In golf, there is an old adage that you play the ball where it lies. There is no prevarication and, with only a few exceptions, little debate. Your ball could have buried itself in a sandy bunker, ended up in a divot on an otherwise manicured emerald fairway – no matter, you must attempt to advance it without the intervention of anything other than the clubhead. Either that or you must reconcile yourself to taking a penalty – self-administered, of course. Or concede defeat of the hole or the match, as the case may be.
One would’ve assumed a golfing aficionado like Donald Trump would have thought of that age-old maxim when the election results came in last November and, once all the outstanding votes in those key battleground states were tallied and the results were deemed incontrovertible, conceded the presidency – much like any hacker would do on the short stuff.
Instead, despite being associated with the honourable game since his college days, he protested at the election results, rallied his supporters to a near-mutiny that overran Congress and in the process had the PGA of America strip one of the jewels in his crown, the Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey, of the right to host the 2022 PGA Championship. Indeed, according to The New York Times, he was said to be 'gutted' by the PGA decision.
This must smart almost as badly as - if not worse than - than the presidential defeat. That’s because his love of golf long predated any political ambitions, going back to his time at the University of Pennsylvania. After stints developing everything from casinos to a regional airline, he turned his gaze to launching his eponymous private clubs in the mid-1990s.
Like the man himself, the first two in the monied locales of West Palm Beach, Florida and Westchester County, New York were big and brash – with boldfaced course designers drafted in to create oversized waterfalls and sprawling facilities decorated in the signature appurtenances that became his hallmark. The courses sent notice to their ivy-covered patrician neighbours that Trump, the consummate showman, was now getting serious about the game he loves.
But the game hasn’t always loved him back. Long before mobs of his marauding supporters rampaged through The Capitol brandishing incendiary paraphernalia, Trump was viewed as a polarizing figure in golf. Perhaps it was the endless boasting and bloviating about his own playing prowess that grated.
Nevertheless, Trump worked hard to woo the doubters: he bought storied existing venues, such as the sprawling Doral in Miami, and lavished resources on its famed Blue Monster championship course.
He invested in bijoux newbies like Doonbeg in Ireland; took a “dilapidated Turnberry,” in the words of one leading golf marketer, “and transformed it,” with a massive investment; and, with much consternation, launched an instant classic with his links in Aberdeenshire.
“Regardless of politics and environmental impact, [Trump's] involvement in golf has meant that golfers have benefited immensely. The three courses on this side of the pond are all in the world top 100 and some of the best golfing experiences around,” says one golf insider, who points out that many of these trophy properties, however, are loss-making.
In fact, according to Forbes, the Trump troika in the British Isles - “which are some of the best loved golf courses that one can experience and play,” says another source -lost over $90 million in 2020 alone.
The financial challenges of last year notwithstanding, Trump has had other difficulties within the game’s firmament. Having purchased Turnberry in 2014, it became apparent that its legendary Ailsa course was being shunned by the British governing body of golf, the R&A, as one of the revolving venues to host the Open Championship, the oldest of the game’s majors and a tournament it hosted four times hitherto.
So, as reported by the New York Times, he had his Ambassador in London, a long-time friend and donor, try to steer the tournament to the resort, a fact that became public last summer.
But even that controversy or the many others that predated the eye-opening events of last week, won’t matter now. Many corporations, banks and individuals are now distancing themselves from the Trump brand.
Pro golfer Bryson DeChambeau, for example, who vanquished Winged Foot back in September 2020 to win the U.S. Open and then very publicly overnighted at Trump’s Westchester redoubt a short drive away, no longer brandishes the “Trump Golf” logo on his staff bag nor has the affiliation listed as a partner on his website.
And New York City is seeking to terminate all business with the Trump Organization, including severing the contract to operate (and profit from) the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ferry Point Golf Course in the Bronx. Located alongside the East River, the City of New York says that they are “on strong legal ground,” according to the Mayor Bill de Blasio, while the Trump Organization contends that it “has no legal right to end our contracts” - and vowed to fight the decision.
By far the most significant blow, however, is the PGA of America’s reversal of a decision it made back in 2014 to bestow one of golf’s major championships on a Trump course. Consisting of thousands of club professionals who are trying to increase participation, broaden the appeal and make the game more inclusive, the organisation said conducting the event at that venue would be detrimental to the brand and their long-term mission.
Whereas once it was the preserve of the “blazer brigade”, golf is quickly expanding its tent and, according to several matrices, including data by the National Golf Foundation in the U.S., is seeing the largest increase in play since 1997, the year Tiger Woods emerged onto the scene.
Professional championships and the fallout from the events in Washington, D.C. aside, keen golfers are a pragmatic and passionate lot who, lured by the appeal of all that golf offers (natural green space, space and privacy), will continue to patronise Trump’s outposts, including a second 18-hole course approved by Scottish authorities last October adjacent to the original layout on his Menie Estate north of Aberdeen. One hopes, however, that unlike its proprietor, they will play the ball where it comes to rest.
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