Sports

The Golf World Hardly Deserves Praise for “Breaking” With Trump

There’s too much entanglement here to assume this is anything like a total and permanent divorce.

Trump in a red MAGA cap saluting as he walks through a golf course, with green and bunkers visible in the background.
Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, on Nov. 27. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

After Donald Trump’s mob stormed Congress last Wednesday, many of America’s biggest businesses said they would stop donating to politicians supporting the president’s push to overturn his electoral loss. Twitter and Facebook also gave Trump the boot, and New York City severed its public contracts with the Trump Organization. That all preceded Congress taking the unprecedented step of impeaching him a second time, for fomenting an insurrection against the United States government.

No post-riot rejection may have stung Trump more than the one he received from the professional golf world. “He’s angry about impeachment,” the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reported Monday. “But the reaction to the PGA decision was different order of magnitude.” On Sunday night, the PGA of America canceled its agreement to play the 2022 PGA Championship at his Trump Bedminster course in New Jersey. Trump had spent years lobbying for the major tournament to be held there, but PGA of America president Jim Richerson said that hosting the tournament “would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand and would put at risk the PGA’s ability to deliver our many programs and sustain the longevity of our mission.”

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Throughout his tumultuous and now insurrectionist presidency, Donald Trump has cherished golf as a refuge. Outings to his 19 courses, where staff and playing partners pamper him while he cheats his ass off, have been the most consistent feature of his time in office. While he claimed in 2016 he’d be too busy as president to hit the links, he later touted golf as necessary physical exercise, even though he always takes a cart. Golf is Trump’s haven, a place where adulation flows and the clubhouse knows to serve his steak well done. Trump loves golf, and golf has always loved him back.

The PGA of America’s cancellation marks a significant break between Trump and the game he loves, one that the Trump Organization did not let pass by quietly. (In a vaguely threatening rebuke, the organization shot back that the PGA of America had perpetrated “a breach of a binding contract” and groused that it had “invested many, many millions of dollars” in preparations to host the tournament.) That it took a bloody insurrection for the break to occur demonstrates how enmeshed the game of golf has become with the soon-to-be ex-president.

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The PGA of America is not “golf” as a whole. The organization runs only a handful of tournaments every year—one of which happens to be the men’s major that it took away from Trump’s course. A different organization, the U.S. Golf Association, holds more than a dozen annual events, including professional majors (the U.S. Open chief among them) but mostly amateur championships. The USGA also determines the sport’s official rules in conjunction with its European counterpart, the R&A. Beyond those governing bodies, there are countless professional and amateur tours, the most notable being the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, and the European Tour. There’s an Asian Tour, a senior tour (known as the Champions Tour), the Korn Ferry Tour (the PGA Tour’s minor league), not to mention Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters independently. The list goes on. Consequently, the PGA of America’s decision to cut ties with Trump has no direct impact on the vast majority of tournament golf.

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Trump first insinuated himself into professional golf in 2001, when he began hosting an LPGA event at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach—the course he most often frequents when he’s staying at Mar-a-Lago. That tournament was held through 2008, and during that time Trump heightened his role in the game by hosting a “Trumped Up” season of popular Golf Channel show The Big Break at Trump National Los Angeles. Trump’s involvement in the men’s game began in 2012, when he purchased Doral Country Club in Miami out of bankruptcy. That course had already hosted a PGA Tour event for five decades, and Trump appeared poised to continue the tradition.

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That is, until he descended his golden escalator in 2015 and made racist comments about Mexican rapists streaming across the border while announcing his run for president. Several months later, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” By June 2016, as Slate reported at the time, the PGA Tour pulled its World Golf Championship away from Trump Doral. Fittingly, they moved the tournament to Mexico City.

Amid that same public relations fallout, the PGA of America canceled its 2015 Grand Slam of Golf exhibition at Trump Los Angeles. Now pundits are praising the PGA of America for making “the right move” and “leaving Trump National.” But this praise is hardly warranted, seeing that it appears motivated less by morality than timing: Trump’s approval rating has dipped to 33 percent, and a majority of Americans hold him responsible for the Capitol riot. The PGA Championship schedule extends years ahead of time, and the 2022 tournament was awarded to Trump Bedminster in 2014, before they first dumped Trump.

If doing business with Trump in Los Angeles was untenable in 2015, why keep him on the calendar in New Jersey all this time? Sure, Trump has spent the past two decades buying, restoring, and building prominent courses in the U.S. and abroad. But by no means does he have a monopoly on championship golf courses. This hesitancy to make a full break with Trump suggests the professional tours still appreciate his interest, as long as the optics aren’t too bad.

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Europe has had its chances to distance itself, too. After Trump purchased the legendary Scottish course Turnberry in 2014, the R&A—that, again, is golf’s governing body in Europe—avoided scheduling the men’s British Open there. (It had hosted the Open four times between 1977 and 2009.) But in 2015, the women’s British Open was still held at the course. This was six weeks after Trump’s inflammatory presidential announcement, and though Trump had written to the LPGA (which held veto power over the tournament site alongside the Ladies European Tour) that it was welcome to change venues, the LPGA declined, claiming “a change in venue for this prestigious major simply isn’t feasible without significantly diminishing the event.” Trump arrived via helicopter early in the first round, and he stuck around for the first two days, stealing the spotlight. Covering Trump more than the tournament, the press eventually gathered at his nearby hotel for a press conference, held during play, in which he criticized Hillary Clinton’s performance as secretary of state and called Barack Obama “incompetent.” Trump was stumping for Trump, not the tournament the LPGA had claimed would be “diminished” if held at another venue.

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Still, the R&A waited. It wasn’t until the recent announcement from the PGA of America that the European body made its own break with Trump official: “We will not return [to Turnberry] until we are convinced that the focus will be on the championship, the players and the course itself and we do not believe that is achievable in the current circumstances.”

Uncowed by Trump’s British Open spectacle, the USGA went ahead with its 2017 U.S. Women’s Open at Trump Bedminster. Park Sung-hyun won that tournament, overcoming the distraction of Trump’s presence, as well as the presence of protesters outside the gates rightfully objecting to his sexual predation. Fans, meanwhile, observed what Eamon Lynch at Golfweek called a “painful spectacle as most players tried to ignore the groping elephant in the room.” The USGA was lucky its timing wasn’t even worse. Less than a month later, Trump would make his equivocal statement that there “were very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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By then, the 2017 Senior PGA Championship had taken place at Trump National Washington D.C. The players raved about the course, and the tournament went smoothly. Trump had stayed away, sending in his place his two adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric Trump, who heads the Trump Golf branch of the Trump Organization.

Now more than three years have passed since a Trump course has hosted a major event, though the PGA of America had until this week made nothing official; nor had the USGA, the R&A, or any of the other powers that be. Perhaps that’s because they recognized that Trump and his tax cuts for the wealthy have remained popular among golfers.

During the Trump administration, many of the game’s best and most legendary players have teed it up with the Republican president. Tiger Woods played with him at least three times, saying, “Well, he’s the president of the United States. You have to respect the office.” Jack Nicklaus, who still holds the record for major championship wins, successfully lobbied Trump to include $20 million for his hospital project in the 2019 proposed federal budget. He then tweeted an endorsement of the incumbent president in 2020. “This is not a personality contest; it’s about patriotism, policies and the people they impact,” Nicklaus wrote in part. “[Trump’s] love for America and its citizens, and putting his country first, has come through loud and clear.”

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Reigning U.S. Open champ and protein-shake guzzler Bryson DeChambeau has been sporting a Trump Golf logo on his bag, mirroring the patches that have appeared for years on many Champions Tour players’ shirts. (At last week’s tournament in Hawaii, DeChambeau had removed the Trump logo.) And the day after the president incited an insurrection, golfers Gary Player and Annika Sorenstam went to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony held, perhaps wisely, without cameras. (Wired editor Daniel Engber noted Thursday that 17 percent of Trump’s Presidential Medals of Freedom have been given to golfers, and that no other president’s golf honorees have topped 2 percent.) A third golfer, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, also received a presidential medal Thursday, albeit posthumously, so she did not have the opportunity to refuse it.

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All told, though, the players had less to do with the PGA of America dumping Trump than the need to appease donors and sponsors. The group’s statement framed the cancellation in terms of preserving “the brand”—language most golfers, all businesses, and even Trump himself can understand.

That doesn’t mean all professional tournaments at Trump courses have been canceled. Since 2018, the PGA Tour–sanctioned Latinoamerica Tour has held a championship at Trump Doral. No announcement has been made as to the future of that event. And while the PGA of America and the R&A may have chastened Trump for now, neither has gone so far as to declare a permanent break. Eric Trump, meanwhile, told Morning Read this past October that after his father’s foray into politics is over, “we’ll do a million tournaments.” The intention is there, but the question remains: After staging a failed coup, can Donald Trump and his brand find their way back into the good graces of the game? Trump still owns some impressive and historic courses, and his relationships within the game run deep. If the Trump Organization survives the debts coming due, the looming legal battles, and the public relations nightmare of his presidency, many golfers may begin to forget these transgressions. Sponsors may acquiesce. And golf’s ruling bodies may again conflate what’s good for the game with what’s good for Trump.

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