Golf takes back seat at Saudi-backed Trump-hosted event


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Shortly after the three-man paratrooper unit of former US Navy Seals landed a jumbo-sized American flag amid the screaming guitars of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck at deafening volumes, Phil Mickelson was interrupted by a bouncer when he hit his first shot on the 16th tee. .

“Do it for the Saudi Royal Family!”

Talk about awkward. The six-time major champ stepped away from his ball, calming himself as the stands moved before depositing his tee shot into a bunker on the green. And things only got weirder from there on a balmy, cloudy Friday afternoon as the third event of the controversial LIV Golf Invitational Series came alive at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey’s central farm town of Bedminster.

Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed were joint leaders of the night at seven under par to 18 holes, two shots ahead of Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai and three better than Dustin Johnson and Carlos Ortiz. But the wave itself at the Saudi-backed $25 million event is lagging behind the wide-ranging controversy outside the ropes.

The continued response from critics who have accused the Saudi government of using its reported $2 billion investment to purge the kingdom’s bleak human rights record, the severe crackdown on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, and the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 is well documented. the breakaway golf tour was formally announced in March. The same goes for alleged links to the September 11 attacks, which sparked a large protest Friday morning led by survivors and victims’ families at the public library four miles away from the 500-acre Trump National site. (That the former U.S. president sticks the presidential seal all over his club in violation of federal law is so far down the laundry list it hardly needs mentioning.)

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But the surprising lack of spectators for the opening round of Friday’s 54-hole, no-cut tournament — a shock even in light of LIV Golf’s flickering longevity — raised more questions than answers about what the Saudi supporters of the tour can realistically expect return on their investment.

Despite all of LIV Golf’s roar of being a fan-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, there were certainly not many people who got to enjoy it when the third installment started. Organizers declined to give official attendance figures, but Friday’s session played out in front of no more than a few thousand fans, despite a mostly papered house and $75 ground passes going for $2 on the secondary market. Volunteers began to outnumber punters on the more remote areas of the 7,591-foot Old Course, while the sparsely populated Fan Village — a cluster of outsourced food trucks, merch tents and business installations on a windswept patch of dead grass near the 11th fairway – in the third act of Nope bore an unnerving resemblance to Steven Yeun’s abandoned theme park.

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This is a top sport like the village of Potemkin. All the hallmarks of a major event — household names pulled by dazzling $25 million purses, nine-figure registration fees and garish perks — haven’t compensated for the credibility of a competition with no meaningful history or world rankings in a package that comes across as overproduced and sloppy at the same time.

Most of the afternoon crowds were reserved for Donald Trump, who led a caravan of golf carts across the grounds alongside Yasir al-Rumayyan, the golf-obsessed former banker and chairman of Newcastle United who runs the Saudi Public Investment Fund. With nine holes to go, the former US president stopped at the clubhouse as LCD Soundsystem blared from the speakers, surrounded by hundreds of giddy supporters and took the finish line from a purpose-built terrace off the 16th tee, pausing intermittently with Caitlyn Jenner. for photo ops with VIP cardholders. The fishbowl-like shroud afforded his fans a minute-by-minute picture of the former chief executive outside, who was easily recognizable even from a distance in his red Make America Great Again cap.

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Even as Reed raced to the top of the standings with six birdies from the 4th through 10th holes to be matched by the late attacking Stenson, fresh from his removal as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain following his defection , the biggest news stories of the day took place outside the course.

Charles Barkley, the basketball legend-turned-beloved announcer, put an end to speculation that he would be leaving his old post on Inside the NBA for a LIV Golf commentary. Not long after, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson became the last big name to cut ties with the PGA Tour, becoming the 12th major champion to join the renegade circuit. Hard to say if it will make a difference, but the empty feeling of Friday’s affair portends an uphill climb.

Mickelson, who has reportedly been given a $200 million guaranteed entry to the LIV Tour as a player and lead recruiter, said he was not disappointed by the heckler in an area where he was hugely popular after carding a five-year run. over 75 which kept him level. for 46th out of 48.

“No, I had a very good day,” he said. “I’m just frustrated because I expect more from myself.”


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