of whether or not one backs Trump. LIV Golf, the Saudi-bankrolled tour that roiled the worlds of golf and Washington alike, is becoming the vehicle for that litmus test.

The Doral resort, which Trump purchased in 2012, had hosted a PGA event for more than 50 years until the organization announced in 2016 it was moving the event to Mexico because of issues finding sponsorship. LIV and its eye-popping event prizes have filled the holes.

The new tour has hosted a number of different events at non-Trump owned courses. But its highest profile ones have been at the sites he owns in Bedminster, N.J., and Doral, the site of this season’s finale.

Beyond that, LIV’s rebranding of golf bears some resemblance to how Trump framed his own recasting of national politics: a self-described outsider, rechristening the traditional approach with something more brash, gaudy and anti-establishment.

Throughout the weekend, skydivers affixed to red, white and blue parachutes descended over the course. Tour staffers threw free t-shirts into the audience, and Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” blared through speakers. The rapper Nelly performed “Ride Wit Me” to a raucous crowd. A man in sparkly silver pants juggled clubs on a unicycle. Free mullet haircuts were available at a station on the grounds.

Former President Donald Trump hits from the first fairway during the ProAm of the LIV Golf Team Championship at Trump National Doral Golf Club, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, in Doral, Fla.

The presence of Trump, who often touted America first, was ubiquitous throughout the Saudi-funded tournament. Some attendees said they came, in part, to support the former president.

“I was in D.C. on Jan. 6th!” one young man shouted near a bar. Spectators donned “Make America Great Again” caps — or could buy MAGA hats for $36 a piece at the golf store.

With its massive amounts of prize money and unrelenting efforts to recruit top talent, LIV’s aim has been to challenge what it sees as the PGA’s monopoly. It’s done so through business means and cultural ones, too, pitching itself as the inverse of the stiff and stuffy version of a sport whose audience has long been affluent, older men.

As it’s pursued its mission, the tour has taken steps to manage the political fallout. It has enlisted political and public relations bigwigs to guide its communications. Those include a subsidiary of Edelman, the Arlington firm McKenna & Associates, which has provided management consulting services, and the lobbying firm Hobart Hallaway & Quayle Ventures, which counts former Rep. Benjamin Quayle (R-Ariz.) among its partners.

One of the unstated goals of this outreach is to try and protect the tour from criticism that it’s a vehicle for the Saudi government to improve its image in America.

LIV rejected POLITICO’s request for media credentials, in effect blocking a reporter from watching Trump play and from attending official news conferences, on grounds that it was a sporting event that just happened to have a former president as a host.

“LIV Golf is a pro sports league and our event credentialing policy naturally prioritizes golf, sports, and local media,” the tour said when asked for a comment explaining its reasoning. “We regularly provide complimentary grounds passes to other media, even those who don’t wish to cover golf.”

But despite those efforts, it was difficult to keep any real distance between the golf and the political climate while at Doral. Trump, for one, told reporters Thursday at LIV’s pro-am round that the PGA had made a mistake in its dealings with the Saudis, calling those behind LIV “very good people with unlimited money.”

And nearby earlier that day, 9/11 Justice — an organization founded by families of Sept. 11 victims — called for LIV Golf and those associated with the tour to register as agents of Saudi Arabia under the foreign influence law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In a letter to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Brett Eagleson, president of 9/11 Justice, also called for congressional hearings on Saudi influence efforts in the states.

For months, the group has protested the golf tour, pointing to connections between the Saudi kingdom and the 2001 attacks. In a national ad timed with the Doral championship, 9/11 Justice accused the Saudi government of “using oil profits to fund exhibition golf, hoping to distract you from their policies of oppressing women, murdering journalists, and supporting the 9/11 terrorists.” At the press conference Thursday, Dennis McGinley, who lost his brother in the attacks, called LIV Golf “Death Golf.”

Pat McCabe protests the LIV Golf tournament just outside Trump National Doral.

Political tension was evident elsewhere, too. Across an intersection from Trump National Doral, Pat McCabe and his wife Sandra Ferretti held up a sign that read, “Trump’s LIES + LIV Golfers GREED allow Saudi Govt. to ‘Sportswash’ CRIME.” The couple, who trekked from Coconut Creek, Fla., originally intended to protest closer to the course but had been asked to move. As they spoke, a man in a Make America Great Again hat crouched next to the couple for a photo. Another man booed them as he passed by. The couple said they received a fair share of “F you” and “Trump won,” too.

“Usually, what I get out here from them is, ‘What about Biden killing babies? What about Biden and inflation? What about … high gas prices?’” McCabe said while protesting Sunday, explaining that passersby were ignoring allegations of “sportwashing” to jump to, “You must be a Biden guy, if you’re out here, opposing Trump and LIV.”

When Joe Ontano, 69, got out of his Uber ride Friday to attend a golf event, he claimed a protester called him an idiot for attending because of organizers’ association with the Saudis.

“We have to move on,” said Ontano, who noted his son joined the military shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. “We got to have some kind of resolve, and say, ‘OK, it’s over with. OK, I know you weren’t the guy to pull the trigger. Maybe you helped. Let’s move on.’”

Inside, things were less tense. Some attendees snagged selfies with Eric Trump. Among them was a man who said his name was Skylar, who was there to enjoy some golf and support his “homie, Mr. Trump himself.” He did not seem bothered by the Saudi money funding the tournament, calling the kingdom “okay people.”

“Let’s not even get started on Biden because I’ll go hours on that man,” he said, holding a cigarette and a LIV-branded koozie.

Bopeep Harrison, 24, who described himself as “not a voter,” had just bought a hat emblazoned with the number 45. “That hat’s dope, the event’s dope, cool people here,” he said. Harrison added that part of the event’s appeal were the networking opportunities. He said he had rubbed shoulders with Norman, who he said was entertaining a Saudi prince in one of the clubs at the event.

On Friday, Roly Perez, a golf fan from the Miami area, said that unlike many others at the event, he was indifferent to it being held at Trump’s course. He hadn’t thought much about the connection to the Saudis, and later said others were confused as to why a political reporter would even be there.

The next day, Perez flagged POLITICO down, saying he had reflected on LIV’s controversies. He wasn’t quite sure if LIV could put PGA out of business. But he thought it was savvy for them to form an alliance with Trump.

“I mean, let’s face it, if you’re tied into the president, and one day he becomes the actual president — OK, you have a direct line,” Perez said.