Former U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to a putt on the 15th green during the pro-am prior to the LIV Golf Invitational - Bedminster at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster on July 28, 2022 in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Cliff Hawkins—Getty Images
July 28, 2022 7:33 PM EDT

The Who song “I Can’t Explain” blared over the loudspeakers at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Thursday morning. It was a fitting selection, under the circumstances. Not all that long ago, it would have been almost unimaginable to find ourselves where we are today, in the world of golf (and the world at large, really). Who would have bet, say, a decade ago, that come 2022, a breakaway golf tour financed by the Saudi Arabian government would be hosted in the shadows of New York City by former President Donald Trump. Who would be the subject of widely-watched prime-time House Committee hearings examining his role in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Some of the world’s best and most famous golfers, like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, would join him in this rogue operation, after receiving many millions of dollars to break ranks. And Charles Barkley—in talks to potentially leave his basketball hosting gig to become a LIV Golf analyst, likely for an insane sum of cash—would also show up.

LIV Golf, the operation backed by Saudi Arabia, will hold the third event of its inaugural season starting tomorrow at Trump National in Bedminster a facility which, during Trump’s years as President, earned the “Summer White House” designation because of how much time Trump spent there. The club was supposed to host the PGA Championship earlier this year, but the PGA of America announced it was relocating the major after the events of Jan. 6. (Justin Thomas won the 2022 PGA in Tulsa, Okla.). The Trump Administration faced criticism for cozying up to the Saudi kingdom and its de-facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman approved the operation leading to Khashoggi’s grizzly death.

A group of family members of 9/11 victims also criticized the former President for his association with LIV Golf. In a letter dated Sunday, the group 9/11 Justice expressed “deep pain and anger” over Trump’s decision to host the tournament. “It is incomprehensible to us, Mr. Trump, that a former president of the United States would cast our loved ones aside for personal financial gain,” the group wrote. The group is also staging a protest near Trump National on Friday morning, as the LIV Golf tournament tees off. Fifteen of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi nationals, and Osama Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia, whose government has denied involvement in the attacks, repeatedly. Members of 9/11 Justice, and other critics, have accused Saudi Arabia engaging in “sportswashing,” using LIV Golf to distract from the country’s human rights record.

After warming up at his driving range before the LIV Golf pro-am on Thursday, when asked what he would say to the 9/11 families, Trump responded, “Well, nobody has gotten to the bottom of 9/11, unfortunately. And they should have, as to the maniacs who did that horrible thing to our city, to our country, to the world. So nobody’s really been there.” He then immediately turned to LIV Golf. “But I can tell you that there are a lot of really great people out here today, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. And we’re going to celebrate.”

Trump mentioned how the tournament was raising money for charity, and how LIV Golf would soon attract all the world’s top players. “It’ll be very interesting,” he said. He was then off, in his golf cart with the presidential seal on it, to start his round.

On the driving range, Trump had huddled with LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman between working on his practice shots. “You’re doing a great job,” Trump said to him. In May, Norman downplayed Khashoggi’s murder. “We’ve all made mistakes,” he said.

Another celebrity on hand for the pro-am, Caitlyn Jenner, also came over to talk to Trump. He patted her on the shoulder: “Have a good round,” she shouted at him.

As the January 6 committee moves forward with its work, protests are planned outside the Bedminster club’s walls, and the world braces for Trump’s likely reemergence into presidential politics, Trump relished the Bedminster bubble on Thursday. During the sweaty round—the course was sweltering, in the high 80s—two of his playing partners, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, complimented Trump on his play. “Nice shot, Mr. President,” they said, a lot. After his first tee shot, someone asked him about a potential announcement. “You’re going to be so happy,” Trump said. “We’ll let you know pretty soon.” His fourth playing partner, son Eric, rode around with a Trump 2024 golf bag.

“This course blows every other course away,” he said. Trump complimented himself after scoring a birdie on the Par 5 8th hole. “Nice birdie!” he announced while driving off the tee. “No President could ever hit that,” he boasted after a solid tee shot on 13.

Feeling good, he turned to Johnson and DeChambeau to talk a little golf shop: Trump marveled at how many tournaments Gary Player won. Trump gave Player a Presidential Medal of Freedom on Jan. 7, 2021. “He does like the women, I can tell you that,” Trump told the pros. “Gary likes those women.”

Along the way, Trump stopped for pictures with the players, friends, and volunteers, relishing the attention. He offered his signature pose: toothy smile, thumbs up. A group of young course workers huddled around him for a selfie. “Nobody has COVID, right?” he asked.

The pro-am event was closed to the general public, but Trump didn’t seem to mind the lack of fans. “Keeps it a little exclusive,” Trump said.

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