It’s too late for golf to wash its hands of Donald Trump – his fingerprints are all over the sport

Tom Kershaw
·5-min read
<p>Donald Trump speaks during the trophy presentation of the Presidents Cup in 2017</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump speaks during the trophy presentation of the Presidents Cup in 2017

(AFP via Getty Images)

Only after the violence had ceased and the chaos receded into grief did golf finally muster the courage to publicly divorce itself from Donald Trump. The sport that was once famously the president’s sanctuary is belatedly seeking to erase his image in the wake of the Capitol riots, effectively barring Trump courses from hosting major championships.

It is a commendable decision - and one which will sting Trump deeply despite the nest of thorns he already sits within. But, for far too long, golf tip-toed around the fires of Trump’s incendiary nature while many of its most recognisable players stopped to fawn over him. The decision to strip Trump of the 2022 PGA Championship is, at this point, another stake in the coffin. It might have been a bold statement, if only it had been taken sooner.

The trouble is, before Trump’s presence within golf became insidious, it was rather popular. In the US, the sport is so unequivocally right-leaning it might as well be dragging its shoulder through the rough. Bryson DeChambeau, whose support for Trump stretches not too far short of his obscene drives, celebrated his US Open victory last year with the president’s son, Eric. According to its most successful player, Jack Nicklaus, Trump “loves the game of golf more than he loves money”. Financial records would suggest that to be true, and Trump’s infatuation has been well requited.

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Its origins stretch back as far as 2001, when Trump’s courses began hosting the LPGA Tour season finale and he later befriended two of its most prominent players, Christie Kerr and Natalie Gulbis, who was appointed to Trump’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition in 2018. After purchasing Doral, a distinguished course in Miami, Trump then hosted the PGA Tour’s WGC-Cadillac Championship from 2007 to 2016, where Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were among those to cut ribbons outside villas named in their honour. Golf was never just a means of business for Trump, it was a method of belonging with his idols.

Tiger Woods is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Donald TrumpAFP via Getty Images
Tiger Woods is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Donald TrumpAFP via Getty Images

So it was no great surprise when Trump’s relentless wooing and investment was rewarded with what he craved most: a major championship. “I might be an old man being wheeled around or even dead,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2011, “but it’ll happen.” The 2017 Women’s US Open and later the 2022 USPGA Championship were awarded to Bedminster - the crown jewel of his golfing empire - before he had announced his intention to run for president. Trump had never been more closely entwined and enamoured with the sport and, while the vitriol of his campaign trail was realised, he remained difficult to dislodge.

It is hard to escape a force of gravity so great as Trump’s. Golf has, in its defence, albeit without proper conviction, made attempts. After Trump referred to Mexicans as “rapists”, an unprecedented statement was released by golf’s governing bodies deploring the remark and the PGA of America pulled its Grand Slam of Golf event from Trump National in Los Angeles. In 2017, after Trump was inaugurated, the WGC tournament was moved from Doral, without a small amount of irony, over the invisible wall and into Mexico, prompting Trump to claim he hoped there was “kidnapping insurance”.

Still, though, Tim Finchem, then the PGA Tour’s commissioner, refused to wade too deeply into the fray. “From a golf standpoint, we have no issues with Donald Trump,” he said. “From a political standpoint, we are neutral.” Finchem, who served in the White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, a rare Democrat in a sea of Republicans, knew not to upset the tide.

When it came to the Women’s US Open, there was no such intervention. The logistical nightmare of a late change in venue was cited as a reason, but over two years separated the major from Trump’s infamous speech announcing his presidential run. The world’s best players, some of whom had been alienated and offended by Trump’s overly sexist comments, were drawn into a circus of silent outrage, unwilling to speak out as others expressed their support. Protestors lined the street as the president spent two-and-a-half days in ubiquitous attendance, savouring a political relations coup. He was oblivious to those dissenting voices and, in a sense, golf had been too.

Protestors attend the US Women’s Open at Bedminster in 2017AFP via Getty Images
Protestors attend the US Women’s Open at Bedminster in 2017AFP via Getty Images

It is often difficult for those at the eye of a storm to realise the impact it’s having on their surroundings. During his term, Trump was not just an awkward presence within golf, he became synonymous with it. It was a personal and professional escape, and he spent it with the very best players - Woods, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, even Rory McIlroy. While other sports took stands, golf continued to avert its gaze long after it became clear that Trump’s association was having a “detrimental” effect on its “brand” - the reason the PGA of America cited for relieving Bedminster of its major.

But this was no latent realisation, even in the aftermath of such a harrowing event in Washington D.C. Golf waited until the very end of Trump’s term to urgently revoke what he has long symbolised. In doing so, it normalised him. In fact, as Player and Annika Sorenstam - two of the greatest living players in history - accepted their Presidential Medals of Freedom less than 24 hours after the riots, it endorsed him.

Golf’s marriage with Trump has been sustained by convenience, complacency, and undue support. It has come at the cost of its character. If only it had moved to disown him earlier, Monday’s resolve might have carried a weight of importance rather than an inevitability.