Golf’s Donald Trump Dilemma

By Matt Roberts 

Donald Trump doesn’t do small. His presidential campaign is brash and imposing. His conflict-ridden comments provoke immense reactions. His ego is over-inflated. His following is ludicrously large and vocal. And, as we learned during last Thursday’s GOP debate, he’s got big hands. “Look at those hands,” Trump said while holding them up and addressing Marco Rubio. “Are they small hands? He referred to my hands and said ‘if they are small, something else must be small’. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee you.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the cocksure Trump arrived at the World Golf Championship last Sunday in typically over-the-top fashion. Midway through the final round at the Trump Resort in Florida, his helicopter touched down and he appeared wearing a baseball cap bearing his ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan.

Like in politics, Trump is dividing the golfing world, causing dilemma and uncertainty. As an owner of eighteen luxury golf courses, a number of which host some of the sport’s leading tournaments, he’s undoubtedly done plenty of good for the game. His approach is simple and effective: invest big money in courses in historic locations and watch them prosper. In particular, he’s overseen positive changes at The Blue Monster course at Doral, where the Cadillac Championship is held, and at the historic Turnberry course in Scotland. According to Phil Mickelson, people should be “appreciative of what he’s done to help promote the game of golf.”

But, the five-time major champion was also quick to mention the “awkward situation” golf currently finds itself in as a result of the growing interest and controversy surrounding the frontrunner in the Republican presidential primaries.

Last year, the PGA of America cancelled the Grand Slam of Golf tournament due to be held at a Trump course outside Los Angeles in the wake of Trump’s assertion that Mexican immigrants were rapists. Moreover, his projects in Scotland have been overshadowed by a series of controversies and an ugly war of words with conservationists. He’s also insulted women during his political campaign and at last summer’s Women’s British Open, he upstaged the event by hogging the media attention and hurling derogatory remarks towards the R&A during his flying visit.

On the course, golf is in a good place right now. The stars – McIlroy, Spieth, Day, Fowler, Bubba, Scott – have made the transition from the Tiger-era a smooth one. But the sport faces a number of image problems and the current association with Trump is exacerbating them.

With diminishing participation rates among juniors, golf is trying to broaden its appeal and is experimenting with formats to increase the speed of play. Essentially, it’s all about moving with the times and making the game more accessible. In the past two years, Augusta National and the R&A have accepted female members and a woman has been elected as the President of the USGA.

But while golf talks about inclusion, Trump’s political rhetoric is all about the promise of border walls, banning Muslims and mass deportations. Unfortunately this mantra of exclusivity feeds into his ideas on the sport. “Golf should be an aspirational game. We should keep it at a high level, that’s what it’s all about and that’s where it is going to be successful’, Trump told Fortune magazine last year.  By appealing to the wealthy, Trump’s model goes against many of the aforementioned ‘Grow The Game’ initiatives. For years, golf has been trying to shake off the elitism tag. The current link with Trump is making that task harder.

This mismatch of views and priorities is creating unwanted tension. The truth, though, is that the Trump-golf relationship is mutually beneficial. Golf profits from the billionaire’s money and Trump uses the sport to bolster his own image and raise the profile of his brand.

As a result, golf finds itself in a position of stalemate. The governing bodies appear to have decided that, for the moment, the best action is inaction. With Trump at the forefront of America’s presidential elections, it’s difficult for the sport to outwardly support him in a professional capacity without also inadvertently championing his politics. Being regarded as elitist is preferable to being regarded as xenophobic and misogynist.

There appears to be an ill-informed, synchronised crossing of the fingers that this issue is just going to go away. But with Trump’s campaign likely to become more outlandish and intense, the next few months look like being uncomfortable for the sport. Politically, Trump looks certain to win the Republican nomination and his momentum could propel him to becoming the President of the United States. And in strictly golfing terms, he’s going to continue to impact the tournament game with the 2017 US Women’s Open to take place at Trump National and the 2022 PGA Championship scheduled for his course in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Practically, then, golf might just want the unthinkable – a Trump Presidency. It would certainly mean not having to sever the ties.

But Trump will be no ordinary leader of the free world. This is a man whose quotes are not always easily distinguishable from Hitler’s. Having a President who is vested and invested in golf would ordinarily be advantageous for the sport. On this unique occasion, however, it would surely do more harm than good.

Photograph: Gage Skidmore via Flickr 

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