It didn’t take long for Henrik Stenson’s decision to join the Saudi-funded LIV Golf Invitational Series to pay off handsomely.
Less than a fortnight after the even-keeled Swede was stripped of Europe’s Ryder Cup captaincy with immediate effect for defecting to the controversial Saudi-backed breakaway circuit on a reported $50m signing fee, Stenson carded a final-round 69 on Sunday afternoon to win LIV Golf’s third event by two shots over Dustin Johnson and Matthew Wolff at Trump National Golf Club in the leafy New Jersey township of Bedminster 45 miles west of New York City.
“I guess we can agree I played like a captain,” said Stenson, who brought home $4m for beating the field and an additional $375,000 for his team’s second-place finish, eye-watering sums that helped compensate for the withering criticism he’s endured since reneging on a March pledge upon accepting the captain’s post to fully support the DP Tour.
“I think there might have been a little bit of extra motivation in there this week,” he added. “When we as players have that, I think we can bring out the good stuff. I guess that’s been a bit of a theme over the course of my career, I think, when I really want something I manage to dig a little bit deeper, and a lot of times we manage to make it happen.”
On the surface it hit all the notes of a feel-good narrative: a hard-won return to the winner’s circle for a 46-year-old ranked 173rd in the world who hasn’t been there often since his record-breaking triumph at the 2016 Open. But as Stenson accepted the trophy alongside Donald Trump during a pyrotechnic-peppered ceremony that was curiously omitted from the official broadcast, while Donald Trump Jr declared it “the greatest F/U in the history of Golf”, a gnawing sense of tedium prevailed that not even the post-game Chainsmokers concert near the 10th hole could dispel.
The opprobrium that has come to define the upstart circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund was only magnified at the Bedminster golf club owned by a former US president whose role in fueling the US Capitol riot remains under investigation by a House select committee. Controversy, but louder.
Trump sucked up the spotlight throughout the proceedings, consistently drawing the biggest crowds of the weekend as he watched the competition from a custom-built terrace along the 16th tee with a rotating cast of VIPs that on Sunday included Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and far- right firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene.
The 54-hole, no-cut competition – absent of meaningful stakes with no meaningful history or world ranking points on the line – felt more like a soft launch for Trump’s 2024 presidential run than an authentic sporting experience. Never more than during Sunday’s final round as spontaneous chants of “Four more years!” and “Let’s go Brandon!” – a coded vulgarity among Trump supporters – resounded across the Old Course.
The renegade circuit has enticed some of the sport’s biggest names with exorbitant $25m purses and nine-figure signing-on fees. It has also drawn fierce backlash from critics who accuse the Saudi government of using sports to launder the kingdom’s dismal human rights record, alleged ties to the September 11 attacks, severe repression of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and the 2018 murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But it doesn’t take a certified public accountant to understand why LIV Golf – despite the sparse crowds at Bedminster and its modest streaming audience in the absence of a TV deal – has continued to poach one household name after another from golf’s established tours. Consider Johnson, a two-time major champion who reportedly joined on a $150m signing fee, who has earned more than $5.2m in prize money in three LIV events so far. The splashy purses don’t stop at the top of the leaderboard, either. Australia’s Jediah Morgan, who finished 14-over-par for the weekend, a gaping 25 shots adrift of Stenson and in dead last, brought home $120,000 for his trouble from him. Nice work if you can get it.
LIV Golf is here to stay, it seems. Next stop: the Oaks course at the International outside Boston in September. But the strange scenes of Bedminster have only driven home just how far it has to go in order to win over its skeptics and bridge the divide of golf’s mounting civil war.