Golfer-in-chief: What does golf reveal about Donald Trump?
According to New York Times, he has visited a golf course 19 times in the past 13 weeks
US President Donald Trump drives a golf buggy during one of his visits to his Scottish golf course at Turnberry. Photograph: Getty Images
Golf has been called many things – “an expensive way of playing marbles” (Chesterton), “an insult to lawns” (National Lampoon), “a plague invented by Calvinist Scots as a punishment for man’s sins” (James Barrett Reston) and Twain’s famous “good walk spoiled”.
The late and very great Arnold Palmer, unexpectedly, thought it a possible vehicle for world peace. Golf for him was a universal language brimming with the forging of new friendships and with deep and ancient traditions of honour, respect and personal accountability.
Eric Trump, the president’s son, thinks so, too. In a New York Times interview, he praised his father’s unusual capacity to make connections on a golf course, with Mar-a-Lago being the perfect venue for world diplomacy.
“If he could do that with Putin,” he said, “if he could do that with some of these horrible actors around the world who only want to compromise us as a country, and if he can make friends and they can trust one another, he just did something that not many presidents have been able to do.”
President Trump has already played a round with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe. (Abe presented Trump with a $3,755 gold driver when he became president.) Golf is long established in Japan and Abe’s grandfather played with Eisenhower. But China’s Xi-Jinping came and went without lifting a club. Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu pointedly counted himself out from golf during a press conference with Obama. Could you entice karate black belt and bare-chested horse rider Vladimir Putin into plaid pants and tassled shoes?
Politicians can be wary of golf. “Photograph me on horseback? Yes,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt in 1908. “Tennis, no. And golf is fatal.” It’s the frivolousness of it, the look of a childish pastime played by posh boys who know nothing of the world. Roosevelt’s contrast with being on horseback is revealing. He might have thought golf not only insufficiently serious but also insufficiently masculine. The clothes work against you.
George W Bush could look manly in jeans and a Stetson clearing wood on his ranch, but the famous clip of him exhorting the world to stand up to terrorism, then declaring “now watch this drive” before striding to the tee, did him a lot of harm. Michael Moore put it in Fahrenheit 9/11. Bush soon stopped playing golf, or at least being seen to do so, as he didn’t think it fitted with his role as commander-in-chief after the invasion of Iraq.
Even Trump, named “golfer-in-chief” by Golf Digest, repeatedly castigated his predecessor for “playing more golf than Tiger Woods”. “I’m going to be working for you,” he told Virginians during the campaign. “I’m not going to have time to play golf.” (According to the New York Times, he has visited a golf course 19 times in the past 13 weeks, compared with Bush Jr’s and Obama’s zero and Clinton’s three over the same period of their presidencies; this is around double the rate of Obama’s tally of just over 300 rounds over two terms.
Only one of Trump’s golf outings appears to have involved “international diplomacy”. It’s an ensnaring game. In China it’s been called “green opium”. Trump as president has a rhythm of life continuity with Trump as businessman: weekdays at the city office, weekends at Mar-a-Lago and his nearby Jim Fazio-designed course at West Palm Beach, one of the state’s best.)
There is a term in golf known as “the clerical 12”. It refers to a handicap of above-average proficiency, not so high as to be risible, but not so low as to indicate too much time spent away from the flock. It is a handicap meant for public consumption. Most declared US presidential handicaps have been of the clerical kind – Reagan, Nixon and Ford, 12; George W, Clinton and Kennedy, 10. All but four US presidents since the beginning of the 20th century golfed. Woodrow Wilson played more than 1,000 rounds, playing almost every day, and even, like Kipling, in the snow, using balls painted black.
The usual public explanation given for presidents taking to a golf course for numerous hours is their need for “relief from stress”. (This seems to me to be like betting on junk bonds, hang gliding or writing novels to relieve stress, though it is true there are those who take their golf easy.)
Trump or his son, or White House press secretary Sean Spicer, are innovators in their focus on golf as an arena for international diplomacy. Golf has certainly been associated with deal-making. It originally spread globally through Scots soldiers wishing to play their favourite game but, once established, the golf club tended to comprise the aspiring or established local elites. You could get on in business by joining.
They are like Masonic lodges in their concentration of economic and political power. There are several in England that are simply extensions of public school, where men can gather without women, eat the same food and call each other by the same nicknames as they did at school, while at the same time settling the interest rate or the privatisation of the rail service.
In Japan, golf became a ritualistic expression of corporate loyalty. There are some precedents for political deal-making by US presidents. Obama played with John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, in the hope of lifting deadlock, and Lyndon Johnson did the same with senators to get his civil rights legislation passed. Condoleezza Rice, now a member of the venerable Augusta National club, thinks golf useful for diplomacy, but only because it teaches patience and the acceptance of setbacks.
Can geopolitical deals be made on a golf course? There are obstacles. You have about four hours on the course together, but, even if the two global players are riding together in a buggy with an interpreter hanging on at the back, there are the constant interruptions of club selection, scorekeeping and searches for errant balls. But then there is the drink or lunch afterwards, and by this time humour has likely been exchanged, foibles and skills exposed, partners rooted for and opponents congratulated.
Golf would seem to have a near-magical ability to bring highly diverse people on to common ground. It does the same work as empathy without the need for an empathetic nature. There is something inherently disarming about it. Trump is said to excel at being good company on a golf course. He’s generous, affable, solicitous and hospitable. He’s usually the host, playing at a course he owns, and wants his guest to have a good time.
“Golf bears down on you and illuminates character,” Arnold Palmer said. “There’s the expression in vino, veritas, and certainly golf, like alcohol, can bring out the true person that may otherwise be hidden.”
What does golf reveal about Trump?
He is likely to be the most skilful player of all US presidents, at least while in office. (Kennedy might have given him a run for it but for a bad back, and Franklin D Roosevelt won his club championship at 17, but was struck down by polio.)
You can watch Trump swing on YouTube. There is something about it of the elephant in a tutu trying to exercise a pirouette. He lurches back on a severely flat plane so that he is out of position at the top of his backswing, but then, through some innate athleticism, is able to clear the hips and make a long and effective extension through impact. He is said to have won 19 club championships and to possess a handicap of 2.8, which is seriously good – and also unlikely.
There have been no signed scorecards submitted since 2014, and even those that were show several rounds in the mid-80s. Rory McIlroy, following a round with him, would only say he was “a decent player for a guy in his 70s” and that he had shot “around 80”. There have been eccentric swings by good players – Jim Furyk’s multiple parts and flying elbow, Eamonn D’Arcy’s helicopter taking off – but they played every day. There would seem to be something wilfully delusional about the 2.8, like saying he is the leader of the greatest political movement his country has ever seen.
Trump takes pains to remind people how good at golf he is. In February, he interrupted a large meeting of CEOs to ask General Electric’s Jeff Immelt to tell everybody about the hole-in-one he made, immediately after claiming: “I’m the best golfer of all the rich people.”
They all laughed and applauded. Trump took it in. “It’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. Unsolicited, he lists his club championships. He tweets about who he is playing with and who he can beat. All golfers have played with braggarts. It doesn’t go well. It’s boring, it’s obnoxious. It creates a malodorous air. It’s like bragging about sex. No one wants to hear about it.
Golf is the most existentialist of games. It turns on the same principles – the free act, the assumption of responsibility. Wherever you hit it, you put it there. You must play it as it lies and give an honest account. Without that, you are in bad faith, and the game becomes absurd because you have deprived it of its meaning. “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and plays his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well,” wrote PG Wodehouse. Trump seems to concur.
“When you play golf with someone, you learn their honesty, you learn their competitiveness,” he has said. Several of these playing companions have given reports of the experience. Samuel L Jackson says that Trump cheats. Sports Illustrated’s Mark Mulvoy and the boxer Oscar de la Hoya spoke of balls that had been in shrubs miraculously appearing in the fairway or close to the hole with no strokes added.
The sportswriter Rick Reilly said Trump gave himself not only putts but chip shots and that, on a cheating scale of one to 10, Trump would be an 11. When asked who the worst celebrity golf cheat was, Alice Cooper replied: “I played with Donald Trump one time. That’s all I’m going to say.” Trump tends to respond by denigrating the accuser or saying he doesn’t know them or that he doesn’t cheat because he’s so good he doesn’t need to. It’s a serious charge for a golfer. An English club player once bankrupted himself with legal fees trying to sue a fellow member who accused him of cheating.
It’s a strangely self-defeating activity. A hustler might cheat to win a bet, but without a financial motive it’s simply about winning on false pretences. “Cheating at golf,” as the late “Champagne” Tony Lema said, “is like cheating at solitaire. You only cheat yourself.”
What, then, would Putin learn from a round of golf with Trump? Perhaps that Trump is surprisingly convivial and generous, and that you can have a good time with him. But, if he heard the club championship list, saw balls dropped on to greens or was given phoney scores, he would also see someone of colossal insecurities and needs, who has to bathe in glories of his own invention in order to face the world, like an ageing mascara’d roué repeating before a mirror: “Look at me. I am Adonis.”
Putin may not need the game of golf. He has said that one of the benefits of martial arts is the training it gives in assessing an opponent’s weakness. He may have seen these weaknesses long ago. Waclaw Radziwinowicz, former Moscow correspondent of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, has written that Russia wished for (and perhaps abetted) Trump’s victory not so that Trump would be nice to them, but because his unpreparedness, illogicality and emotional instability would make the US weak.
Trump has said that the single most valuable piece of golf advice he had encountered was Ben Hogan’s insistence on the importance of clearing the hips out of the way on the downswing. I had heard this myself. “Golf is all about getting out of the way,” a painter and very good golfer once said to me. True in golf, I thought, and in art and life.
But can a man who tweets against his enemies in the middle of the night, who starts each day by reading about himself, who boasts of achievements he has not accomplished, whose consciousness would seem to be so loud and his needs so heavy, ever get sufficiently out of his own way?
Golf is widely declaimed as elitist. Donald Trump has done his part in making this impression. He builds golf courses for the elite, prosecutes people who stand in their way and expresses his disgust for wind farms that spoil the view from his courses in Scotland.
“They’re working so hard,” he has said, “to make golf a game of the people. They’re cheapening it. I think golf should be a game that people aspire to through success.” But that’s not how it started. Golf originated on what was then the cheapest land, the dunes by the sea. Sheep were the original greenskeepers. The Duke of York, later James II of England, played a money match against two English noblemen with a poor shoemaker named John Patersone as his partner. Fishwives played in a competition in Musselburgh in 1810.
Country clubs give golf a bad name just as established churches sometimes do to human spirituality. Golf is, in essence, the most democratic of games. The old and infirm can compete on equal footing with a pro through the handicap system. Public courses, at least in the English-speaking world, make golf affordable to almost anyone.
The postman on a bus with his clubs in Glasgow is equal to Trump as a citizen of the golf world. Even Che Guevara played. I have met a far wider variety of people through golf than through any other activity, including going to pubs. But I have not confined myself to courses with the name Trump in front of them. Perhaps he should get out and about more.