Much has changed in Donald Trump’s life since he first entered the public eye 1973 as a 27-year-old landlord who (allegedly) wouldn’t rent to black people. Marriages, divorces, children, countless New York Post covers, bankruptcies, Time magazine covers both real and fake. And there, through it all, has been the one love of his life: golf.
Trump was never a politician, but he’s been a golfer for longer than most Americans have been alive. He’s loved it for longer than he’s ever loved a woman.
Watching Donald Trump attempt to govern feels a little like watching a badger try to cater a wedding. But as stressful as it’s been for the wedding guests, imagine how overwhelming it must feel for the badger.
That’s why, after six-plus months of vigorous nothing, President Trump is set to return to his comfort zone. The president will spend his next 17 days at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. His aides say Trump is taking a “working vacation,” which—nice try. Conventional wisdom suggests that he will spend his time the same way he spends most weekends, on little besides golf.
This week’s issue of Sports Illustrated took a deep dive into Trump’s relationship with the sport, and this month’s Golf Digest devotes an entire issue to the subject. According to the Alan Shipnuk piece, much of what a person would want to know about Donald Trump, they can learn by observing his relationship with golf.
The piece holds its nose as it dispenses praise on the president’s skill at the game, calling him the best golfer to ever hold the presidency, despite his “portly” figure. Dearly departed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci thought the same, and suggested the administration humanize the president by talking more about how much golf he plays, and how good he is at it.
Shipnuk is generous to Trump, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions from a collection of anecdotes. But it’d be hard for a reader to reach a generous conclusion. From Trump’s loose relationship to the rules of the game to his creepy prioritizing of the needs of his golf courses over the lives of the people whose existences border them, to the way he uses his clubs to bully and extort property tax breaks out of municipalities, he’s unpleasant, disloyal, and committed, above anything else, to making himself feel good about himself.
First, Trump’s tenuous relationship to the rules of the game in many ways mirror his tenuous relationship with the truth.
The Sports Illustrated piece remarks that Trump often exaggerates his prowess, as President Trump tends to do about other things. But it doesn’t discuss that time he got into a full-on feud with Anthony Anderson and Samuel L. Jackson. When Jackson said Trump cheated at golf, Trump denied the charges and said he’s never met Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson took the feud to late night, Anderson posted his own proof of the outing to Instagram in the form of a literal receipt, and Trump finally gave in, sort of.
He didn’t admit that he knew Samuel L. Jackson and had cheated at golf when the pair played, but he stopped repeating his lie about not knowing Samuel L. Jackson, which is what Donald Trump does when he gets caught lying about inconsequential garbage. He just stops repeating the part of the lie that was disproven, or he pretends that he never said the disproven part in the first place.
Still, Trump has never admitted to cheating, instead accusing those who accuse him of cheating of being bad at their jobs, or of not knowing Donald Trump.
Golf also betrays Trump’s strained relationship with the natural world. The Sports Illustrated piece quotes him as marveling at the natural beauty of the golf course, extolling the virtues of walking around in nature.
But Trump doesn’t walk around on his courses; he drives a cart. And golf isn’t nature. Trump’s courses, like Trump himself, are more toxic artifice than nature. As his approval ratings languish in the low-30s, rather than confront reality, Trump heads to Trump country and throws a rally with his most blindly obedient supporters. It’s a comb over for his ego.
Trump’s golf courses celebrate the most unnatural configurations of the natural world. On Bedminster, artificial streams cascade eerily down fake waterfalls. The buzzed grass is coated in pesticide (and the course has, in the past, gotten dinged for being a polluter, and for tearing down old growth trees). The air smells like hay and chlorine. The president likes his natural spaces like he likes his women: groomed like a pageant contestant, smoothed, controlled, bloodless, bereft of the messiness that makes it feel truly alive.
I could find one example of Trump sticking up for the natural world in the context of his golf courses. On Dec. 29, 2000, Harry Wagner, a golfer on Trump’s West Palm Beach course, beat a black swan named Alex to death with his club. The nearly 50-lb swan had been a gift from a friend of Trump’s, according to news reports from the time. The man wielding the club told authorities that the swan was aggressive, but after an animal cruelty investigation, Wagner got off with a monetary penalty. Trump banned the man from all Trump-branded properties.
The Sports Illustrated piece observes that Trump’s support of women’s golf has ingratiated him with female golfers. But the piece also implies that for Trump, hosting women’s golf events is only a means to an end. What he really wants is to host men’s tournaments, the more high-profile, the better.
In 2001, Trump’s West Palm Beach club hosted the LPGA championship. Trump lavished praise and attention on the women, but according to the AP, acted like a cartoon villain in increasingly ridiculous attempts to sabotage the players. He didn’t want the women finishing with scores that were too good. He wanted the world to know that his course was a world-class challenge. Golfer Dottie Pepper claimed at the time that Trump wanted to “embarrass” the LPGA. Trump even went so far as to have the 18th green mowed down the night before the tournament, making the course less forgiving.
Beyond the pettiness, Trump has used his courses to bully municipalities into granting him huge tax breaks, into naming streets after him. He’s tried to block middle-income residents from seeing the courses, and his members from having to lay eyes on middle-income residents (he planted obtrusive foliage on the edge of one property). He turned an outdoor dining area in Mar-a-Lago into what many in the news media call an “open air situation room.” He told fellow Bedminster club members that the White House is a “dump” compared to his New Jersey haven.
SI notes that Trump claims to be an excellent golfer, but there’s little “official” record documenting this, and that calls to Trump courses asking for verification went unanswered.
When President Trump spends the next 17 days on his own golf course, he’ll spend it practicing his bad habits in an environment that tolerates and even encourages them.
Golf will always love Donald Trump, and he will reward its loyalty with his patronage. It will always accept him, even as age and a diet of McDonald’s warps his once-svelte body into the shape of the fast food chain’s purple mascot Grimace. Golf will yawn green and rich and controlled for him, it will let him cheat and welcome him back. It is green, like money, green like envy.