Professional golfers at the elite level, and the corporate sponsors who pay them millions in endorsement dollars, are temperamentally disinclined to make trouble, especially political trouble, so let’s hear some applause from the gallery for LPGA star Suzann Pettersen, whose recent observations about the golfing habits of President Donald Trump were as succinct as they were headline-grabbing. “He cheats like hell,’’ the golfer declared in an interview with the US correspondent of the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang.
Donald Trump cheats like hell at golf? As revelations about our forty-fifth president go, this hardly lands as a shock.
Many powerful people play fast and loose with the sport’s byzantine rules, in part because they think that no one will respect a titan of industry, a “billionaire” property developer, or indeed a commander-in-chief, who can’t break 100 for eighteen holes. They also do it because very few people are brave enough to tell them to knock it off or they’ll be hauled up in front of the membership committee.
In such circumstances, the rules of golf are about as relevant as presidential behavioral norms in 2018. As Pettersen elaborated:
He [Trump] always says he is the world’s best putter. But in all the times I’ve played him, he’s never come close to breaking eighty. But what’s strange is that every time I talk to him he says he just golfed a sixty-nine, or that he set a new course record or won a club championship someplace. I just laugh.
Trump has not yet found time to call Pettersen a sad loser on Twitter. When he does, presumably it will be to say that the FBI should be looking into Bill Clinton’s mulligan habit, rather than the Russian ties of Trump campaign staff. Meanwhile, Pettersen has tried to walk back her comments —even though they chime with the experiences of many others. During the 2016 presidential campaign, The Washington Post investigated the then-candidate’s checkered history with golf’s rules. There was no shortage of witnesses. When Samuel L. Jackson was asked who was the better golfer, Trump or himself, he responded, “Oh, I am, for sure. I don’t cheat.” Asked to name the worst golf cheat he’d ever come across, Alice Cooper said: “I played golf with Donald Trump one time. That’s all I’m going to say.”
The sportswriter Rick Reilly, who wrote about his experiences caddying for Trump in his 2004 book, Who’s Your Caddy, described the future president as “an eleven on a scale of one to ten,” when it came to cheating. “Golf is like cycling shorts,’’ Reilly explained. “It can reveal a lot about a guy.”
This was Reilly’s update of P.G. Wodehouse’s famous observation: “To find a man’s true character, play golf with him. In no other walk of life does the cloven hoof so quickly display itself.” Generations of golfers have seized upon this epigram as the last word on the sport’s revelatory quality, but the saying gives nothing of the sort. What could Trump’s conduct on a golf course possibly add to our knowledge of his instinctive lying, multiple bankruptcies, sexual delinquency, and casual racism? Cheating on his golf handicap is the least of his failings, and the least useful in providing insight. But if golf cannot tell us anything new about Trump’s character, what can Trump tell us about the character of golf?
In a year during which countless celebrities, institutions, countries, and global organizations have fled this toxic president, golf has embraced him as one of its own. The PGA Tour feted him as its guest of honor at last year’s Presidents Cup in New Jersey. The US Golf Association resisted pressure to move last year’s US Women’s Open away from Trump’s Bedminster golf course in protest at his treatment of women. And witness the number of world-class players who have showed at Trump’s Palm Beach golf resort, Mar-a-Lago: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy have all played golf with Trump in recent months.
“I was just doing what I felt was respectful. If the president of the United States phones you up and wants to play golf with you, you know, I wasn’t going to say no,’’ said McIlroy, abashed by the vociferous criticism he received in Ireland after hitting the links with Trump. “It’s a tough position to be in.”
Plenty of other sportsmen and women have found it easy to resist Trump’s charms—the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Lebron James, the US Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, the tennis legend John McEnroe, and NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, to name a few. But golf stands apart from the activist crowd. For Trump, it has been an apolitically “useful idiot” in an era when professional sports have never been more in sync with the political opposition. The acquiescence of golf’s leading figures and governing bodies is amplified further down the sport’s hierarchy, especially in the (sometimes literally) gilded country clubs of states such as Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, which depend on a narrow, and narrow-minded, membership of wealthy, white couples who pay their subscriptions as much for the social cachet as for the sport. Within the confines of the club, they are free to rail against minorities, free to declare Trump the greatest president since Lincoln, free to act like the genteel segregationists they prefer to be.
The tasteless Mar-a-Lago is the ground zero of this gruesome culture. For the duration of Trump’s presidency, the “Southern White House,” as he likes to call the resort in his dogwhistling way, has been his haven, the safe space where he goes to have his ego stroked and his prejudices reinforced by the likes of Fox News’s Trump factotum Lou Dobbs and the right-wing radio “shock jock” Michael Savage. It hasn’t escaped notice that many of the president’s most incendiary tweets have been composed either while he was staying at the resort or had recently returned from there to Washington, D.C.
A broad swath of America simply rolls its eyes at Trump’s golfing obsession, and on a certain level, it’s hard not to. After all, if he is talking golf, cheating at golf, hanging out with pro golfers like a starstruck kid, at least he’s not waging war on the Korean peninsula or insulting entire religions. But if the indifference of non-golf-playing public is understandable, the complicity of the golfing elite is unforgivable.
Trump couldn’t care less about the NFL and its phalanx of “disrespectful” black millionaires. But golf? This is a guy who has hit the links an estimated ninety-six times in the last year, signaling an obsession that leaves that noted lover of golf Barack Obama (who played twenty-six rounds in his first year in office) looking like a dilettante. He is passionate about golf in the way he is passionate about himself. It is possible to believe, therefore, that he might care if one of the pros he reveres stood up to him and criticized his behavior. It is ironic, and not a little heartbreaking, that Tiger Woods has been one of those to have recently embraced Trump. Those of us with long enough memories, or access to YouTube, can still see Woods announcing the start of his professional career in 1996 with a Nike commercial in which he railed against a racist country-club culture that treated him like a second-class citizen through his early years in the sport.
Today, Woods is only the most prominent golfing figure participating in the normalization of Trump and everything he stands for. Woods’ arrival on the PGA Tour catapulted golf from the fringes of the sporting culture into the mainstream. He was the promise of a new era that would see the old order pushed aside in favor of a younger, fresher, less moneyed, and less prejudiced generation. The number of black athletes on the PGA Tour didn’t change—Woods was one of two black golfers on tour in 1996, and he is one of two in 2018—but at the grassroots, participation expanded. According to one estimate, the number of golfers in the US grew by five million in the garlanded first decade of Woods’s career.
Those days are gone. Woods might have embarked on yet another comeback, but the boom he inspired is over. An estimated eight hundred courses have closed over the last decade, a figure that grows on a monthly basis. The number of golfers in the US fell by almost two million in the five years to 2016, according to the National Golf Foundation. Growth in participation among younger players is nonexistent. No wonder: kids don’t have to wear a collared shirt and khakis to the skatepark. Meanwhile, their parents’ discretionary dollars are shifting to other, less time-consuming, less expensive, and less socially exclusive pastimes. And as golf gets less diverse again, you’ll find a dozen Donald Trump-alikes in every clubhouse bar, reveling in their newly-granted permission to be willfully offensive. Who wants to spend $1,000 a month in membership dues to listen to their bile?
Golf should be doing everything in its power to counteract this poisonous drift. Instead, the game’s leading figures have run straight into the arms of Trump, a man who embodies the culture that so narrowed its appeal in the first place. And for what—to “respect” the institution of the presidency that the current occupant has done so much to besmirch? There will be a price to pay for such stupidity and cowardice. When golf lands back on the outer fringes of mainstream sporting culture, somewhere between field hockey and lacrosse in prestige and popularity, where TV networks’ and sponsors’ interest can be measured in off-peak broadcast slots and penny-ante commercials for rip-off fitness fads, it will only have itself, and Trump, to blame.
An earlier version of this essay misidentified Suzann Pettersen’s nationality. She is Norwegian, not Swedish.