You can learn a lot about how a president governs by watching his golf game. Bill Clinton, for example, had a reputation for cheating. George W. Bush rushed along, blind to the bigger picture. Gerald Ford was endearingly hapless. And then there’s President Donald J. Trump.
I played with him just once, on August 20, 2010, and it was quite an experience. At the time, I worked at Golf Magazine and had been invited to join the editor in chief and a corporate executive at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Back then, Trump was overly solicitous of golf media, eager to influence their course ranking lists to include his properties. The character I saw and heard over those few hours has since become a familiar part of public life.
Start with his disregard for protocols or courtesy. That was evident on the very first hole, when Trump drove his cart right onto the tee, forcing the group in front to scatter and let us play through. At any other course, such behavior would constitute grounds for fisticuffs, but it seemed to be accepted conduct for Trump, who cheerfully bantered with the golfers he had displaced.
There was the ceaseless need for affirmation — Trump’s insistence, for example, that his course was the finest in the state, though it wasn’t even the best in the neighborhood.
I also witnessed the infamous jock humor that fell somewhere this side of locker room talk. Midway through the round, a staffer approached to announce that the Trumps would be receiving a “Golf Family of the Year” award from a local association. Trump turned to us and said, “You know what that tells me? I can’t get caught having an affair for the next year.”
Later, there was an eyebrow-raising admission of his willingness to say whatever is necessary to cut a deal. Over lunch after the round, he boasted about a course he was then building in Aberdeen, Scotland. The controversial project had been fiercely opposed by environmentalists and was approved only when Trump gave assurances that sensitive sand dunes on the seaside property would be protected.
“Meanwhile, we’re ripping the shit out of them,” he told us, laughing. (Three months ago, a Scottish government report found that the dunes had been “partially destroyed.”)
And finally, there was the now-familiar absence of empathy, the misogyny, the casual cruelty.
The opulent clubhouse in which we were sitting had previously been the home of John DeLorean, the auto executive famed for his Back to the Futurecar. DeLorean’s colorful career included a highly publicized arrest (and acquittal) on cocaine trafficking charges. After filing for bankruptcy, he’d been forced to sell his expansive 434-acre compound an hour west of Manhattan. Trump bought it for $35 million.
Not long before DeLorean died in 2005 at age 80, Trump invited him back to see what he’d done with the place. DeLorean came with a female acquaintance. “It was sad,” Trump recounted. “He’d been in prison. He’d lost all of his money.” He paused momentarily and pursed his lips, as if considering all of the indignities that had been visited on his old friend.
“You know what the worst thing was?” he said finally. “The girlfriend was a solid 4.”
None of Trump’s businesses — neither real estate nor reality TV, his steaks nor his university, perhaps not even the presidency — has ever seemed as important to him as golf. The 16 courses he owns — with three more on the way in Dubai and Indonesia — represent just a fraction of his portfolio, but golf appears to be the president’s sole genuine passion.
Trump long ago recognized it as his avenue to acceptance, the path by which the son of a shady outer-borough property developer could climb to the top.
“Golf is the sport of business,” he told Fortune in 2015. “I’ve made deals on a golf course that I would have never, ever made over a lunch. I’ve actually told the people at Wharton, ‘You should give a course in golf.’”
If horse racing is the sport of kings, golf has long been the sport of captains of industry, political insiders, and those who aspire to either group. Only four nongolfers have occupied the Oval Office since William Taft became the first president to play more than a century ago. Some enjoyed the game to excess. During his eight years in office, Woodrow Wilson played an average of once every three days. Dwight Eisenhower logged 800 rounds as commander in chief.
Barack Obama played 333 rounds in office, and Trump regularly castigated him for doing so.
So one might have expected Trump, once he became president himself, to avoid the links. Indeed, at a campaign rally in August 2016, Trump declared that he might never again see his courses if he was elected. “Because I’m going to be working for you, I’m not going to have time to go golfing, believe me,” he said. “Believe me. Believe me, folks.”
Through October 7, President Trump has played golf 159 times. The Golf News Net predicts he is on pace to spend 745 days at golf courses if he serves two terms.
Occasionally, Trump’s pastime comes into direct conflict with his duties as commander in chief. On November 24, 2017, an aide urgently ushered the president aside on the ninth hole of Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and Trump was playing with Tiger Woods, world number one Dustin Johnson, and PGA Tour veteran turned broadcaster Brad Faxon. Islamic militants had launched a bomb and gun attack on a mosque in Egypt, he was told. Initial reports suggested catastrophic casualties.
“I was in a golf cart with Trump,” Faxon recalls. “I thought he’d have to go back to Mar-a-Lago and make a statement. There were hundreds of lives lost. We had no idea at the time how many.” (The final death toll was 311.)
“The optics are going to look bad,” Trump told his companions. “I’m on a golf course and we have a disaster. The media will take this that I don’t care, I’m gallivanting around with celebrity golfers. In reality, whether I’m in the White House, Mar-a-Lago, or on the golf course, my statement is not going to change.”
In the end, the president opted not to return to Mar-a-Lago, finishing the round instead, optics be damned.
Those optics didn’t look so hot on September 1 either, when the Beltway elite gathered at the National Cathedral for the funeral of Senator John McCain.Unwelcome at the service, Trump left the White House in mourning attire of white polo shirt, khakis, and red cap and went to a golf club he owns 20 miles away in northern Virginia.
However much Trump may love golf, the affection has not always flowed in the opposite direction. Perhaps that’s because the qualities that confer stature in politics, real estate, and reality television — newer, bigger, bolder — are anathema in golf, where history, pedigree, and class, none of which can be purchased, hold sway. That might explain why golf’s elite have long dismissed him as a brash vulgarian.
Wealth won him access — it always does — but not acceptance. The man often accused of favoring the white and the wealthy has never found favor in the whitest and wealthiest sport.
Trump has long been obsessed with golf’s four major championships and was determined to host one at one of his courses.
After opening Bedminster in 2004, Trump incessantly lobbied the U.S. Golf Association to bring the U.S. Open to the club, which happens to be just seven miles from its New Jersey headquarters. But the USGA, wary of Trump grandstanding at its signature event, fobbed him off. In 2012, it announced that Bedminster would host the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open, a decision it may have come to regret: The tournament took place a few months after Trump took office, with almost every competitor facing awkward questions about the association with an accused sexual predator.
When Trump’s controversial course in Aberdeen, Scotland, opened in 2012, he promptly insisted it was worthy of hosting the game’s oldest major, the Open Championship, first contested three weeks before Abraham Lincoln was elected. The dandruff-flecked blazers organizing the Open, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, were appalled by the American carnival barker. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to lure the ancient championship to his ostentatious new course, Trump bought a celebrated venue, Turnberry Resort, in western Scotland, clearly assuming that the Open was included.
Turnberry had already hosted four Opens, most recently in 2009, after all. Trump spent $100 million renovating the property. “This is golf’s greatest canvas,” he announced with typical gusto at the reopening. “People cannot avoid it now.”
But the R&A did. Turnberry — widely regarded as one of the finest courses in Scotland — has still not been awarded another Open.
In the end, Trump has had to settle for the least illustrious of the four majors, the PGA Championship, which is coming to Bedminster in 2022. That decision was announced four years ago, though organizers privately debated canceling the contract as their host’s presidential campaign became increasingly polarizing.
That’s when golf’s powers-that-be realized what others in Washington — and in foreign capitals around the world — have been learning since he took office: Any alliance with Trump carries a price.
When he announced his candidacy with a racist broadside at Mexican immigrants, Trump claimed that leaders in the golf industry agreed with him. The game’s main bodies — the USGA, the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, and the LPGA — released an unprecedented joint statement rejecting his claim of support. The PGA of America canceled a tournament scheduled at his club in Los Angeles, and after a 54-year run at Miami’s Doral Resort, which Trump bought in 2012, the PGA Tour (claiming sponsorship issues) moved one of its biggest events. To Mexico City.
“I hope they have kidnapping insurance,” Trump tweeted magnanimously.
“Prior to his candidacy, there was some level of affection for his investment in golf,” admits one senior industry executive who has worked closely with Trump in the past. “But if you support him you alienate half the country, and if you criticize him you alienate half the country. The divisiveness has made the distance more prevalent. There’s downside and upside, and both are substantial.”
Last week, the PGA Tour announced that the season-ending event on its Triple A offshoot, the LatinoAmerica Tour, would go to Trump’s Doral resort in November, a low-profile event seen as a low-risk gesture to a wounded but dangerous former partner.
While many PGA Tour pros admit to having voted for Trump, the game’s power brokers maintain a discreet distance. Winged Foot in Westchester County, New York, is the only club Trump belongs to that he doesn’t own. He’s been there for almost 50 years, but Winged Foot declined to hang his portrait after he became president.
Buying into the Trump product — in politics or in golf — can seem like a Faustian bargain. “Everyone I knew tolerated him as a golf course owner because he’d throw a lot of money around,” says one member of a private Trump club. “Yeah, it was gaudy, and it was brash, and he didn’t always leave a great taste in peoples’ mouths. You could care less because the property was always in great shape. People want to get into a private club. It’s an environment people want as a recreational asset, and they compartmentalize Trump out of it. They just accept Donald for who he is. It’s not an endorsement of him.”
The member — who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals — says that Trump’s ascension to the White House has split his well-heeled clubgoers. “People were kind of upset when he started politicking. Since he became president, a number of them became completely enamored with his shitshow.They love seeing Marine One come in and out. They love having the president around,” he says. “But an equal amount have become annoyed, and a larger amount have become so annoyed they left the club.”
“We are incredibly proud of the performance of our golf course portfolio,” said Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, in a statement. “Our memberships are thriving at the private courses because we provide not only an amazing luxury golf experience but we cater to the entire family.”
I asked what the initiation fee is for his Trump club. “They claim they’re charging $700,000,” the member scoffs. “But you can get in for fifty to seventy-five.”
While Trump’s presidency has reportedly been a financial windfall for some of his properties, such as the thriving Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., which many view as a potential back door for influence peddling, his golf courses appear to be deriving less benefit from the association. According to public records, Trump’s Aberdeen course lost $1.6 million during his first year in office and is at least $10.7 million in the red since opening six years ago.
But golf has incalculable value for Trump on Capitol Hill, where he has used it to woo former critics within the GOP establishment, playing with senators Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker, and Rand Paul, all of whom subsequently softened their once-pointed critiques. (There’s no record of Trump having played with Democratic lawmakers.)
Trump’s successful courting of adversaries doesn’t surprise his disillusioned member, who played several times with the president when he was a private citizen. “He’s never more charming than when he’s playing golf,” the source admits.
However, the president’s charm only takes him so far, it seems. “To find a man’s true character, play golf with him,” P.G. Wodehouse once wrote, setting a standard that would not flatter the 45th president, who is infamous among both golf companions and political opponents for his elastic relationship with the rules of conduct.
“The worst celebrity golf cheat? I wish I could tell you that. It would be a shocker!” rock star Alice Cooper said in 2012. “I played golf with Donald Trump one time. That’s all I’m going to say.” Actor Samuel L. Jackson leveled a similar charge, which Trump dismissed as “disgusting.”
“Everyone who has played with him has seen him cheat,” the member acknowledges. “Now he’s perfected it by having the caddie do most of it for him.”
Perhaps coincidentally, one of Trump’s former caddies, Dan Scavino, is now among the longest-surviving and most trusted apparatchiks in the administration, still carrying the bag for his boss as White House director of social media. Scavino rose to become general manager at Trump National in Briarcliff Manor, New York, where Bill Clinton frequently played (and as of June 2016 still had a locker).
It was also at Briarcliff Manor where a young golf enthusiast named Adam Levin first witnessed another trait that has become instantly recognizable to White House watchers: an inability to lose with grace.
Levin was 14 years old when he faced Trump in a club tournament. On two consecutive holes, Trump called his young opponent on minor infractions that warranted loss of hole under the match-play format. Leading by four holes with five to play, the owner turned to a small group of his members spectating.
“The kid put up a good fight, didn’t he?”
Levin ignored the taunt and fought back to win in a sudden-death playoff. “He pretty much melted down,” Levin later wrote. “He was so embarrassed that he didn’t congratulate me or say anything. He shook my hand and didn’t even make eye contact. It was definitely the talk of the club for a while.”
Trump’s conduct in tournaments has often been the talk of his clubs, where he is known to treat the rule book with as much respect as he does the Justice Department.
He claims to have won 18 club championships, but members grouse that his victories are often gifted by staff who ignore his cheating and know exactly what the boss expects. That didn’t end when he became POTUS.
During a competition last summer, on one hole Trump was seen to hit a shot into a pond, followed by another into a bunker, before then skulling his ball over the green into yet another hazard. According to the fed-up club member, the president probably carded a nine on that hole but subsequently claimed to have shot a round of 74, a scoring recovery that would be challenging for even a skilled professional.
Blatantly lying about his golf performance is an insignificant breach, at least relative to immigrant children in cages, the Supreme Court battle, the North Korean summit, Stormy Daniels, the Mueller investigation, and whatever else agitated the president’s mind over the summer. But for the member who knows him well, it was just another glimpse of the petty concerns that drive the leader of the free world and the chasm that exists between his wild assertions and provable reality.
“Now that he’s president, it gives him an excuse. ‘Hey, I’m busy, I can’t win the club championship’,” the member says. “But he’s obviously got to feel like he can compete in them. That’s his ego. There’s no end to it. He doesn’t need to cheat. He’s a solid seven handicap.”
A recreational golfer — like a politician — only needs to cheat and dissemble if he has peddled a transparent lie about what he is capable of delivering. Last time I checked, President Trump was claiming an official handicap of 2.8.
Published at Medium.com, October 25, 2018.