LIV Golf: The Last Shall Be First
Controversy swirled off the course and around winner Henrik Stenson as the upstart tour continued to play the victim card
By Alan Shipnuck
August 1, 2022
One of the most striking ironies in modern sport is that the folks at LIV Golf—populated by golf royalty, funded by actual royals, run by Greg Norman, who spent 331 weeks as world No. 1—have staked out the position as oppressed underdogs, fueled by grievance. In explaining why Brooks Koepka, winner of eight PGA Tour events, bolted for LIV and a $130 million bonanza, his swing coach, Claude Harmon, has been telling intimates, “Brooks is finally getting paid like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, which is what he is worth.” In hailing the palpable camaraderie among the LIV players, Pat Perez, whose $28.8 million in winnings rank 49th all-time on the PGA tour money list, says, “It feels like us against the world.”
This week LIV Golf barnstormed to a perfectly iconoclastic host venue: Trump Bedminster, founded by the eponymous 45th President of the United States, an outer-borough striver who created private clubs in his own image because he was not welcomed as a member at Augusta National or Pine Valley or Cypress Point or Seminole or Shinnecock Hills or Fishers Island any of the game’s citadels that confer the highest status upon the ruling class. (Trump has long been a member at Winged Foot but is rarely seen there, perhaps because the caddies reportedly nicknamed him “Pelé” for repeatedly kicking his ball out of the rough.) For hosting LIV, Trump Bedminster was paid $2.8 million (according to the Trump Organization) or $4.5 million (according to club members.) Either way, that’s a lot of oil money, but Trump has never been shy about doing Saudi Arabia’s bidding. In October 2018, The Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi—a longtime critic of the House of Saud—was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed and dismembered. U.S. intelligence services determined that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation, but then-President Trump resisted calls for formal sanctions, saying it would be “foolish” to risk the $450 billion Saudi Arabia had promised to spend and invest in the U.S. during Trump’s visit to the kingdom a year earlier. This is how the President explained his fondness for the Saudi elite, which dates back decades to the purchase of many pricey condos in Trump Tower: “They pay cash.”
And yet money is only part of Trump’s motivation for hosting two of this year’s eight LIV events. (The splashy season finale will be in late October at Trump Doral.) Just as Norman is fueled by vengeance—having been outfoxed, humiliated and turned into a pariah by the PGA Tour three decades ago when he tried to launch a competing world tour—Trump is seeking payback, having once again positioned himself as the great disruptor. He presided over a prestigious PGA Tour stop at Doral from 2013 to ’15, but it was outsourced to Mexico when Trump became a divisive political force. After a decade of wooing golf’s various governing bodies, this year he was supposed to get the sport’s ultimate validation: hosting a major, the PGA Championship, at Bedminster. But after losing the 2020 presidential election, Trump failed to participate in a peaceful transfer of power, and as the Jan. 6 hearings have made plain, actively worked to subvert the democratic process and did nothing to slow the sacking of the Capitol. The PGA of America, in a rare showing of backbone by a golf organization, stripped him of the PGA Championship. It still burns Trump to have been rejected by not one but two of golf’s rulers.
Early in tournament week I requested an interview with Trump but he declined, citing through intermediaries his unhappiness with a 2017 Sports Illustrated feature I had written that sought to show how his character has been revealed through golf. But during the Thursday pro-am, I was walking alone next to the rope line when Trump roared up in his golf cart. We had met once before, at Doral, and I have interviewed him by phone, but he introduced himself and said, “You’re a great writer with a great reputation.” After a little small-talk, Trump added, apropos of nothing, “The PGA screwed me, but I’m going to get them back. Trust me, I’m going to get them back.” Then he smashed the gas and was gone, leaving it unclear if he was woofing at the PGA of America, the Tour, or both. Next year, the LIV schedule will expand to 14 tournaments and Trump is pushing hard to host more events, including one at Turnberry. That would be a big middle finger to another group of golf golf tastemakers who have rejected him, the tweedy gents at the R&A; they have made plain they will not bring the Open Championship back to one of the world’s greatest courses as long as Trump presides over it.
All of this mojo was in the air at Bedminster, along with pro-Trump chants (“Four more years!”), anti-Biden chants (“Let’s go, Brandon”) and some pointed heckling of former fan favorite Phil Mickelson (“Do it for the Saudi royal family!”). The narrative around LIV contains so many Shakespearean themes—greed, betrayal, revenge, legacy—that the competition feels secondary, but Bedminster produced a juicy winner: Henrik Stenson, who, in his LIV debut, defeated a rejuvenated Matt Wolff and future Hall of Famer Dustin Johnson by two strokes. Stenson had fallen to 174th in the World Ranking since his epic victory at the 2016 Open Championship, but this performance raises the possibility that the 46-year-old flusher may still have a little something left in the tank. As is usually the case with LIV, the quality of the golf was overshadowed by larger events: Only days earlier Stenson had been stripped of his Ryder Cup captaincy by the European PGA Tour as the professional golf firmament continues to close ranks in an effort to thwart the LIV incursion. Stenson had called the captaincy the dream of a lifetime but left unsaid is that it’s a two-year unpaid gig. In three days at Bedminster he won $4.375 million, including a tidy payout for being part of the four-man squad—The Majesticks, should anyone care—that finished second in the concurrent team competition. “Yeah, it has been a bit of a roller coaster, no question,” Stenson said in victory. “Now it’s about looking forward. For me, at least.”
But Stenson made it clear he didn’t resign his post and that he still wants to serve, allowing him to stake out LIV’s preferred state of being: victimhood. (David Feherty, making his debut as an announcer on the LIV live-stream, hammered this theme during the first-round broadcast, calling Stenson’s demotion “a bitter and mean-spirited move.”) Yet Stenson, a jovial figure who was universally beloved until a couple of weeks ago, knew the captaincy would be the price he paid to take the LIV lucre. If he could so easily walk away from the prestige of the Ryder Cup—as have, potentially, numerous other LIVers—it has to make the rest of us wonder why we care so much. Even more than money, what LIV has brought to professional golf is cognitive dissonance. Trump’s presence offered buzz to a fledgling tour that certainly needs it, but it was disquieting for a former President to be profiting from a Saudi-backed venture in the shadow of Ground Zero. (Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia and evidence continues to be made public that Saudi government officials materially supported some of the terrorists.) Surviving family members mounted protests outside the gates at Bedminster, but Trump was unmoved, saying “nobody’s gotten to the bottom of 9/11″—an obfuscation that was outrageous even by his standards. He batted away questions about the demonstrators. “I can tell you there are a lot of really great people that are out here today,” he said during the pro-am, “and we’re going to have a lot of fun and we’re going to celebrate.”
This is the LIV way: self-aggrandizement above all else. Just ask Stenson. He left Bedminster with a new fortune, but one that has come at quite a cost.