Trump's presidency creates an unprecedented conflict for golf
“We’ve just never had anything happen like this in golf before.”
So said pro golfer Jim Furyk when asked, just before the presidential election, how Donald Trump’s campaign might end up affecting Trump’s 17 golf courses, a major portion of his real estate portfolio. Trump has previously valued his golf portfolio at nearly $2 billion, but a subsequent Forbes report valued it at less than $1 billion.
Furyk is right: Trump’s run was unprecedented for golf, and it creates a potential problem the sport has never dealt with before. Never before has such a major business figure in the sport been president. Many past presidents showed a love for playing golf (most notably Dwight Eisenhower, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), but there has never been a golf course magnate president. Now, with President-elect Trump, there will be.
Some in the golf world had predicted a Trump presidency would be a boost for golf and its popularity, which has struggled in the past few years. “If he gets elected President of the United States, now you’ve got a leader of the free world that is vested and invested in the game of golf,” said Sirius XM radio host Matt Adams on a Golf Channel round table about Trump in February. “The game has never had that before… Maybe it’s the first time that golf doesn’t have to hide behind the shadows and pretend that the chief executive doesn’t play.”
But Trump’s campaign also put the golf world in an uncomfortable position, forcing golf organizations to repeatedly put out statements about Trump’s campaign. Moving forward, that tension remains.
At the moment, three big tournaments in the next few years are scheduled to take place at Trump properties: the 2017 Senior PGA Championship at Trump’s course in Washington, DC, in May; the 2017 US Women’s Open at Trump’s course in Bedminster, NJ, in July; and the 2022 PGA Championship at Bedminster.
With Trump as president, does holding a professional tournament become a form of political partisanship? It is a question golf organizations have never had to face before.
Some tournaments were already yanked from Trump courses
After Trump’s comments in June 2015 about Mexican immigrants, ESPN pulled its 2015 ESPY Celebrity Golf Classic from Trump National outside of Los Angeles; the PGA of America pulled its 2015 Grand Slam of Golf from Trump National Doral in Miami; the LPGA did not pull the 2015 RICOH British Women’s Open from Trump Turnberry in Scotland, but released a statement saying it would have pulled the event if there had been more time.
Despite all this, Trump said at the time, “I’ve had tremendous support from the golf world, because they know I’m right.” Golf’s four major governing bodies in the US responded directly with a joint statement: “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. While the LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and USGA don’t usually comment on presidential politics, Mr. Trump’s comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.”
In December 2015, after Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the States, the PGA Tour again put out a statement distancing itself from Trump: “We continue to stand by our earlier statement, and the statement of other golf organizations, that Mr. Trump’s comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.”
In June of this year, the PGA Tour announced that Cadillac would no longer sponsor the WGC-Cadillac Championship, which had been played at Trump National Doral since 2007. After Cadillac pulled out, the PGA Tour signed a seven-year deal with Grupo Salinas, moved the event to Mexico, and renamed it the WGC-Mexico Championship. (See the below video.)
“It is a sad day for Miami, the United States and the game of golf,” Trump said on Fox News about the tournament. “They’re moving it to Mexico City, which, by the way, I hope they have kidnapping insurance.” His son Eric, in an interview with Yahoo Finance in July, said that Cadillac pulling out “has nothing to do with Trump.”
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said in June that while the media was framing the WGC-Cadillac move to Mexico as “a political exercise,” it was not political. And yet, Cadillac’s move came after the PGA Tour itself said that after the 2016 WGC-Cadillac Championship, it would “explore all options regarding the event’s future.”
And some of Finchem’s comments made it sound like Trump’s brand was precisely the problem: “I think it’s more Donald Trump is a brand, a big brand, and when you’re asking a company to invest millions of dollars in branding a tournament and they’re going to share that brand with the host, it’s a difficult conversation.”
So: What happens to Trump’s courses next? Nothing, if you ask pro golfers. Most of them know Trump as an avid supporter of the sport and someone they’ve enjoyed playing with. But if you ask golf beat writers, the onus may end up on golf’s governing bodies to pull away from Trump if there is a backlash from players or fans.
There are four constituencies to consider: pro golfers, who play in tournaments held at Trump-owned courses; golf’s governing bodies, who organize such tournaments; amateur golfers who pay for memberships at private Trump courses; and golf tourists who pay to play a round at public Trump courses.
How will each of these groups now approach a golf course owned by President Trump?
Will golf organizations pull away from Trump?
“The last thing golf wants to look like is in any way racist, or exclusionary, or anti-immigrant,” said Golf Digest writer Jaime Diaz in a Golf Channel feature about Trump in February, referring to the PGA Tour, PGA of America, LPGA, and USGA coming together last December to release a statement condemning Trump. “Donald Trump was treading on that fault-line, and so golf unified.”
But a statement may not be good enough.
There is pressure on the USGA to move the 2017 US Women’s Open. In a USA Today op-ed last month, columnist Christine Brennan wrote that the USGA “must move” the tournament. “A Trump golf course, no matter how beautiful and centrally located it might be, cannot play host to an event that is the crown jewel of a women’s sport… not after all the awful things Trump has said about minorities, immigrants and women,” she wrote.
Of course, that was before Trump won the election. During his campaign, more than 10 women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by Trump; he won anyway. As president, does all of that just wash away? It will be up to the PGA of America to decide.
On the men’s side, the big event is a few years away: the 2022 PGA Championship. Trump’s biggest golf goal has always been to host a men’s Major at one of his courses, and as of now, he will get his wish in 2022. Unless the PGA of America decides otherwise.
With Trump as president, will golf’s so-called “five families” (PGA Tour, PGA of America, LPGA, USGA, R&A) continue to hold tournaments at his courses?
“I think they won’t,” says Sports Illustrated golf writer Michael Bamberger. “And I think that will have a detrimental effect on Trump’s businesses, because the No. 1 way to market a golf course is to be on TV. People want to play at golf courses they see on TV.”
Then again, golf’s governing bodies are notoriously slow to react. We have seen that in how long it took to open up major golf clubs to women: Augusta National, home to The Masters, didn’t allow female members until 2012; the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews did note vote to allow women until 2014. Muirfield golf club in Edinburgh voted this year not to end its ban on women, and as a result, the R&A (different from the R&A Club of St Andrews) pulled Muirfield from the British Open hosting rotation until the club changes its policy. But the 2017 PGA Championship is still set for Charlotte, NC, despite the NBA and NCAA pulling events from the state over its transgender bathroom law.
“Golf is always three decades behind any social change,” says Sports Illustrated golf writer Alan Shipnuck. “It doesn’t mean they can’t still pull that [2017 PGA Championship] from Quail Hollow [in Charlotte]. But if the PGA’s not going to pull out of North Carolina, it’s hard to imagine they will ever be out in front of anything.”
The PGA of America tells Yahoo Finance simply: “The 2022 PGA Championship remains on the schedule for Bedminster.”
The PGA Tour tells Yahoo Finance, “We do not have a rule or policy regarding a course owned by a politician or elected official.” That’s because such a situation is unprecedented.
Many golf insiders observed before the election that golf organizations were playing a wait-and-see game, since they would not want to be on bad terms with Trump if he won. By winning, Trump may have made the decision for them; they may not wish to speak out in any way against the president.
“Some of the campaign junk that has come out has probably hurt his brand within golf,” said Golf Digest writer Matthew Rudy just before the election. “But I think it’s a net positive for him if he wins the election.”
The only thing that could spur golf organizations to action is player protest. “If some leading female players decide that they don’t want to play [in the 2017 US Women’s Open] because they think Trump is a sexist pig, that will be very chilling for his business and people will really pay attention,” Bamberger says. As of yet, that has not happened. And it appears unlikely.
What do pro golfers think about Trump?
For all the public hue and cry over Trump’s comments and politics, Trump’s stock has not dropped among pro golfers. In buying up distressed golf courses and spending to improve them, Trump “has bet on the culture in a major way” at a time when few others have, Shipnuck says. Most golfers know Trump as a friend to the game.
It’s also important to note that pro golfers skew conservative politically—most are white, wealthy, and live in Florida because it has no personal income tax. “There is some goodwill there for Trump because he’s a golfer and he blows in and shakes hands, and loves the game,” Shipnuck says. “I would wager that his approval rate among golfers is much higher than it is for the general population.”
Two pro golfers we spoke with just before the election suggested the same. Jim Furyk, the 2003 US Open winner, said, “He’s been good for golf, to have a real estate mogul, someone that has real estate all over the world, put that time, that effort, that expense into golf, and worldwide.”
Pat Perez, the first pro to sign on with Bill Murray’s new golf line, took it a step further: “It’s unfortunate that the political world has kind of taken a turn on Donald,” he said. “I know Don a little bit… He’s building all these great golf courses and he wants to have tournaments, and he’s put a lot of money in the game, and then you have everybody saying, ‘We’ve gotta get out of him because of his political outlooks.’ That’s hard, because we don’t have a lot of people in golf who will spend that kind of money to better their properties.”
What golf governing bodies do about Trump next may depend most on pro golfers, and it looks unlikely that many are about to speak up. On the women’s side, no prominent pro has protested Trump—on the contrary, pro golfer Natalie Gulbis spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention, saying, “Donald remains a consistent voice encouraging me to stand up to gender injustices and to lean in to any professional challenges that come my way.” Three female pros we contacted did not respond to requests for comment.
In an anonymous Sports Illustrated poll of PGA and LPGA golfers in May, before Trump won the Republican nomination, 34% of golfers said they were voting for him in the Republican primary (more than any other candidate got). In a separate question, 67% said the LPGA should continue to hold events at Trump’s courses.
Will people stop playing golf at Trump courses?
Even if pro golfers and golf leadership don’t cool toward Trump, many have wondered if his brand has been tarnished for good, especially after his comments about women on a leaked 2005 tape. Mark Cuban, who has been a vocal critic, made that argument vociferously before the election, tweeting, “Every single [Donald Trump] hotel and golf course is toast. Done. Over.” He has since deleted the tweet.
Among pro golfers, that is not likely the case. But for wealthy amateur golfers, it could be a different story.
It’s impossible to know whether memberships have dropped at Trump’s private courses as a result of his campaign; the company does not share membership numbers. But for his public courses where anyone can pay to play a round, such as Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in New York, one (albeit small) indicator is public check-ins through the mobile app Foursquare. In August, Foursquare released data showing check-ins at Trump properties (including golf courses, hotels and casinos) were down 14% from the previous year.
In the wake of his campaign and his many controversial comments on immigrants and women, one wonders if playing golf at a Trump course becomes a form of political statement. (There are already signs the Trump name has become a problem for residents of Trump buildings.) Might some people be embarrassed to play at a Trump course?
One avid golfer in Massachusetts, who wished to remain anonymous, says yes. Over the summer, he took a golf trip to Trump’s Doonberg course in Ireland. “We booked the trip before his presidential run,” says the golfer. “I wish I had changed our hotel. I would only tell people I was staying at ‘Doonberg’ when I talked about our trip. It was embarrassing. Can you think of another brand that you can buy and it immediately aligns you with so much hate and ignorance?”
Of course, there is a socioeconomic disconnect between Trump’s political supporters and people who can afford to play at a Trump course or belong to a Trump course. “I don’t think many laid off factory workers are going to pay to play at Trump Doral,” says Shipnuck. “Those people are priced out. On the private side, it was always catered to new money. I’m not sure where those people fall politically. If you’re a Democrat and a member of Trump Bedminster, you are probably in a tough position now. On the other hand, I imagine a lot of Wall Street types and lawyers and lobbyists would love to become a member of his course.”
Others point out that, like pro golfers, amateur golfers may not care about what a golf course is called—what matters is the quality of the course. “You could call it Piece of Dung Golf Club and you’re not going to lose anyone,” says Bamberger. “I think a certain type of golfer isn’t going to care that the Trump name is on it.”
In a February 2015 interview with Fortune, Trump was asked about golf’s many recent efforts to grow the game and reach new players and fans—an effort many people feel is crucial at a time when companies like Nike and Adidas have both looked to get out of the equipment business.
“Let golf be elitist,” Trump said. “Let people work hard and aspire to someday be able to play golf. To afford to play it. They’re trying to teach golf to people who will never be able to really play it.”
Just prior to the election, Yahoo Finance reached out to the Trump campaign to ask how his golf courses would be affected if Trump were elected. “He would put his businesses in a blind trust to be run by his executives and his children,” said campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks. “His sole focus would be on making our country great again.”
Now, the Trump Organization has an updated statement, sent to Yahoo Finance on Monday: “We are in the process of vetting various structures with the goal of the immediate transfer of management of The Trump Organization and its portfolio of businesses to Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump.” Trump’s children may face some new difficulties in running their father’s golf business.
Trump won the election, but more than half of the electorate didn’t vote for him. After running the most divisive political campaign in modern memory, will he lose in the golf world?
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our recurring sports business video series.
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