BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Walking alongside Donald Trump as he plays golf is a lot like watching his presidency: He tells you how well he’s doing, mistakes are disregarded and the one constant is an endless stream of group photos with Trump blithely flashing a toothy grin and a thumbs up.
It was as entertaining, revealing and inexplicable as it sounds.
On Thursday, Trump was a contestant in the pro-am tournament on the eve of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf event he is hosting this weekend at the lavish golf course he built in northwestern New Jersey. The intent of the outing was to team some celebrities and everyday golfers with the professionals, and Trump was, naturally, in the featured first grouping of the day.
While Trump played a plethora of golf rounds as president, other than his guests, few were able to witness his golf game during his four years in the White House. The news media was kept at a removed distance. But on Thursday, nearly 50 media members credentialed for the tournament — as well as some event officials — would accompany Trump on foot for 18 holes.
Trump’s golfing party, which included security, drove in a dozen golf carts, generally two to a cart. But there was one cart predominantly occupied by a single person, and it was the only ex-president on the property at the wheel.
For the pro-am, Trump was grouped with two of the best players to defect to the rival LIV Golf circuit from the PGA Tour: Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, who have won three major championships between them.
About 15 minutes late for his 10 a.m. tee time, Trump stepped onto the first tee dressed in a white shirt and black pants and sweating profusely under his signature MAGA hat. He looked pale. To be fair, at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster, which has little shade, no one walking the grounds on a humid day with temperatures in the mid-90s was comfortable.
Stepping onto the tee, Trump quickly became the focal point of more than a handful of photos. He would organize the lineup of the people in the picture, often giving instructions on who should stand where, like a concierge of photo ops.
Finally, it was time to start the round, and Trump’s opening drive bounded into the left rough. But it was a respectable distance from the tee for a 76-year-old, roughly 220 yards.
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The launch of new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Many of the biggest names in golf, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away from LIV Golf. But several big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García, joined. Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who was supposed to lead Europe’s team at the 2023 Ryder Cup, was removed as captain after announcing his move to the series.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. In June, it suspended several PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior.
The format for the pro-am was that each group would select the best tee shot and then play their second shots from that spot. For the rest of the hole, they were expected to play their own ball, wherever it came to rest. It often made it impossible to assign exact scores for any player, but on the par-4 first hole, Trump needed five strokes to get his ball in the hole for a bogey.
But on the second hole, a telling rhythm for the day’s journey was set by Trump, and it defied the polite golf protocol of waiting your turn.
After hitting his second shot to the green, Trump ignored other players in his group who had yet to hit and jumped into his cart and roared ahead. He parked within a few feet of the putting surface (also a no-no since it can damage the delicate short grass in that area). Standing in the fairway half a hole behind Trump, Johnson yelled ahead since he had yet to play his second shot and could have beaned the former president near the green.
Trump put his cart in reverse and moved out of range. But his barge-ahead style of play continued for much of the round. Often, Trump had putted out on a hole while his playing companions were still 125 yards away in the fairway.
A few holes later, Trump stopped to talk with a gaggle of reporters. He was asked how much he could earn by hosting the LIV Golf tournament at his course.
“I don’t do it for that. I do it because I think it’s good for golf,” he said.
“The important thing is that we’re all playing well,” he said.
By that point, Trump had registered, at best, one par. He had also not finished a hole after his blast from a bunker had failed to reach the green and was nestled in some nasty rough. Instead, he had his caddie pick up the ball and march to the next tee. On another hole, when a birdie putt rolled nearly six feet past the hole, he casually scooped the ball up to end the hole, apparently conceding himself a par. Try that this weekend in your match with your usual foursome. Or any foursome.
At other times, a Trump mis-hit would simply be ignored. As if understanding the drill, his caddie would simply retrieve the golf ball from the sand or deep rough and walk forward.
Trump, however, did exhibit a sunny countenance throughout. That included a scene that he could not have expected. As he stepped onto the tee of a par-3, 176-yard hole over a large pond, he was approached by three comedians who, in concert with LIV Golf, were conducting what they called the “Back Off Challenge” during the pro-am. The idea was that the comedians, whose project is called Country Club Adjacent, would try to insult, mock or harass each golfer on the tee to see if they would back off from the shot before hitting it. The scenes were being videotaped for the group’s various social media networks.
Trump agreed to play along.
As he stood over the ball, one of the comedians, Blake Webber, said: “What would your following say if you hit this one left?”
Said Jake Adams: “You built a golf course just to miss the green?”
And finally, from Griff Pippin: “Your swing looks broken. Was it made in China?”
Trump did not flinch. But he did slice his shot into the water.
Then, Trump posed with the comedians for a group picture. He paused a beat and smiled while simultaneously raising his right thumb.