“You’re the one-man answer to the golf recession.” That’s the conclusion Golf.com reporter Gary Van Sickle came to at the end of a 2012 interview with Donald Trump. The real estate developer had just spoken at length about his growing golf portfolio, which now includes 17 courses worldwide. Trump’s conclusion: “I’m good for golf.”
Golf’s leading power brokers couldn’t have agreed more. In May 2014, Trump struck a deal to bring a men’s major—the 2022 PGA Championship—to his Trump National Bedminster course in New Jersey. In an interview with the Golf Channel, then-president of the PGA of America Ted Bishop said, “We look forward I think to a long relationship with the Trump family, and I’m sure that this announcement yesterday probably just scratches the surface in regard to some of the things we’re going to do in the future with him.” Bishop agreed with Trump’s self-important assessment of his role in the sport and took it one step further, saying, “Donald Trump is great for golf.”
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Trump played the part of golf’s savior, swooping in and buying a number of prestigious-but-failing courses in the United States and abroad. He renovated the properties and marketed them to golf’s ruling bodies, which, swayed by promises of profit, lined up to stage exhibitions, tour stops, and major championships on Trump courses. Among those events is the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Trump National Doral in Miami, where the world’s top golfers—including Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day—will compete starting Thursday.
But almost two years after the president of the PGA of America said Trump was great for the sport, golf’s bigwigs have stopped proclaiming that Trump is making golf great again. Now that he has disparaged immigrants, women, Mexicans, Muslims, and much of the rest of humankind, cozying up to Trump isn’t a great look for a sport already associated with country-club exclusivity. At the same time, the golf world hasn’t figured out how to extricate itself from a relationship with a man who now owns a huge chunk of the game.
The PGA of America should’ve known who it was teaming up with. The deal to bring the PGA Championship to a Trump-owned course came years after the Obama “birther” conspiracy, among many other pre–2016-campaign outrages. Pressure didn’t begin to mount on golf’s decision-makers, though, until last year, when Trump announced his presidential candidacy by saying that Mexican rapists were flooding across the border. A couple weeks later, Trump did an interview with Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte. “I’ve had tremendous support from the golf world, because they all know I’m right,” Trump said. “I’ve been great to golf. I’ve been investing while everybody else was fleeing.”
The PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, USGA and PGA of America did not appreciate being characterized as Trump’s most loyal supporters. “In response to Mr. Trump’s comments about the golf industry ‘knowing he is right’ in regards to his recent statements about Mexican immigrants, we feel compelled to clarify that those remarks do not reflect the views of our organizations,” they shot back in a joint statement, touting their “strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment.”
If creating an “inclusive and welcoming environment” was so important to the golf tours, they had chosen an odd collaborator. In an October 2014 interview with Golf Digest, Trump said that if he were in charge of the sport, he “would make golf aspirational, instead of trying to bring everybody into golf.” Several months later, he said to Fortune magazine, “Let golf be elitist.”
Amid the flood of bad publicity surrounding Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, the PGA of America did scoot away from the presidential candidate ever so slightly. Last July, the PGA of America canceled the 2015 PGA Grand Slam of Golf, an annual showcase for the year’s four major champions that had been scheduled for October at Trump National in Los Angeles. The PGA of America did make a statement with this move, but not a very big one. The PGA Grand Slam of Golf is an exhibition event. Trump’s major tournaments, including the 2022 PGA Championship, are still on the calendar.
The LPGA Tour, meanwhile, was forced to make an immediate decision. The Women’s British Open was scheduled for late July at Turnberry, a historic Scottish golf course Trump purchased in 2014 and swiftly renamed Trump Turnberry. The LPGA released a statement on July 7, 2015, saying, “With just three weeks until the championship, a change in venue for this prestigious major simply isn’t feasible without significantly diminishing the event. By no means, however, does this decision suggest support for Mr. Trump’s comments.”
Trump, addressing this challenge to his first major championship, responded with a characteristically grandiose letter to LGPA Commissioner Michael Whan. “When others wanted nothing to do with it, and many thought that the LPGA tour was a thing of the past and had absolutely no future, I stuck with the tour and with the ladies,” Trump wrote. “Please contact me at your earliest convenience to discuss releasing the LPGA from its obligations under the contract.” He also added a postscript: “Apparently, the American public disagrees with you in that I have just gone to #1 and #2 in the polls.”
Despite this exchange, Trump stuck with the tour and the ladies, and the Women’s British Open stuck with him. Inbee Park, a South Korean, won by three. The media, though, seemed more interested in Donald Trump, who showed up in a helicopter and boasted, again, about his standings in the polls.
The European Tour, for its part, has taken the strongest anti-Trump stance. In the wake of the candidate’s call for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the United States, it found a new home for the Scottish Open. And as long as Trump owns Turnberry, it now says, the men’s British Open won’t be back.
In the states, however, Trump courses continue to dot the professional schedules. The United States Golf Association has yet to change its plans to stage the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open at Trump National in Bedminster, New Jersey. And this week, Trump National Doral will host the WGC Cadillac-Championship for the fifth time since Trump purchased the grounds in 2012.
That tournament will go on despite large-scale popular opposition, including an online petition—the title: “PGA Tour: Dump Trump—Stand Against Hatred”—that’s garnered almost 100,000 signatures. In December, the PGA Tour said it would “explore all options regarding the event’s future.” Trump’s response to rumors of a possible cancellation: “[The PGA Tour does] not want to do that. There is no site like Doral. I have the greatest site in all of Florida.”
Trump’s right. The PGA doesn’t want to move the Cadillac Championship, or any other tournament. Relocation costs money, and Trump owns some of the world’s best, and best-known, courses. Trump’s willingness to leverage his fortune to create elite tournament venues made him the partner golf needed. But now, his aggressive bigotry makes him a partner golf doesn’t want, particularly given its reputation as a bastion of white male privilege.
Golf’s leading power brokers, then, will likely continue to respond incoherently, and with half-measures. The major tours will disavow Trump’s most outrageous statements while finding ways to justify playing on his courses. Trump said last year that he has tremendous support from the golf world. The PGA Tour, the USGA, and the PGA of America haven’t done anything yet to prove him wrong.