Rick Reilly’s latest book is Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, from which this essay is adapted.
Arnold Palmer never did a business deal with someone unless he’d played 18 holes of golf with him first. “It’s four hours,” he once told me, “so sooner or later, you’re going to find out who he is.”
So what can playing a round of golf with Donald Trump tell you about him?
Enough to melt your putter.
You’ll find out three things: 1) Donald Trump always plays very fast; 2) You’ll have a lot of fun; 3) Donald Trump will win.
He’ll cheat to win. Mr. Trump kicks the ball out of the rough so often that the caddies at Winged Foot Country Club in New York have a nickname for him: “Pele.” It’s easy for Mr. Trump to cheat because, so far, as President, he’s only played on his private courses, with his own caddies, and not once with a Democratic congressperson. He doesn’t putt out from six feet or less. But you do. He gets floating mulligans, a “presidential privilege,” as he says. But you don’t. His caddies throw the ball out of the rough and slip them out of ponds back onto the fairway for him. But yours won’t.
This is a man who carries a can of red spray paint in his golf cart at Trump Bedminster. “If he gets behind a tree he doesn’t like, he sprays a big X on it,” one Bedminster caddy told me. “The next day? Poof. The tree is gone!”
He’ll twist the truth into a Krazy Straw to win. Former PGA star Brad Faxon remembers playing with Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson at Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla., when Mr. Trump hit two balls into the water. And yet, when they got to the green, Mr. Trump announced he was putting for a net birdie. You either agree or get audited the rest of your life.
He’ll lie to win. During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly bragged about the “18 club championships” he’s won as proof of why you should vote for him. “You know, I’ve won 18 club championships,” he said half a dozen times during campaign stops. “I’m a winner.”
The only problem is he’d already told me years ago how he did it. Whenever he opens a new golf course – he owns and/or operates 19 of them – he plays the first round by himself and declares that the first club championship. Voila! Somebody buy me a trophy!
Mr. Trump can turn any golf situation into a win. When he was standing on the porch at Trump Turnberry in Scotland this summer, a Greenpeace activist flew alarmingly close to him, with a banner that read: “Trump: Well Below Par.” The Secret Service hustled the President inside. Tim Size, of St. Louis, was standing there and heard the following …
Mr. Trump: “What’d the banner say?”
Melania Trump: “Well below par.”
Mr. Trump: “Beautiful! I want to be below par!”
(Greenpeace protesters do not play a lot of golf.)
Don’t get me wrong. As a tycoon who owns and/or operates 19 golf courses around the world, he knows golf. He’s not a bad player. If he played honestly, he might win his fair share. He’s got a big hip turn and wallops the driver, but he can’t chip to save his life. He will actually chip away from the green sometimes in order to avoid bunkers. If he gets in one, plenty of people have seen him just throw it out, saving him the trouble.
But when it comes to golf, Mr. Trump does very little honestly.
Take, for instance, his handicap. As with any number in his life (crowd sizes, height of his buildings, net worth), Mr. Trump’s handicap gets what I call the Trump Bump. For instance, his handicap is listed as 2.8 (you can look it up on GHIN.com), but every pro partner he’s had that I talked to says he’s not really close to that good. ”I’d say he’s a 10,” says Brad Faxon. The lowest handicap any pro gave him was an 8. So how does he get 2.8? By only putting in his best scores. In the past eight years, Mr. Trump has only entered 20 scores. This from a guy who played an estimated 66 times last year alone.
Take, for instance, the rankings of his golf courses. Mr. Trump was once asked to rank the 10 best courses in the United States. He listed five of his own. But this year’s Golf Digest rankings are out and not a single Trump course is in the top 150.
Take, for instance, the value of his courses. He once estimated every course he owned at US$50-million, a lie so fat it could float in the Macy’s parade. But if that’s true why are his lawyers currently protesting the worth of his Trump Westchester course to the tax board of Ossining, N.Y. The board assessed it at US$11-million. Mr. Trump’s lawyers say it’s worth US$1.8-million. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a US$48.2-million lie.
What’s all this got to do with Mr. Trump as President, you ask? Everything.
As Mr. Palmer said, if a man will cheat on the course, why wouldn’t he cheat in his marriage or on his taxes or to win an election? If a president will lie about his golf businesses, why wouldn’t he lie about his lawyers, his politics or his dealings with Russia?
Sometimes, when Mr. Trump cheats to win at golf, it’s so outlandish all you can do is laugh. NBC sports announcer Mike Tirico lost to Mr. Trump one day when Mr. Trump secretly kicked Mr. Tirico’s pin-hugging ball into a bunker. What did Mr. Tirico do? He smiled and paid up.
But outside the gates of his private clubs, people will actually stand up to you on things like lies and walls and caging kids at the border. Mr. Trump can’t win in world politics like he wins at golf for one good reason – he doesn’t own the course.
I know, I’m just a sportswriter. Stick to sports, they say. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Golf is a game that means something to me. My whole family plays the game. We have a yearly family tournament – the Reilly Roundup – and we all wear a yellow golf shirt just like the one we buried my father in.
In golf, we call our own penalties on ourselves. In golf, we turn in every score, high or low. In golf, we would eat our sand wedge before we bragged about tournaments we never won.
I’m not as offended by Mr. Trump as a voter as I am as a golfer. This is a game of honour. No man should be able to treat the game this way, not even the president of the United States.
Especially not the president of the United States.
Can’t somebody persuade him to go back to tennis?