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A Perplexing Afternoon At The Saudi-Funded Golf Tournament In Trump’s Backyard

Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — The crowd at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster celebrated with great enthusiasm the attendance of several gods in and among the players participating in this past weekend's LIV Golf Invitational event. The few huge names scattered down the leaderboard in exurban New Jersey would be famous at any tournament on the planet, but at a LIV Golf event (pronounced "live," as in "to live," by the hyperkinetic guy doing sweaty promos on gigantic high-def screens distributed along the course), where history and traditions are not yet a thing, and where a solid 38 of the 48 total players in attendance are essentially chum, necessary for the production in the same way that extras are necessary to catch bullets in a James Bond film, the big names are what lend the whole enterprise any hint of legitimacy. As such, their presence can come across as a kind of benevolence, or pioneering spirit, or renegade daring. The adulation is unqualified. They are cheered wildly simply for appearing in the physical world. That they are here at all is received by their audience as a gift of almost incomprehensible generosity.

Around noon Saturday, fans hurriedly abandoned a long and hot concessions line and rushed to a picket fence bordering Trump National's undulating practice green, to stare in unabashed awe at Bryson DeChambeau. A young fan, perhaps 20 years of age, attired in the tacky cosplay costume that is the unofficial uniform of a really shockingly high number of male spectators at any golf event—the shiny, hideously patterned "performance polo" tucked tightly into pleated khaki shorts; the ball cap blaring the name of an equipment manufacturer; actual golf shoes—egged on by his mother and observing that DeChambeau was lingering nonchalantly near a gap in the crowd along the fence, made up his mind to go and introduce himself to his golf hero, and set off at a march around the perimeter of the green.

Mom's encouragement didn't last long: The gap, so inviting only moments earlier, quickly narrowed as other young men pursued the same opportunity. Our poor fellow appeared to chicken out a few yards from his destination, attempted a smooth redirect, found that there was no obvious fallback destination in the baking distance, became flustered, walked in a perfect tight circle, and then made his way toward a row of trashcans along the nearby cart path, where, fuming, visibly muttering to himself, he fished around in his pockets for something to throw away. "How'd he end up over there?" wondered Mom aloud, and she set off to join him. Her sudden move away from the fence caused a near collision with a hunched elderly woman wearing a t-shirt patterned entirely with faces of Donald Trump. A ruddy bearded man in the concessions line glanced up and shouted, "Nice shirt," but from the nervous glances and general muttering it was clear no one could tell for sure whether the shirt was intended as an homage or an insult, and on the private property of the king himself, no one appeared all too willing to risk guessing incorrectly.

Moments later a tremendous shout went up, at the cordoned off area in front of Trump National's opulent clubhouse. Pandemonium broke out along the cart path, with spectators sprinting in several directions and the noise rising and rising. The man himself, god of gods, Donald Trump, red cap and all, appeared in a sudden caravan of golf carts, waving beneficently, headed in the general direction of Trump National's double-sided driving range. He appeared so suddenly and was gone so quickly that the crowd's effort at mustering a chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" died off after a couple overlapping volleys. Trump was there and gone in a matter of seconds, but it was enough to cause a wave of wild-eyed euphoria. A tall leathery gray-haired man in a "Keep America Great" cap, eyes rolled fully back into his skull, turned toward his friends and slowly lifted his open hands to the sky, and stood that way, in silence, as the crowd churned around him. A tanned young woman in a maroon sundress swung around, beaming, and announced in a full voice, "I got a little wave back!" A dense bald man bursting out of a navy shirt, with an alarmingly red complexion and a bulging neck, replayed on his smart phone a video he'd taken of Trump's drive-by, his face a terrifying frozen rictus. A strange intermittent squeal, teetering between a hysterical laugh and a burning sob, whistled from his mouth, or ears, or both. It was a frightening sight. However profound this man's bone-deep joy in that moment, nothing good was happening in his body's blood vessels, far too many of which could be traced like interstates across the deep scarlet landscape of his shiny pate.

If I were trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation or any other lifesaving measures, I might've inched closer to this man, out of a sense of obligation. Since I am not, and since the midday sun was hammering mercilessly on that exposed stretch of lawn and asphalt, and since the Bob Moses tracks blaring out of the nearby loudspeakers were overwhelming my senses, and since in that moment I was quite sure I had stumbled into the worst actual spot on the planet—an impossibly toxic nexus of MAGA Republicans, golf fans, and New Jerseyans, on the private property of Donald Trump, at an event funded entirely by the authoritarian monarchy of Saudi Arabia, at the precise time and location of the climax of this deranged new subculture's bootlicking ecstasy—I turned and ducked into the crowd and escaped toward the tee box of the first hole, hounded by the echoing electro-pop bass.

Sadom Kaewkanjana of Thailand was not one of the gods in attendance in Bedminster. Kaewkanjana, in a humble Saturday threesome with Hennie du Plessis and Jediah Morgan, drove his second shot on the par-5 15th into a fairway bunker. His third shot was a disaster, a dribbling little mis-hit that took him from the inside of the bunker to the lip of the bunker, approximately five yards forward. Morgan and du Plessis, who'd found a green-side bunker and the light rough beyond the green with their own approach shots, waited under the merciless sun as Kaewkanjana's quixotic fairway adventure played out, Dua Lipa's "Levitating" booming down on them from several directions.

The 15th fairway of Trump National's old course cruises across the face of the Georgian Revival-style clubhouse, downhill from the straw-floored Fan Village and the massive stage area where The Chainsmokers, laid low by sudden illness, were eventually replaced by Wyclef Jean as the tournament's Sunday evening entertainment. The narrow space between the fairway and the clubhouse was busy with spectators, a large number of whom were thwarting event staff by breaching a rope cordon above a set of marble stairs leading to a courtyard surrounding an ornate tiered fountain. The courtyard was for club members or for those who'd ponied up the extra cash for Club 54 tickets, which granted access to a number of indoor spaces and elevated viewing areas across the course. General admission tickets, in the weeks leading up to the event, ran $75 a pop, but could be had Saturday morning at the entrance gate for the remarkable sale price of two dollars. Exclusive Club 54 access, marketed initially as a limited opportunity, could be purchased at nearly every concession stand by scanning a QR code.

An affable man who identified himself only as Brian, two-fisting six-dollar Michelob Ultras at the edge of the 15th fairway, complained lightheartedly that he'd been suckered at full price for base tickets, but did not regret the purchase. "This is what golf needs, man," he explained, with real conviction. "People want to come out and have fun. The PGA Tour just sucks for that. This is the future of golf." Kaewkanjana, meanwhile, lined up his fourth shot from the lip of the bunker. His day immediately became worse: Yet another mis-hit led to a miserable grounder that got him finally onto the fairway but only about 30 yards closer to the hole. A large bow-legged man in a lavender polo and some sort of official badge dangling from a lanyard ambled over, leaned in, and asked in too-loud a voice, "Is it just me or does this dude fucking suck?" He and Brian colorfully recapped together Kaewkanjana's three shots at 15. The large man ventured that most of the players on the LIV tour were probably as "shitty" as "these guys," thrusting a disapproving thumb at the anonymous threesome out on the course. Brian gestured back up the fairway, where a dark-clad figure loitered at the edge of the distant rough, waiting for Kaewkanjana to finally clear out.

"There's someone back there," Brian explained, by way of assuring the loud man that not everyone on the LIV Tour had failed to make a name on more established tours. The threesome playing behind Kaewkanjana, du Plessis, and Morgan could be tracked from a distance by the noise of the large and boisterous crowd that seemed to be following them along. Together Brian and the large man peered at the indistinct figure, and then consulted a nearby leaderboard, somewhat more challenging to decode for hot and beery spectators due to the event's shotgun starts, another of the breakaway tour's distinguishing quirks. At length they confirmed that the player leaning on a club back there was, in fact, Phil Mickelson, godliest of the demigods under Trump this weekend, trailing in his wake a massive column of rapt supporters.

The sentimental favorite at Bedminster, Phil Mickelson, played like shit and pocketed approximately $12.5 million, plus his share of the purse.
The sentimental favorite at Bedminster, Phil Mickelson played like shit and pocketed approximately $12.5 million, plus his share of the purse.Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

"Alright, Phil! I was hoping someone good would come along," said the large man, perking up. Brian, whose affect in general was a kind of relaxed nihilism, chuckled and shrugged.

"I'm not sure Phil qualifies as good anymore. Have you seen him lately? Dude, he looks like shit." Indeed, a slimmed down but decidedly unhealthy-looking Mickelson finished the weekend one shot up on Kaewkanjana, in 35th place. That Kaewkanjana had finished tied for 11th at the Open Championship two weeks earlier did not come up. Brian, perhaps sensing that he'd thrown a wet blanket over his new pal's optimism, continued: "Dude, you don't have to be good here, if you're one of the main guys. These guys are making fucking bank."

Volunteer stewards at Bedminster had the job over the weekend of holding up those familiar little signs warning nearby spectators to be still and quiet immediately before and during a player's shot. Holding aside that one of LIV Golf's signature taglines is "Golf, But Louder," that most of these shots are being made while loud uptempo music is blared from nearby loudspeakers makes the practice of shushing the crowd all the sillier. The area near the difficult 18th green was so noisy with echoing music and loud conversation and foot traffic that an air raid siren would have failed to make an impression, to say nothing of a drunk goober shouting, Get in the hole. Still the poor stewards dutifully raised their signs.

Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

At the bottom of the par-4 fourth hole, K-os's "I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman" blared from a huge stack of loudspeakers while du Plessis lined up a chip shot from the edge of the green. A stiff, wiry elderly man, approaching the green from the shade of the cart path, called loudly back to his wife. "What do you think of the music?" There was a sneer of disapproval in his voice. His wife, clomping across the rough, appeared vexed.

"I guess that's what they want! To me it sounds awful!" The couple was now shouting to each other, competing with the jaunty tune. A steward faced them, alarmed, and thrust both hands into the air. Three younger men, sitting with beer cans in the grass at the foot of a fairway-side tree, looked at the couple irritably, and one of them very sternly said, "Quiet!" The elderly man made eye contact with a large policeman who'd evidently been detailed to the unheralded trio of players, and was accompanying them along the course, sweating buckets in a full uniform and tactical vest.

"That music is sure a change," the old man yelled to the officer. The policeman chuckled and used his hand to signal for quiet; du Plessis, whose shot came from near the foot of the stack of speakers, chipped up onto the green, very probably oblivious to the whole surreal sequence. The policeman moseyed up the fairway, careful to stay in the cool protection of the shade trees. We made eye contact and he stopped, awkwardly close. To puncture the weirdness of our proximity, I pointed out how no one seemed to want the "louder" part of the "Golf, But Louder" thing: not the players, not the stewards, not the elderly couple—who seemed in that moment to represent golf's staid, more traditional spectator base—and not even the young guys, who presumably are the demographic LIV is hoping to attract with its first flush of stylistic deviations. The cop grunted and rolled his eyes and continued moseying up the fairway, as powerless to make sense of it all as anyone, but prepared at least to shoot anyone who misunderstood too drastically the event's confusing lurches at festivity.

That stretch of holes—from the green of the first along to the tee box of sixth—was as close to quiet as any area of Trump National. Here and there the EDM tunes faded to a confused, distant echo, and it was possible to hear birds and breeze, and recall the serenity you would normally find, and possibly even come to cherish, on a golf course. Gates opened at Bedminster at 10:00 a.m., with the forced party atmosphere immediately tuned to maximum volume, but the shotgun start would not commence until 1:15 p.m., following a coordinated skydive by a trio of military paratroopers. The three-plus hours of pre-round activity was I suppose designed to calibrate and lubricate the crowd for the desired environment, only it was never particularly clear what that environment was intended to be. The "louder" part was unmistakable, but in all other senses this was a golf event for golf types. An "Impossible Putt" booth just inside the Fan Village was as deafeningly loud with thumping music as a dance club, but the affect among the contestants, scowling down the putter shaft and sizing up the cartoonish contours of the green, was the same perfect joyless seriousness found at an early morning driving range. Concessions stands sold lukewarm canned beers and baggies of chips. Attendees fanned out across the property in those morning hours and found one (1) golf course, plus or minus the odd Harry Styles track. Taglines, for better or worse, are not normally quite so literal.

It's not clear at all whether that dynamic would go down as a failure for LIV organizers, or the sportswashers funding their work. Something is being contested between the PGA Tour and LIV, but it's not very easy to determine what that is. Trump himself predicted an eventual merger between the two, which he imagines would come as a boon only to those players who've already made the jump. That might have it figured backwards: The players who stick with the sacred PGA Tour until the end might get to have their cake—prestige and the respect of golf's traditional gatekeepers—and eat it too, in the form of the same outrageous pay raises that would come from doing business, however reluctantly, with the Saudi royal family. Then again, Mickelson will have been collecting purse shares and team bonuses and his insane $100 million of up-front money the whole time. If an eventual merger with the hallowed PGA Tour is in fact what LIV is after, maybe it's enough to pull away a few big names and prove with these ragged events that they can siphon off enough paying customers to force the PGA Tour to the table. Maybe, in that case, it makes sense for LIV events to be only superficially different in a way that can be unmade simply by turning the switch on a green-side amplifier to the "off" position.

Whatever the case, "Golf, But Louder" resolved disappointingly this weekend as golf, but louder. This event, staged at a Trump property in the dreaded wasteland of New Jersey, ought to have been as perverted and un-PGA-like as LIV can muster. You go to a disruption-branded, Saudi-funded, breakaway golf tournament held at a Donald Trump property—or, at least, I go to one, against every instinct of self-preservation—hoping to stare into the maw of a fresh horror, to find a bacchanalia, a kaleidoscope of fringe MAGA types descending upon, of all things, a private golf club, and turning it into a grotesque orgy. Spend $75 on something like this and you better die. Instead, what you find, to your horror, is a suburban Buffalo Wild Wings, smeared across several thousand acres of New Jersey countryside. Hypertense middle-managers and landlord types pretending to have a great time, dragging patient spouses and miserable children along behind them, engaged in a very bizarre sort of tribalism, expressing in their affirmative participation in their own ripping-off a set of ironclad loyalties that sum up a distressingly large part of their entire worldview.

I did not wind up attached to the humble Kaewkanjana-du Plessis-Morgan threesome for any good reason. By noon I was eager to find some quiet and solitude, and the sudden Trumpgasm chased me off to the blank parts of the course for the last 45 minutes of pre-round activity. In my haste I left behind my map, which would've told me where to find each group at the airhorn start of the round. I resolved to walk the course and stick with whatever threesome was at the nearest tee box at 1:15 p.m., which happened to be these three relatively unknown players. It did not occur to me for a while that I'd made a weird decision, and in fact there was some good fortune in it. As the three of them sliced and shanked and three-putt their way down the leaderboard, traffic backed up behind them, such that I was pretty much always positioned to watch Mickelson's tee shots and approach shots soar in and land nearby, and without being stuffed in among his enormous column of supporters.

The decision—however confusing for the police officer following the threesome, who at several points marched over and asked me worryingly direct questions about how I'd gotten there, and why—had the added benefit of affording rare moments of near peace on the chaotic course. Walking up the shaded outside of the long par-5 eighth, it was possible to forget not just that this event was soundtracked with groovy pop tunes, but even that it was a tournament at all. Between songs, and with almost no one following along, suddenly the hole had the vibe of a not-very-busy Saturday on a public course. The cop was checking out a paper bag full of empties someone had left under a tree, Kaewkanjana was pulling off to line up his ball, well back of the other two, and du Plessis was forging ahead, having blasted his tee shot a few yards clear of the others. Just then a staggering drunk bald man lurched up to the rope line and leaned forward.

"Patrick. You're beautiful, Patrick. You're beautiful!" It came out as a skin-crawly hiss, almost lecherous; du Plessis, whose first name is extremely not Patrick, showed no indication of having heard him. The bald man turned to a pair of friends sitting under a tree. "Dude, that's Patrick Reed! Dude! Patrick Reed!" His friends ignored him. He saw me coming along. "Is that Patrick Reed?" I told him that it was not, and started to tell him it was in fact Hennie du Plessis, but he cut me off. "Ah, dude, doesn't he look just like Patrick Reed?" I shrugged, failing to see any particular resemblance.

He grimaced. "Dude, who the fuck are all these guys?" Evidently he'd gone a while without seeing any of his golf heroes. I left him to his confusion and continued on. The disappointment is understandable, I think: There are so few LIV pros, and the tour sells itself so emphatically as standing for something, portending something, offering something meaningfully distinct from golf as you've come to understand it. You buy your ticket, you schlep out to the country, you open a vein for an armload of Heineken tallboys, you wander out to a distant corner of a great field and wait under a tree, and who comes along but Hennie du Plessis, who for all you know is a greenskeeper. The echo of the music and the distant roar of satisfied patrons mock you and the choices that led you to this place and time. If it's just some guy you've never heard of, and it's not even all that much louder, who gives a shit that it's golf?

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