With LIV Golf, the former president returns to hosting high-profile tournaments after his post-Jan. 6 banishment by the PGA of America.
Donald Trump is back. Banished by the PGA of America after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, Trump has found a new home with the fledgling LIV Golf Tour’s inaugural eight-event series. The Saudi-backed tour, a deep-pockets challenge to the PGA Tour’s dominance, got underway this weekend in London. In July it will visit Trump’s course in Bedminster, New Jersey, where the former president spends the summer, and cap off its season at Trump’s Doral in Miami in October.
Trump’s involvement has not only pumped new life into his golf properties, it’s had the added bonus, for the ex-president at least, of sticking it to the PGA Tour by helping empower its most direct threat yet.
“I think [Trump] felt kind of spurned, and wanted to become relevant in golf,” says Jeff Woolson, managing director of CBRE’s Golf & Resort Group, a company that combines two of Trump’s passions, real estate and golf. “He’s a driven guy, he loves golf, and has always been relevant, and this is a way to become relevant again.”
On Thursday, the PGA Tour officially declared war against LIV, suspending the 17 golfers who jumped to the upstart tour, some for eye-popping paydays. The PGA Tour is even considering lifetime bans on defectors, according to Front Office Sports. In a statement, LIV Golf called the move “vindictive,” adding that it “deepens the divide between the Tour and its members.” Trump blasted both PGA of America and the Tour last month, posting on Truth Social that the PGA has “been taking advantage of the players for many years” and “LIV can change that!” The Trump Organization did not reply to requests for comment.
LIV is challenging the PGA Tour’s monopolistic grip on the pro sport with new rules and a seemingly boundless amount of cash to spend on lofty prize purses and astronomical signing bonuses. It’s run by two-time major champion Greg Norman and is named for the number of holes in each event (and also what a golfer would score if they were to birdie every hole on a par-72 course). In the last few weeks, the tour has lured the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau by reportedly shelling out more than $100 million in payments on each of them. Norman claims to have offered Tiger Woods a “mind-blowingly enormous” deal that would have been in the “high nine-digits,” according to the Washington Post. The eight LIV events, which feature no cuts and a team component, are slated to hand out a total of $255 million in prize money.
LIV remains cloaked in controversy, much of which stems from the tour’s financing. It’s backed by a $2 billion commitment from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with an estimated $580 billion under management. The PIF didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Saudis have also been connected to numerous human rights violations. A 2021 U.S. intelligence report linked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the PIF chair, with the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The Saudis called the report “negative, false and unacceptable.”
“Trump has no sense of social responsibility,” says Larry Hirsh, president of Golf Property Analysts. “He cares about [himself] and money, and that’s his right to do that.”
Joel Paige, an industry veteran who operated Doral and PGA National for a decade each, estimates that Trump’s courses could receive millions of dollars in site fees from the LIV Golf Tour, plus a charitable component as well. By comparison, he says, a typical PGA Tour event pays around $300,000 to $350,000 in site fees. “It’s a huge economic win for the sites that are hosting [LIV] events,” Paige says. But Hirsh notes that unless it’s a major, host clubs are “making very little money if you’re not losing money.”
Earnings from the events may not have a significant impact on Trump’s income statement. His golf business hauls in more than $200 million in revenue most years. That’s not to say that all his golf investments have been successful. Trump picked up his first golf course in 1999 for what he claimed to be $40 million, according to the 2020 book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency into a Business. It’s now worth about $25 million. Trump spent more than $500 million in the last decade buying and renovating four courses—Doral, Aberdeen, Doonbeg, and Turnberry. Together they lost an estimated $450,000 in 2017 and 2018, in part due to a heavy bet on the resort side of the golf business and negative customer sentiments concerning Trump’s politics. (Four of Trump’s properties are also allegedly misusing the presidential seal, a violation of federal law.)
Trump’s penchant to funnel money into creating lavish, championship quality courses hasn’t stopped his relationship with the PGA and the Tour from deteriorating. In 2015, the PGA of America canceled an event at Trump’s Los Angeles course in response to derogatory remarks he made about Mexican immigrants when announcing his presidential candidacy. A year later, the PGA Tour moved the World Golf Championship away from Doral. And in January 2021, days after the insurrection at the Capitol, the PGA announced it was cutting ties with Trump and moving the PGA Championship from Bedminster. At the time, PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh called it a “political situation not of our making,” to which Trump was reportedly “gutted.” The two parties would eventually settle the dispute, though Trump was still left exiled from the highest tiers of professional golf. The PGA of America didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Trump is “opportunistic and he’s always been opportunistic,” Woolson says. “That’s one of his great character traits.”
Additional reporting by Dan Alexander.