Golf lessons by Trump

By: David Owen

Five years ago, I spent most of a day with Donald Trump, at one of the many golf courses he owns, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (The names of Trump’s courses all begin with “Trump,” so to keep them straight you have to refer to them by location.) At the time, Trump wasn’t even a joke Presidential candidate, so there was no ominous music playing in the background, foreshadowing the tragedy to come. I was working on an article about him for Golf Digest, and the main focus was a course of his that was about to open on the east coast of Scotland, near Aberdeen. Trump owns or manages seventeen courses, including two in Scotland, one in Ireland, and one in the Bronx, and most of them are highly regarded—and not only by him. They also appear to be more successful, as businesses and investments, than many of his other businesses and investments, especially the casinos and his so-called university.

The reason for this may be that golf is a subject Trump actually knows something about. He’s a good player, and, even without adjusting for his age, he’s probably the best of the many golfers who have been President of the United States. His closest rival, according to a ranking that Golf Digest put together several years ago, would have been John F. Kennedy, who not only looked and dressed the part but also played quite well, despite his horrendous back problems. No other President would have had much of a chance in a match against him—including Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the most avid golfer ever to be President, and whom Golf Digest ranked just behind J.F.K. (Eisenhower had a practice green built on the White House lawn and left spike marks on the floor of the Oval Office, but he had putting issues and a bum knee; during his second Presidential campaign, there was a bumper sticker that said, “Ben Hogan for President. If We’re Going to Have a Golfer, Let’s Have a Good One.”) Back in 2012, Mitt Romney promised that, if elected, he would not play golf while in office, unlike that slacker Barack Obama, but George W. Bush (No. 6 among golf-playing Presidents, one spot below his father) defended Obama. Eisenhower would have defended him, too. He believed that Presidents, especially, need access to forms of recreation that provide temporary sanctuary from the extraordinary pressures of the office, and golf is certainly one of those. In fact, if Trump could be persuaded to spend his entire term playing golf, we might all be better off.


“So, I do it for fun,” Trump told me over lunch, as we discussed his courses. “It’s become a very successful business, because of the level of quality. When other clubs are empty, everybody wants to join here. And by ‘here’ I mean all of my clubs. Every one of them works, and works really well.” Trump’s main topics are money and himself—maybe his only topics. (He described the club’s location to me as “the richest place anywhere on the planet, in terms of, you know, wealth.”) “I turn down ten for every one I buy,” he said. “I will buy one only if it has the potential to be the best. I’m not interested in having a nine.” He flipped through a pile of photographs of his courses. “This is Bedminster, New Jersey—one of the richest places in the country. . . . This is a better course than Pine Valley, and the Pine Valley people say that. Two of them came over to me and said, ‘Mr. Trump, this is better than Pine Valley, but please don’t ever quote me.’ . . . This one blows away Congressional like nobody ever blew it away. They say it’s not even a contest. . . . This is the most incredible piece of land in the country, right here. . . . This is ten minutes from the Beverly Hills Hotel. . . . There is no place like this. People that truly cannot stand Donald Trump are saying it’s the greatest course ever built.”

After lunch, Trump and I played eighteen holes, accompanied by a bodyguard and John Nieporte, the club’s head professional. A friend asked me later whether Trump wasn’t “in on the joke” of his public persona, and I said that, as far as I could tell, the Trump we were used to seeing on television was the honest-to-god authentic Trump: a ten-year-old boy who, for unknown reasons, had been given a real airplane and a billion dollars. In other words, a fun guy to hang around with. As Tiger Woods observed recently, after also playing golf with him, Trump hits the ball a long way for a seventy-year-old. (He certainly outdrove me.) He’s also a good ball-striker and a terrific putter, despite employing a putting technique that, Nieporte told me, is so idiosyncratic that he wouldn’t dare either to change it or to teach it to anyone else. At the end of the round, Trump and I posed together for a photograph in front of the signature design feature of several of his courses: an enormous man-made waterfall, the outdoor equivalent of the huge fake-gold chandeliers and “French” furniture that he also has a weakness for.


Golf publications periodically rate golf courses—the hundred best in the world, the hundred best in the country, the dozen best in each state—and Trump’s relationship with such ratings is complex. He complained to me that golf publications never rank his courses high enough, because the people who do the rating hold a grudge against him, but he also said that he never allows raters to play his courses, because they would just get in the way of the members. “I think we’d have a revolt with our membership,” he explained. “Because, unlike other clubs, every one of my membership lists is perfect. And when you start adding hundreds of raters who want to play golf . . .” Nevertheless, when someone from a golf publication does write something positive, after somehow having managed to slip past the perimeter, Trump quotes it endlessly (and, inevitably, magnifies it).

In my own article, I did write nice things about Trump’s courses. But Trump, nevertheless, was upset. He called the editor of Golf Digest to complain, and then he called me, on my cell phone. I was in the city on a reporting assignment unrelated to golf, and had the surreal experience of being chewed out by a future President of the United States while standing among the gravestones in the burial ground next to Trinity Church. He wasn’t upset that one of the article’s illustrations had been of a golf ball wearing a turf toupee that looked a lot like his deeply mysterious hair, or that I’d mentioned his asking two little girls at Mar-a-Lago if they wanted to be supermodels when they grew up, or that I’d described nearly tipping him five dollars after momentarily mistaking him for his club’s parking-lot attendant, or that I’d written that he’d introduced one of his club’s members to me not by name but as “the richest guy in Germany.” He was upset that I hadn’t written that he’d shot 71—a very good golf score, one stroke under par.

I hadn’t written that because he hadn’t shot 71. We hadn’t been playing for score, and we had given each other putts and taken other friendly liberties—as golfers inevitably do when they’re just fooling around. I said something to that effect in the politest way I could think of, but he wasn’t mollified. He was also angry that I’d described his wedge game as “poor.” (On several occasions, he’d had trouble with shots inside a hundred yards, both during our round and on the practice range beforehand.) I reminded him that I had mainly written very flattering things about his golf game, and that I’d mentioned his victories in three club championships and had quoted praise from his caddie and his pro (“You have a very nice bicycle, Donald, even if it’s not as nice as your friend’s”). But none of that made any difference. He wanted the number, and the fact that I hadn’t published the number proved that I was just like all the other biased reporters, who, because we’re all part of the anti-Trump media conspiracy, never give him as much credit as he deserves for being awesome. Such is his now familiar habit of acting like a sore loser even when he’s won.

People sometimes ask me whether Trump cheats at golf. I’ve heard stories that suggest, let’s say, that he takes liberties Bobby Jones would never have taken, but I don’t think “cheating” is an accurate description of anything he did during the round we played together, just as I don’t think “lying” is an accurate description of what he does when he gives a speech or answers questions at a press conference. In Trump’s own mind, I suspect, he really did shoot 71 that day, if not (by now) 69. Trump’s world is a parallel universe in which truth takes many forms, none of them necessarily based on reality. And we’d all better get used to his way of thinking, because for the next four years we’re going to be living in that universe, too.


Related Articles

Stay Connected


Latest Articles