LIV Golf wants to talk about sports. Donald Trump still looms.

It was only on Sunday night that LIV Golf, the men’s league awash in billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, achieved its biggest athletic triumph to date, when one of its headliners, Brooks Koepka, emphatically won the PGA Championship.

By Thursday morning, though, the LIV road show had been re-infused with the political undercurrent that accompanied the sophomore tour as it convulsed professional golf: the loquacious, high-profile presence of former President Donald J. Trump, who is hosting one of the league’s tournaments this weekend on a course northwest of Washington.

If LIV can outrun Trump’s shadow, and if he wants to, it could do a lot to shape how the league is perceived for years to come, especially in the United States, where it has struggled to gain significant foothold against the PGA Tour.

But for now, aside from major tournament winners like Koepka and Phil Mickelson who have joined the tour, there is probably no figure beyond golf more publicly linked to the LIV than Trump, who has repeatedly and enthusiastically applauded the thunderous and flashy entrance. of Saudi Arabia in sports. At his events, he often seems like an eager MC, whose role is both decidedly notable and deeply mysterious — neither the Trump Organization nor LIV has revealed how much money the former president’s company is making for events — while the league looks to make raids. in an occult sport.

“They want to use my properties because they are the best properties,” Trump said Thursday, when he spent five hours appearing at a professional event with LIV players Graeme McDowell and Patrick Reed at a policy press conference and a commercial about his ownership. on 18 holes along the Potomac River).

Trump’s portfolio does indeed feature some exceptional courses, including the Washington-area location, which was once home to a senior PGA championship, and LIV executives have said in the past that they were drawn to them because so many high-caliber properties in the United States were not wanting to host a tour intended to rival the PGA Tour. But Trump’s growing and persistent place in the LIV orbit also invites sustained skepticism about the league’s motives and intentions, which some critics see as a brilliant way for Saudi Arabia to rehabilitate its image.

The former president is unfazed by the league’s patron, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and the kingdom’s emerging place in professional golf, despite its history of human rights abuses. He is still dismissing objections from relatives of the 9/11 victims, some of whom believe Saudi Arabia played a role in the 2001 attacks, because, as he said on Thursday, the LIV tournaments are “great economic development”. . He is openly admiring the millions and millions of dollars the Saudis are pouring into players and, of course, properties like his, although he said on Thursday that hosting tournaments amounts to “peanuts for me”. This year, LIV will travel to three of its properties, up from two in its inaugural season.

He remained steadfast in his loyalty, although a Justice Department Special Counsel, Jack Smith, subpoenaed the Trump Organization for LIV-related records.

In an interview while walking between the potholes on Thursday, Trump described Smith’s aggressive approach as “payback” because the Biden administration wants “to do something to deflect the spotlight from what’s going on.” He said he did not know why his ties to LIV had attracted special counsel scrutiny.

Trump’s fondness for LIV can be attributed, at least in part, to years of friction with the golf establishment.

In 2016, the PGA Tour ended a long-standing relationship with Trump’s course in Doral, Florida, near Miami, because of what its then-commissioner described as “fundamentally a sponsorship issue”. And in 2021, after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, the PGA of America — which is separate from the PGA Tour — abandoned its plan to host its premier men’s championship at a Trump estate in New Jersey in 2022.

Trump hasn’t fared much better abroad. The R&A, which organizes the British Open, has signaled that it does not intend to take the tournament back to the Trump-controlled Turnberry, where LIV commissioner Greg Norman won one of his two Opens.

LIV embraced Trump, however, and in return got the imprimatur of a former president, along with bursts of news coverage for events that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. He brings prestige and power, diluted as both may be by the division he delights in.

“They have unlimited money and they love it,” he said on Thursday, “and it’s been great publicity for Saudi Arabia.”

But for every day Trump appears at a LIV event, it’s a day LIV might as well be written off as one where he won’t escape the one-off issues he’s spent a year trying to get over, or at least saying he wants to get over.

It has been difficult enough for the league, even on a day when Trump is not playing, not to have its players confronted with questions about the morality of accepting millions in Saudi money.

“We were hired to play golf,” Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open winner who finished tied for fourth at the PGA Championship last weekend, said on Wednesday. “I think the most important part is providing great entertainment whenever possible, whatever the platform, whatever platform provides it. When you can talk about ethics, that’s people’s perception. I totally disagree, but everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I would say, was it worth it? Absolutely.”

But DeChambeau hardly has the same megaphone or presence as a former Oval Office occupant. When Trump appears at a LIV event, even Masters Tournament or US Open winners are relegated to supporting roles.

LIV executives often brush off questions about whether the former president is good for business, or just essential to it, given his troubles getting quality venues. They seem convinced that, at some point, sport will overtake politics, which may be wishful thinking given Trump suggested on Thursday that nothing – not even a return to the White House – would easily dissuade him from doing business with the turns on.

But LIV’s strategy still involves a gamble that the presence of one of the country’s most polarizing figures won’t further scare off sponsorship deals and television rights that are already proving difficult to obtain for the operation. And Trump can alienate potential fans as easily as he can seduce them.

Trump himself insists that the LIV looks forward to him at its events and that he is not a distraction from the league’s proclaimed goal of growing the sport and giving it much-needed energy.

“They wanted me to be here and I said yes,” said Trump, who said LIV’s contracts with its properties did not require him to attend events like the pro-am.

Perhaps all of this is true. But for as long as it is, LIV will remain in the political thicket, no matter how well Koepka plays on the game’s biggest stages.

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