The Sport of Plutocrats
Golf Is Trump
By Robert Lipsyte
While waiting for Trump to jump the tracks, let’s savor the day when his inevitable train wreck first passed through a critical safety switch. On June 9th, President Trump alienated his true base -- the reactionary rich -- by driving his golf cart onto the green at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. In doing so, he committed an unpardonable sacrilege in the high church of capitalism. It was time to start counting the days until he dropped off the scoreboard.
For successful greedheads and their wannabes, golf is the most sacred of sports, the symbol of all that is retrograde and exclusionary in American life. There’s far more to golf, however, than mere inequality or a history of institutional racism and sexism. Golf is also a waste of space and water, and a sinkhole for chemicals poisoning the local aquifer. Think of all the organic vegetables that could be grown on those swards or the walking trails and wildlife sanctuaries that could be established. Think of the affordable housing that could be built on that land. There has to be a better use for the millions of dollars that will be squandered this year on overpriced golf duds and equipment, lessons, playing fees, and memberships in the latest trendy clubs (that these days often have you-know-who’s name on them in large golden letters).
Golf is marketed as a test of character -- especially of those business school values of focus, perseverance, and self-improvement. A golf course is laid out as a hero’s journey. You strike out from the tees (usually at different distances from the hole for men and women) onto a long carpet called a “fairway” that winds among natural “hazards” to be avoided: small ponds, sand traps, patches of undergrowth representing the oceans, deserts, and jungles that must be colonized or conquered on your 18-hole journey to capitalistic triumph. (Golf nomenclature, including “par” and “lie,” which is where the ball comes to rest after a shot, is too vulnerable to mockery to be addressed here.)
The fairway, of course, leads to the green, a small, manicured area that contains the hole, the winner’s circle, the C-suite, the gated community, the Oval Office. It was onto such a green that Trump drove his cart -- he looks to be in no shape to walk the course -- and that is not only considered a moral crime in the world of golf, but an obvious defacement of grass meticulously preserved so a competent player can “read the green” and plan his or her final putts.
Trump is unquestionably a competent golfer, way better than average. He’s also an avid golfer and has, in the past, enjoyed the rarified company of such criminal media celebrities as O.J. Simpson and Bernie Madoff. As the Juice’s successful parole hearing was coming up recently, the former football hero told a friend, “We’ll be playing golf again soon.” Possibly as soon as October O.J. may be back home in Florida, maybe even golfing at Mar-a-Lago. (He was, after all, a guest at Trump’s wedding to Marla Maples.)
As for Madoff, long before his Ponzi scheme was busted, he was known for his oddly consistent, too-good-to-be-true golf scores. Trump, who knew Madoff from Palm Beach, crowed about refusing to invest with him and later called him “a scoundrel without par.” It takes one...
To understand golf is to understand Trump. He uses golf as a social lubricant for business, which is its most important function in American culture. Since it operates on the honor system, golf is convenient for lying cheats. As the joke goes, the difference between boastful golfers and fishermen is that golfers don’t have to produce proof. Golf jokes, invariably evoking sex or religion, are a staple of stale pale-male humor. The locker-room quip for which “golf” is an acronym -- “gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” -- may no longer be totally accurate but it certainly captures the sensibility of the game. And as a perfect complement to Trump’s own relentless boasts about his wealth, the most popular ranking of professional golfers has always been “the money list.” There are no batting averages in golf. It’s all about prize money and endorsement fees.
Trump is more than a golfer. He owns and operates golf courses. The Trump Golf website lists 18 “iconic” ones in “the world of Trump Golf,” stretching from upstate New York to Dubai. And yet none of the domestic ones even made the list of Golf Digest’s 100 top American courses. Despite widespread protests last year about his 2005 pussy-grabbing remarks, the U.S. Women’s Open was held this July at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, course, also the site of his green desecration. Only recently was it revealed that The Donald had threatened to sue the United States Golf Association if it dared move the event as some in the Ladies Professional Golf Association had evidently suggested.
For him, golf isn’t just a sideline presidential activity, it’s central to his plutocratic vision of his presidency and of the promoting of the Trump brand (clearly synonymous in his mind). His golf courses, after all, are considered a critical part of his family’s revenue stream, although typically, actual financial information on them is scanty and may eventually reveal less profit than he claims.
Recent American presidents have certainly sought out fortunes after their time in office, but Trump is certainly our first president to promote his fortune so centrally while there. He has, for instance, reportedly spent 21% of his presidential time at one or another of his golf clubs, making himself a living billboard for the brand and the business. (As he took office, the fee to join his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida doubled to $200,000.) And it’s a business that desperately needs a presidential gold seal of approval. The golf industry hit its financial high mark in 2003, and its numbers -- golf courses, players, profits -- have sagged ever since. In response, there has been a concerted effort to speed up the game for distracted millennials and to make it friendlier to women and children, while cutting costs by vigorously fighting property assessments and other tax regulations.
No wonder one of Trump’s early executive orders not only attempted to reverse Obama’s environmental progress in general but, as the Associated Press noted, called “for a review of a rule protecting small bodies of water from pollution and development,” which was “strongly supported by golf course owners who are wary of being forced into expensive cleanups on their fairways.” It seems that no future hazard is too small for our golfing president to avoid.
Duffers in Chief
Actually, it may be through golf that Trump has scored his most significant victory so far in dismantling the Obama legacy. After all, during his first six months in office he’s probably managed to play golf far more often than his predecessor, whom he criticized repeatedly on the campaign trail for his time on the course. (Precise comparable statistics are unavailable because Trump aides have been secretive about his golfing schedule.) As it happens, there’s hardly been a president since William Taft who didn’t hit the links. So let’s give Trump this: his golfing may be the most presidential, possibly the only presidential, thing he’s done so far.
Since Taft, who was criticized not only for playing badly but for playing while fat (a kind of shaming now tolerated only for Trump’s sometime pal, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie), golf has been the presidential sport of choice. Dwight Eisenhower, a good golfer, gave the game a boost when he had a putting green installed alongside the White House in 1954.
An expert on the subject, ESPN investigative reporter Don Van Natta, Jr., wrote in his 2003 book, First Off the Tee, that, despite his bad back, John F. Kennedy was the best presidential golfer. Kennedy, however, felt he had to sneak off to play because, while campaigning, he had relentlessly derided Ike for golfing too much, calling him “the Duffer-in-Chief.” (Sound familiar?) In the end, Kennedy had to own up to his golfing habit, given rumors that his unexplained absences were not due to playing a round, but playing around.
Bill Clinton tops the “hail to the cheats” section of Van Natta’s book, with Richard Nixon, Warren Harding, and Lyndon Johnson trailing behind. Having played with Clinton and granted him many “Billigans” (that is, “mulligans,” or replays of bad shots with no penalties), Van Natta wrote: "He followed the rules for about a hole and a half. Then he let down his guard and started taking these do-over shots, gimme putts and, at the end of the 18 holes, it took him about 200 swings to score an 82."
Soon after the 2016 election, Golf Digest anointed Trump the all-time top presidential golfer, citing his low handicap and passion for the game. While still a college junior, he began playing at a public course near Philadelphia that he claimed was teeming with “more hustlers than any place I’ve seen to this day.” By his account, he learned a lot about gambling from golf, thinks of the sport as “aspirational,” and considers it a mistake to try to sell it as an everyman’s game. After all, people should be trying harder to get rich in order to join great golf clubs like his and earn their way onto the course and into the proud sport of the one-percenters.
Arnold (“The King”) and Tiger (“The Chosen One”)
The creation myths of golf are murky, but it seems that the modern game took root and was codified in Scotland by the seventeenth century. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, however, that it became a fixture in American sports. By the Depression, there were more than 1,000 golf clubs in the country and one of the reigning sports superstars of the Roaring Twenties was Bobby Jones, a lawyer revered by the media and the masses both for being a southern gentleman and an amateur in a SportsWorld that was increasingly turning pro. Jones founded and helped design the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia and its most famous event, the Masters Tournament, which became the High Holy Days of the Church of Golf.
That club managed to keep black golfers off its course until 1975 when Lee Elder qualified for the Masters and had to be allowed to play. (That was the year the Justice Department and the Trump family business -- of which The Donald was by then president -- settled a lawsuit over discrimination in its New York rental properties.) There would be no black members at the Augusta club until 1990 and no women members until 2012 when former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited in.
That was ten years after a feminist activist, Martha Burke, called the male-only policy “sexist.” At the time, club chairman William “Hootie” Johnson declared that the “moral and legal rights” of a private club trumped any concerns over sexism and civil rights. In the controversy that followed, CBS broadcast the 2003 and 2004 tournaments without commercials. The Masters was that important to the network and Augusta was that rich. The sport of plutocrats indeed.
By that time, Tiger Woods, “the Chosen One,” had replaced Arnold Palmer, “the King,” as the TV presence who would make golf great again. In the 1950s and 1960s, Palmer, the handsome, charming son of a Pennsylvania golf club groundskeeper, was the leading man in the process of making golf spectatorship, if not actual participation, a national phenomenon. Palmer, who died last September, was present in 2015, along with The Donald, daughter Ivanka, and son Eric, for the unveiling of the Arnold Palmer Villa, one of eight deluxe guestrooms at the Trump National Doral Miami.
Palmer had by then long been replaced as America’s favorite golfer by Woods, the mixed-race son of an Army colonel who groomed him for his golfing future from tot-hood. Tiger was, arguably, the best golfer ever as well as one of the greatest product endorsers in all of sports. As surly as Palmer was convivial, he was protected by the golf and sports media, being its bread-and-butter, until his post-2009 decline, which seemed to be as much about a lifetime of emotional constriction and overload as his tawdry infidelity, one-car crash, divorce, and bad back.
That didn’t stop Trump from inviting him for an extended visit. Last December, at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, Tiger played a round with the President-elect, writing on his blog, “What most impressed me was how far he hits the ball at 70 years old. He takes a pretty good lash. Our discussion topics were wide-ranging; it was fun. We both enjoyed the bantering, bickering, and needling.”
Trump is reportedly an accomplished on-course trash talker, who likes to mock his male golfing partners by telling them that they should be hitting from the women’s tees. Luckily for Tiger, with all his other problems, he’s not working on any Trump golf courses, where contractors are still getting stiffed. Just recently, a South Florida judge ordered Trump Endeavor, one of his Florida corporations, to pay a Miami paint store $282,950 for work done two years ago on that Doral course with its Arnold Palmer Villa. Trump had held back payment of $34,863 on a $200,000 job. Penalties add up. (Trump should, in fact, be credited for his lifelong efforts to increase American inequality, not just via the game of golf, but by stiffing, or underpaying, every kind of worker he’s ever hired -- from waiters, bartenders, and small businesspeople to undocumented laborers.)
Meanwhile, we await the Trump train wreck, an inevitable outcome of the president’s rich-boy sense of entitlement, his jock culture need for domination, and the sad (Sad!) reality of his incompetence as a human being.
Poor Donald. Evidently nobody told him that no man can drive onto the greens, not even the plutocrat who owns them. It’s part of the DNA of the reactionary rich. So he jumped the shark, screwed the pooch. The customs of golf, like the practices of any gaudy, useless, swollen sect, are all that hold it together.
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Copyright 2017 Robert Lipsyte