Politics

The GOP’s Latest Trump-Flavored Headache Is a Golf Tour

A Saudi-backed league gone MAGA is creating schisms in the sport—and in Congress, which it visited this week.

A photo illustration of former president Donald Trump, yelling in the direction of a super-imposed golf player.
GROW THE GAME! Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mike Theiler/AFP and Prapass Pulsub/Getty Images

When Greg Norman, CEO of the new Saudi-backed golf tour that’s disrupted the professional golf world, came to pitch a conservative House Republican caucus about the league this week, Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett left early.

He said he couldn’t understand what Norman was saying through his Australian accent.

Besides, he said, the caucus should be focusing on real policy stuff, not hearing “propaganda” from a bunch of “billionaire oil guys” about a fledgling golf venture.

“The food was terrible too,” Burchett said to reporters as he was walking away. “Put that down.”

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The new tour, called LIV Golf, visited the Hill this week as part of a public relations push to improve its image. It’s funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and it has lured numerous of the best golfers in the world away from the PGA Tour by offering contracts unbound by market forces. LIV’s emergence over the summer has created a nasty schism atop the game—the resolution of which could hinge on an antitrust lawsuit LIV players filed against the PGA Tour.

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Adding further combativeness to the situation is former President Trump’s partnership with LIV, which is holding several tournaments at courses Trump owns. (This came after other leading golf authorities stopped doing business with him.) The Trumpian politics of us against the establishment have, annoyingly, infiltrated the once staid business of professional golf.

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But not all Republicans are comfortable following his footsteps and embracing a league funded by the absolute monarchy of a petrostate whose human rights abuses are well documented.

Hence the meeting with Congress. It was held with the Republican Study Committee over a spread of Jimmy John’s sandwiches.

“I don’t have a helicopter anymore,” I overheard Norman saying to a Republican lawmaker as he grabbed a sandwich.

It must have been a strange meeting. Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was there, and one lawmaker was carrying a copy of her most recent book afterwards. Among Norman’s entourage was former Rep. Ben Quayle, son of the former Vice President, whom LIV recently hired as their lobbyist. His partner at the firm, former Rep. Kevin Yoder, was there, too. In addition to talking with Norman, caucus members who were present also had to discuss strategy over the upcoming continuing resolution to fund the government. The food that so disappointed Tim Burchett was provided by the day’s host, Illinois Rep. Mary Miller.

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And then, when one lawmaker emerged and reporters asked him how things went with Norman, he said, suppressing a laugh, “talk to Chip Roy, he’ll have a lot to say about it.”

Roy, a conservative Texas lawmaker, had looked like a man on a mission walking into the meeting. He has been one of LIV’s most outspoken critics in Congress, insisting that the Justice Department investigate it for a potential violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is funneling money through its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to stand up LIV Golf as an exercise in public relations,” he wrote in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland in July. “In other words, a foreign government’s dollars are being used to enhance that government’s brand and positioning here in the United States.” He gave a June floor speech railing against the PGA Tour golfers who left for LIV money.

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Sure enough, Roy did have something to say.

“Don’t come in here and act like you’re doing some great thing,” he said of Norman, “while you’re pimping a billion dollars of Saudi Arabian money, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, into the United States.”

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This was in great contrast to Norman’s messaging.

When Norman emerged from the caucus , he was immediately met with a reporter’s question about the “Saudis using LIV to sportswash human rights violations.”

“We’re here to talk about the game of golf,” Norman responded. “That’s all we’re here for.”

Were lawmakers giving him a hard time?

“No, actually, not one person since I’ve been CEO has told me this is a bad idea.”

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I asked him about his interaction with Chip Roy.

“It’s great to have an open debate,” he said.

Roy is emblematic of a slight schism among Republican lawmakers (who care about this at all). He sees LIV as a foreign policy effort by the Saudis to wash their negative image by attempting a hostile takeover of a sport. Others see it as something that Trump likes, and so it can’t be all that bad.

“I repeated what I already put out there publicly,” Roy said after the meeting. “About a billion dollars is coming from the Saudi Arabians [for LIV], and I just want to know why they’re not registering as foreign agents under law.” (Norman told reporters that LIV is a “commercial operation” and not a direct foreign actor. “We’re just here to grow the game of golf.” This is, perhaps, the most breathlessly repeated talking point in LIV’s arsenal.)

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Roy dismissed the meeting as “PR for LIV Golf,” and explained that he thought there would be better sources of money for a competitor to the PGA Tour than the Saudi government.

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“Why don’t you go to Phil Mickelson,” he said of LIV’s most famous signing, “and however much he hasn’t gambled away, and take some of that money and go start a new entity?”

Norman met with some Democrats on his tour, too, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. (LIV is eyeing the Greenbrier for a tournament in 2023.) But LIV is being foisted upon conservatives in a more aggressive way—or at least, it has become a participant in the culture wars of its business partner, Donald Trump, stokes.

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Aside from the numerous LIV tournaments Trump is hosting, Norman and other top golfers have made appearances with Fox News’ most polarizing hosts, like Tucker Carlson—who was seen enjoying the tournament at Trump’s New Jersey course alongside Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. I’ve watched, with a mix of depression and welcome to my life schadenfreude, as golf reporters are bombarded with relentless accusations of “bias” for daring to criticize LIV, often from brand-new Twitter bots. Trump backers and LIV backers (the line is blurry) have used the language of MAGA politics to portray the PGA Tour—a corporate-sponsored entity that pays mostly white Republicans to play golf for millions of dollars—as some sort of insufferably preening, even woke, establishment. It’s weird.

“It just pisses me off,” Roy said. Professional golf “is the one thing that was not political. I could just put on the Golf Channel, I could watch golf, now it’s fully charged political.”

“Our guys,” he said referring to his fellow Republicans, “all go, ‘Oh, Trump loves it, so I’ve got to love it too.’ It’s bullshit.”

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