It may seem trivial on such a momentous occasion to look at Donald Trump through the prism of golf. But we are a golf outlet, and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t think golf is an interesting prism.
It starts with an indisputable fact: The person about to hold the most powerful office in the world is not only a lifelong golfer, but a major player in the golf industry. So we pose a simple question with a difficult answer: Will a Trump presidency be good or bad for the game?
First, a caveat. Right now, according to Larry Glick, who manages the development of Trump’s 18 (and counting) golf properties, golf is not on the radar. The operation of the courses will go into a blind trust run by his three children, with Eric Trump most involved. “If he’s played two rounds in the last six months, I’d be surprised,” said Glick of the president-elect. “And he’s been so busy, we haven’t talked anything about golf for months. He’s rolling up his sleeves to take on the challenge of this job.”
However, when Trump settles in, that could change. He carries a 2.8 handicap according to Golf Digest’s ranking of the top 150 golfers in Washington D.C. and has won more than a dozen club championships at his various clubs. At age 70 he is still energetic and likely fully capable of making his aggressive swing.
Moreover, his comfort with the game could end up a useful, important tool. “The beauty of golf is that you develop relationships, and you can make deals on a golf course,” he said last year during an interview for GolfDigest.com at Trump Tower. “And I’ve often said that I don’t mind that Obama plays a lot of golf. He should play with people who can help the country…Many of the foreign leaders play golf and love golf.”
There is also no question Trump gained validation for his brand and credibility through golf. He sought acceptance from the golf world – arguably a more respectable milieu than the world of celebrity or real estate development – through the quality of his projects, and especially enhanced his reputation for “getting it done” by cutting through New York City bureaucracy to complete Trump Links at Ferry Point last year. In what Trump calls the “nasty” world of politics, it’s a potential image enhancer a president can use.
“I think he loves the game of golf more than he loves money,” Jack Nicklaus, who has worked with Trump on multiple projects, and called with congratulations early Wednesday morning, told Golf World in 2014. “I think he wants to leave a legacy in the game.”
If so, what will it be? There are negative and positive forces at play.
On the negative side, Trump is polarizing. He has deeply offended many with his comments (even in golf, in land use conflicts while building Trump Aberdeen), and probably will again. Also, he sees the game as “aspirational” (to some a dog whistle word that means keep the riff-raff out), reflected in an average green fee of about $250 on his public courses. Some who have played with Trump have claimed he cheats. In short, he can be seen as an easy caricature of the entitled, vulgar American golfer, a version of Judge Smails from “Caddyshack.”
If that perception of Trump gets traction, it could hurt the image of the game and potentially, participation. Especially when it comes to drawing new players looking for a pastime that isn’t stigmatized by old stereotypes.
On the positive side, no American president has ever been as tied to or identified with golf. The previous leader in the clubhouse, Dwight Eisenhower, spent many days at Augusta National, was close friends with Arnold Palmer, and played an estimated 800 times during his two terms, though by all accounts, not very well.
Next year, Trump courses are scheduled to hold two major championships – the Senior PGA Championship at Trump National Washington DC, and the 2017 Women’s Open at Trump National Bedminster, where a call to move the championship to another venue because of Trump’s comments about women has no doubt been blunted by the election. It wouldn’t be a shock if Trump made an appearance at either or both. It’s also conceivable that Trump could utilize his golf properties to hold press conferences or meet with domestic and foreign leaders.
At least, according to several golf architects who have worked on his projects, Trump is not an autocrat who ignores experts. “He was never intrusive,” said Gil Hanse, who said Trump offered sound ideas during the redesign of Doral in 2013, but also regularly deferred. Martin Ebert offered a similar account of working for Trump at Turnberry, where the results on the Ailsa course have been universally praised. “The biggest misconception about me is that I’m not easy to work with,” Trump said in 2014. “I believe I am.”
And for all of Trump’s inflammatory comments during his campaign, along with the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, there is no evidence of racial, gender or religious discrimination at Trump’s private club policies.
Before rendering an opinion, a bit of disclosure. I’m a lifelong Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton and feels a deep sadness at the outcome of the election. Secondly, I’ve played with the president-elect twice, before he had decided to run for office. I found him enjoyable and entertaining to be around as a fellow golfer. True or not, I got the sense that Trump is at his best on a golf course.
Considering all of the above, do I think Trump as POTUS will be good for golf? I offer a cautious yes.