Former president Donald Trump's company is angling to host events at his golf courses for the controversial Saudi golf league, according to three people familiar with the matter, potentially handing Trump a lucrative business partnership with an oppressive regime he defended as president.
At least two of Trump's courses in Bedminster, N.J., and Doral, Fla., could be named as sites for the nascent tour, according to the people familiar with the talks, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Officials from LIV Golf Investments, the apparatus funded by the Saudis to host the tour, have held conversations with the Trump Organization, these people said.
One of the people familiar with the matter said Trump had spoken to Greg Norman, the head of LIV Golf Investments, about having his properties involved in the tour.
A spokeswoman for LIV Golf Investments declined to comment. Eric Trump, the former president's son, and a Trump Organization spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment. The Saudi embassy in Washington also did not respond to comment requests.
Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump's political action committee, offered a statement only touting the former president's golf courses when asked about the talks.
"It certainly sounds possible given the fact that President Trump owns some of the most beautiful and renowned golf courses in the world - from the cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes, to the majestic rolling hills of Bedminster and, of course, the iconic Doral property," he said.
The financial terms of the proposed deal are unclear, but the events would undoubtedly provide revenue for Trump through the Saudis, who are making a fierce bid to recruit PGA Tour players and launch a series of golf tournaments.
As president, Trump frequently defended the Saudi government even as it committed a wide range of human right abuses, including the 2018 murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the imprisonment and execution of gay citizens. Trump's first overseas trip as president was to Saudi Arabia, and he regularly praised the country's wealth and power, even as some advisers pushed him to take a tougher line on the country.
Such a deal would also provide a measure of revenge for Trump against the PGA Tour, an organization that he courted for years but that later enraged him when politics came between them. While Trump campaigned in the summer of 2016, the PGA Tour announced it was yanking its elite World Golf Championship tournament from Doral and moving it to Mexico City. Trump also lost the PGA championship from his course in New Jersey last year, as the organization pulled its event days after the Jan. 6 insurrection by a pro-Trump mob at the U.S. Capitol.
Doral has been the biggest revenue generator of any of Trump's golf properties, but he borrowed heavily to acquire and renovate it, and the 643-room resort suffered financially during his presidency.
Trump, working closely with his daughter Ivanka, bought the 650-acre resort set among business parks and homes in 2012 for a reported $150 million and planned $250 million in renovations. He borrowed $125 million from Deutsche Bank to do it and vowed on Twitter that "within two years it will be the best resort in the country."
But from 2015 to 2017, the club's revenue fell from $92 million to $75 million - an 18% drop, according to company financial documents and Trump's government disclosure forms. Operating income - the amount left over after expenses were paid - fell even faster, prompting Trump's own tax consultant to tell Miami-Dade County officials in 2018 that the course had been "severely underperforming" competing clubs. Revenue suffered an additional 40% drop in 2020, when pandemic travel restrictions were in place for most of the year.
His company has been trying to revive Doral since his presidency ended. Last year Florida legislators passed legislation easing the path for his company to pursue a future casino license for Doral, and last month his company announced that it would attempt to build 2,300 homes there.
It's difficult to say how such a deal would affect Trump financially. Professional golf organizations pay rental fees to courses where they hold events but also impose sometimes expensive obligations and responsibilities as part of that, said Larry Hirsh, president of Golf Property Analysts in Philadelphia.
"It's widely believed that the only clubs that make any significant money are those that host the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup," he said.
Hirsh said that Saudi Arabia's record on human rights could also prompt some members of Trump's club to cancel their memberships, which could hurt the value of the course long term.
"It depends on how much money [the league] is willing to pay, but it also depends on how many people will say they won't be a part of it," he said.
The Saudi tour has not announced any sites or dates for its events. But in a recent sports podcast interview, PGA Tour player Kramer Hickok said 17 PGA players had committed to the tour already, and he said he expected 10 to 14 of the events to be in the United States. He could not be reached immediately for comment.
Jared Kushner, the former president's son-in-law, was spotted at a Saudi golf event earlier this month. Bloomberg News reported that Kushner has sought backing from the $500 billion Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, along with other government-controlled funds in the region. A spokesman for Kushner did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Longtime professional golfer Phil Mickelson has come under fire in recent days for saying that he was willing to overlook the country's human rights record and consider supporting the new league. Many critics have said the Saudi government is attempting to buttress its standing by holding high-profile sporting events.
"We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights," Mickelson was quoted as saying by Alan Shipnuck, a biographer who wrote a book about him. "They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates."
PGA Tour officials have closely watched efforts by the Saudis to recruit its players, worried about the Saudi league luring away some of the tour's players with the promise of higher purses. But most of the league's marquee players have not left, and some have been critical of Mickelson, who has helped with recruitment efforts. The PGA declined to comment on Trump's talks with the Saudi league.
Gary Williams, a longtime golf commentator who owns 5 Clubs Golf, said the PGA Tour has aggressively moved to keep its players with higher purses and other incentives but is likely to lose some major players.
"They're a real threat, there's no doubt," he said of the Saudis. "They may not have a real business plan but they have a lot of money." Williams said he expects a number of other courses to sign up, besides Trump. "He needs revenue for those golf courses."
When the Saudis came under intense scrutiny after the murder of Khashoggi, Trump repeatedly defended the kingdom and said he believed Mohammed, the crown prince, when he claimed to not have knowledge of the killing. U.S. intelligence has disputed that assessment.
In a November 2018 statement full of exclamation marks that aides said he dictated himself, Trump said that U.S. intelligence would continue to "assess" information but that the United States "may never know all the facts surrounding the murder."
On whether the crown prince knew about or ordered the killing by Saudi agents in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump said in the statement, "maybe he did or maybe he didn't!" He suggested that U.S. interests in Saudi oil production, weapons purchases and support for administration policies in the Middle East were more important than holding an ally to account, and he stressed the importance of staying in the kingdom's good graces because they were spending money in the United States.
"They have been a great ally," he said of the Saudis, and "the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner." He added: "I'm not going to destroy our economy by being foolish with Saudi Arabia."
Trump came under withering criticism from Democrats, human rights advocates and even some Republicans for his position, but he did not waver.
"I saved his ass," Trump said of Mohammed during an interview with Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward for his 2020 book, "Rage." "I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop."
Trump also encouraged the Saudis to buy American weapons, backed the kingdom's position on Iran and generally defended their most controversial moves, such as jailing people for political reasons.
President Joe Biden has called the kingdom a "pariah" and has vowed to be tougher on the Saudis but has approved an arms sale and talked to the king.
The former president has bragged to associates since leaving office about how profitable his golf courses were during the coronavirus pandemic, even as other aspects of his business struggled. He plays golf several days a week, advisers said.
THE WASHINGTON POST