Will Professional Golf Give Trump Days of Good Press?

The WGC Cadillac Championship heads to the Trump Doral Resort in Florida this week—just days before the Sunshine State primary. Why did the PGA Tour let this happen?

02.29.16 5:01 AM ET

Everybody now seems to think that it’s all going to come down to Florida on the Republican side. Ted Cruz may win Texas and another state or two on Super Tuesday, and Marco Rubio might win Minnesota, which is dark blue and has about as much significance as Hillary Clinton winning Alabama. Nope, the wise people all say—Rubio has to beat Trump in Florida on March 15. If he does, he shows some potential, some staying power. If he doesn’t, he’ll have to get out.

Trump leads in Florida now by an average of 20 points. And he might be about to get four days of free publicity of the sort typical candidates can barely dream of.

What am I talking about? The WGC Cadillac Championship, which is a pretty important stop on the PGA Tour and tees off this Thursday. It’s being played in Florida. In Miami, to be precise. At the famous Blue Monster course. At the Trump Doral Resort.

Now if you watch any golf, you know that the tournament sponsor, whether the CEO of, say, the Bridgestone Corp., or the course owner if he happens to be a celebrity himself, parades around like a king for four days. He gladhands the players, some of the most famous athletes in the world (Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth). He hugs their hot wives. He is interviewed on network TV more than once, and he gets to talk about nice things like his love of the game, the care he’s personally taken in seeing to it that the course setup is challenging but fair, and the millions that the tournament is raising for local charities.

So, is Trump going to be doing all that—in Florida, less than two weeks before the Florida primary?

I asked spokeswomen for both the Trump Organization and the Donald’s campaign via email, but to my total non-surprise, neither got back to me. Trump has said that he’ll be there in a “very limited” role because of his Secret Service protection. But who knows what “very limited” means to that guy?

I asked NBC, which will carry the tournament, how they plan to cover Trump. After all, it’s what ends up on TV that really matters. An NBC spokesman referred me to a spokesman for the Golf Channel, which is owned by NBC and which will broadcast the tournament’s first two days. The Golf Channel person emailed back to say: “Golf Channel, as part of its regularly scheduled news programming, will examine Donald Trump’s influence within the golf industry. Golf Channel and NBC also will cover the WGC Cadillac Championship, to be played at Trump Doral. All coverage will comply with applicable election-related laws.”

Well, that’s good to hear. It’s nice to know they’ve thought about it. They’re even doing a news story, which, given incidents like this one just covered in The New York Times, will surely include some negative press. So NBC is at least non-brain dead.

But what about the PGA Tour? Why did they keep the tournament here anyway, after Trump became a candidate and started in with all the racism? The PGA Tour is about as white as the Mormon Church, but it’s also extremely sensitive to that fact, especially since the tour appears to have lost (for a long time and perhaps for good) its one black superstar; hence all those TV commercials of famous golfers teaching little black and brown kids how to swing a 7-iron.

So I put this question to the PGA Tour, more or less, and got back this answer from one Candance Reinheimer: “We, the PGA Tour, Cadillac, our volunteers and secondary sponsors, are all focused on putting on the best possible tournament this year. The PGA Tour has had a 53-year commitment to the Doral community, the greater Miami area and the charities that have benefited from the tournament. We are excited about re-connecting with the South Florida community and providing a tournament with unparalleled access and incredible fan experience for an affordable price. Following the tournament, all parties will examine the Cadillac Championship’s successes on all levels and determine what’s in store for the future.” I guess that means the contracts for this year were already locked in. (Note: Trump bought the course and resort in 2012; the next year, he and the PGA Tour signed a 10-year deal.)

This came up previously back in December, after Trump said the “ban all Muslims” thing. That was when the PGA Tour first said that it might re-examine its relationship with Trump. Other sports outfits did so. ESPN, which is genuinely diverse and progressive in its corporate politics to the extent that it has them, moved a golf event off a Trump property last July, zip-zip-zoom, immediately after Trump made the Mexican rapists comments.

And NASCAR—NASCAR!—pulled its postseason awards ceremony out of the same Trump Doral where this tournament will be held. NASCAR also acted fast after Trump’s Mexican comments last summer, partly under pressure from a major NASCAR sponsor called Camping World, a retailer of parts and accessories for recreational vehicles. Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis told NASCAR last summer that he wouldn’t participate in any events on any Trump property.

But here we sit, eight months after Trump’s Mexico remarks, and the PGA Tour and Cadillac—let’s not let them off the hook; don’t they want to sell cars to brown people?—are just super-excited to recommit to the South Florida area. I guess there’s a shortage of other golf courses down there.

If Trump wants to—and what in his background suggests he wouldn’t want to?—he can turn this into a PR gold mine. He’s been getting tons of free press since he announced, but this would be better free press, because it plays to his one strength in the world: He builds pretty, “classy” things. It’s tangible. And hanging with celebrity athletes makes a paunchy 70-year-old seem cool to a certain class of guys.

So some reporter following Trump around needs to pin him or his people down this week: Is he going to be schmoozing around the Doral for four or two days or what, acting like the pre-campaign Trump, in this week after he just spent a weekend retweeting Mussolini quotes? How are the PGA Tour and NBC/Golf Channel going to handle this? And what happens when the protesters show up, as I hope they do? I doubt the PGA Tour has many First Amendment lawyers on its ample legal staff, but I hope it’s consulting a few.

Trump’s far enough ahead in Florida that none of this may matter. But the mere repetition of the phrase “Trump Doral” on national television for four days will reverberate beyond Florida because millions of voters will be watching (and demographically speaking, most of them will be Republicans). This should have set off alarm bells in PGA officials’ minds months ago, and those officials certainly should have taken a gander the GOP primary calendar. Big double-bogey.