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Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour comes to Trump National in Bedminster, bringing with it a raging ethical debate

This is all… ugh… about Trump. An established domestic golf brand didn’t want to associate its most high-profile event with him; an upstart, massively funded, skeletons-in-its-closet brand can’t wait to partner up (and they’re doing so again later this year at a Trump course in Florida).

There was supposed to be a major tournament this year at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, a tiny town sited at the western edge of a row of affluent communities in North-Central Jersey. 

Trump National was supposed to be the site of the 2022 PGA Championship, one of golf’s four major tournaments. The PGA of America awarded the event to the venue back in 2014, when it was still funny to make jokes about Trump becoming president (let alone, running for president). It was to be the first major championship held on one of Trump’s properties.

But then a mob of angry Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and the PGA of America decided to move the tournament to Oklahoma. 

“It has become clear that conducting the PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand and would put at risk the PGA’s ability to deliver on many programs and sustain the longevity of our mission,” Jim Richerson, president of the PGA of America, said in a statement at the time.

“We’re fiduciaries for our members, for the game, for our mission and for our brand,” added PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh to the AP. “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.”

In short, the golf world made a statement. A statement it was unwilling to make in 2017, when the U.S. Golf Association (whose headquarters are right down the road in Liberty Corner) held its women’s U.S. Open at Trump Bedminster despite calls to change the venue after Trump’s catalog of inflammatory comments in the run-up to his presidency.

And a statement it might be unwilling to make in the future. The PGA of America may have made a savvy political (using that term broadly) move in stripping Trump Bedminster of the PGA Championship, but the scope of their admonishment of Trump is limited. With Trump’s camp claiming a breach of contract, the two parties announced an undisclosed settlement late last year, and the PGA of America issued a statement reading, in part:

“The Trump Organization’s contribution to the golf community is appreciated. We are thankful the company employs hundreds of dedicated PGA professionals and consistently gives back to the golf community through hosting charitable events and sponsoring junior golf programs.”

To be clear, we’re not judging PGA of America for pulling the PGA Championship out of Trump Bedminster, nor are we judging their commitment to working with the Trump Organization in the future. (In fact, if Trump just stuck to golf, the world might be a little different today, to say the least. In short: By all means, support Trump’s golf empire.) But the episode demonstrates the unique, untidy setting that the crossover of golf and politics creates. 

It’s also all necessary background for understanding why another golf tournament, happening July 29-31 at Trump Bedminster, is such a lightning rod. The LIV Golf Invitational will not only bring several of the world’s best players to Jersey, but the tournament itself brings some heavy baggage in the form of domestic and international political and ethical questions.

It’s a unique spot for tiny Bedminster to be in—the town isn’t much more than a collection of small businesses on a main street, surrounded by hundreds of massive homes and, of course, Trump National.

If you don’t follow golf media—and we don’t blame you if you don’t—then you might not be aware of the massive (and some would say problematic) shift in the golf world over the last year. For decades, professional golf has been governed by the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour, a nonprofit that organizes many of the tournaments you’ll catch your granddad watching on the weekend.  

Separate organizations run the four major tournaments—the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, The (British) Open and The Masters. But, by and large, players make a living during the 44 regular season PGA Tour events, where they can advertise for their sponsors (on hats, shirts, bags, etc.), win prize money, and compete in a year-end tournament.

That system was all well and good until the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, loaded with about a half-billion dollars in assets and charged with, partly, improving the country’s international image, launched the LIV Golf Tour, and started wooing players from the PGA Tour with signing bonuses ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars, plus increased tournament purses and the benefit of playing way fewer events to earn that money.

Some of golf’s biggest names jumped at the chance to play on the LIV Tour—Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, notably, but plenty of other accomplished golfers, too. In response, the PGA Tour suspended any defecting player from competing in their tournaments. Notably, however, the four major tournaments—which players value the chance to compete in—has so far allowed LIV golfers to compete. 

It’s hard to understate how profoundly LIV Golf has affected the golf world. Many more players might still defect to LIV, and so the PGA Tour has increased purses to try to retain its top players, and hardly a post-round presser goes by without any and every golfer being asked about LIV Golf.

But it’s also hard to understate how loud LIV Golf’s detractors have been in vilifying those who are playing for the tour. Though many players, pundits and fans understand how getting the amount of money LIV is offering can change a life, many more have said, essentially, that’s not clean money they’re taking.

Amnesty International (and many others) has criticized the country for its continued crackdown on “the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.” They (and, again, many others) criticized the assassination of journalist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. And, their war in Yemen has led to civilian deaths and war crimes (and, not for nothing, the U.S. began supporting their cause during the Obama administration).

Phil Mickelson was even quoted as saying, “​​“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” in a biography by Alan Shipnuck. Mickelson ultimately joined the Tour, saying it was a way to fundamentally change the way it operates.

LIV Golf will have eight events on their tour this year; the upcoming tournament in Bedminster will be the second one held on U.S. soil. There were protests at the first event, in Portland, and there might be in Bedminster next weekend, as well.

The group 9/11 Justice, comprised of families who lost loved ones during the Sept. 11 attacks, recently sent a letter to Trump (obtained by various media outlets), asking him to cancel the event. In it, the group wrote:

“The evidence is clearer than ever. The Saudi nation is largely responsible for the death of our loved ones and for the horrific attack on America. And you know it.”

The group points out that while campaigning in 2016, Trump acknowledged the role of the Saudis in 9/11 during a Fox and Friends interview.

The group continued: “It is incomprehensible to us that a former President of the United States would cast our loved ones aside for personal financial gain.”

(Not to be crass but, like, you know it’s Donald Trump, right?)

So we have a situation in Bedminster where the PGA of America feels uncomfortable with how its image will be impacted by an event at a Trump course, and the controversial Saudi tour using the same site to grow its public image.

This is all… ugh… about Trump. An established golf brand didn’t want to associate its most high-profile event with him; an upstart, massively funded, skeletons-in-its-closet brand can’t wait to partner up (and they’re doing so again later this year at a Trump course in Florida).

And the kicker is, the Saudi Public Investment Fund has investments in plenty of U.S. companies, or companies that do business here—Starbucks, Uber, Pinterest, Shell and Nintendo, to name a few. So if we’re going to harangue Trump and these golfers for taking Saudi money, shouldn’t we take these companies to task, too? Shouldn’t we stop buying from those companies?

For a variety of reasons, it’s extremely unlikely Trump is going to move the LIV tournament from Bedminster, as 9/11 Justice requested (we didn’t even get into the Trump family-Saudi business history, for instance). And so next weekend, for just $75, you can watch the spectacle unfold at Trump Bedminster, and maybe strike up a conversation on ethics while you’re there. 

And, just for the record, I doubt Trump 2024 or Joe and the Ho Gotta Go shirts meet the dress code.