In the same week as Super Tuesday, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination is also hosting a pro golf tournament at a course he owns. It is an unprecedented situation, and it is leaving the powers that be in the golf world in an increasingly uncomfortable position.
The WGC Cadillac Championship, a PGA Tour event that is not one of golf’s four “Majors,” is already getting far more attention this year from outside the golf world than it normally does. And the reason is Donald Trump.
The tournament tees off Thursday at Trump National Doral, in Miami, at the worst possible time for anyone not in support of Trump’s presidential candidacy — smack dab amid a crucial week in the primary race. As owner of the course and de facto host, Trump will get to parade around, shaking hands, posing for photos with golf stars like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, and likely causing a rare convergence of the sports media and political media. (He has said he plans to make a “very limited” visit, but hasn’t said which day.) Many are concerned that the publicity will only help Trump’s chances of winning the Republican primary in Florida, a key state, on March 15.
So, you might ask: Should the PGA Tour have pulled the tournament from Trump’s course?
You could ask the same about any of the other pro tournaments that have happened at one of Trump’s courses since he announced his candidacy last summer. The real estate mogul owns 18 golf properties, some of which are among the most prized in the world, like Turnberry in Scotland, Doonbeg in Ireland, or Doral, home to the “Blue Monster” course. (It’s worth noting they’re not all gems: Trump also opened a municipal course in the Bronx in New York on top of a landfill.) After Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, the LPGA did not pull its Ricoh British Women’s Open, an LPGA-sanctioned event, from Trump Turnberry, but did release a statement in July basically saying it would have if there had been more time.
ESPN yanked its celebrity tournament from Trump National outside of Los Angeles. But only one pro tournament was pulled: the PGA of America’s Grand Slam of Golf in July. As of now, Trump’s course in Bedminster, N.J., is still set to host the 2022 PGA Championship; it would be the first men’s Major hosted at a Trump course, which has long been a publicly stated dream of his. Long before that, Trump is set to host the 2017 Senior PGA Champonship at Trump National in Washington, D.C., and the 2017 Women’s U.S. Open at Bedminster.
The PGA last summer said it would continue to use Trump golf courses for these events, and it has not backed away from that yet, though in December it reaffirmed that The Tour is not happy, saying: “We continue to stand by our earlier statement, and the statement of other golf organizations, that Mr. Trump’s comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.”
As for the Cadillac Championship this week, the PGA Tour sent this statement around to The Daily Beast, Miami Herald, and others: “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… Following the tournament, all parties will examine the Cadillac Championship’s successes on all levels and determine what’s in store for the future.”
A wait-and-see approach
Golf’s governing bodies have been hesitant to overtly criticize Trump because he is too deeply ingrained in the sport. During the recession, he earned many fans in the golf industry by buying up distressed courses, investing millions, and turning them around. Moreover, he has shown a passion for his golf holdings that is disproportionate to their portion of his overall portfolio. While Trump has valued his golf courses at up to $700 million, reports last fall suggested they were worth less than half that.
Now that Trump has won several primaries and his candidacy looks more serious, golf’s leading organizations find themselves with a dramatic and public dilemma. If he were to become president, the likelihood is that his courses would draw even bigger audiences. But holding events there would become a political statement (as it has already become). If he doesn’t win, the public eventually moves on, and there would be no reason to back away from them. Either way, professional golf is keeping the relationship intact — and has adopted a wait-and-see approach.
Corporate sponsors have done the same: Cadillac (GM),for example, the host of the tournament this week, had a long-term deal to host its event at the Miami course, and this was the final year of that deal. It did not back out, but has already said it will not renew the sponsorship. The PGA Tour’s contract to hold this tournament at Doral, however, lasts all the way through 2023.
As golf authorities stay quiet on Trump’s fraught candidacy, the optics get worse. Most notably, he has called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Golf, as a sport, has grown its popularity in the Middle East, and all of its leading entities have, in the last few years, advanced a “grow the game” attitude and aimed for more inclusion. They have recognized the need for the sport to reach younger fans across socioeconomic spheres, and they have made that effort overt. Trump is not a fan of those efforts. He told Fortune last year: “They’re trying to teach golf to people who will never be able to really play it. They’re trying too hard… Let golf be elitist… Let people work hard and aspire to some day be able to play golf. To afford to play it.” In an interview with Golf Digest last September he repeated the notion of golf as an “aspirational game,” which he has framed as a positive, but sure sounds like the opposite of an inclusive stance.
Of course, the fact that Trump isn’t in support of making the sport younger is hardly the biggest issue. His politics are divisive, and his campaign’s approach has often been mean-spirited and cruel. If golf was already seen as a sport for rich, old, white men—and for mostly Republicans—his presidential run brings his own role in the sport to light more than ever before. It is not a flattering light.
Despite his inarguable success with buying up golf properties, Trump has often had an adversarial relationship with his own members or locals near his courses: at the moment, former members of Trump National Jupiter, in Florida, have brought a class action lawsuit against him over refundable member deposits they lost, some worth as much as $200,000; separately, Trump is suing some residents of Doral who cut down trees near the course.
What happens to President Trump’s golf courses
What if Trump goes all the way? What will happen to his golf courses if he ascends to the presidency? CNBC reported that there is no rule forcing Trump to relinquish ownership of his businesses if he becomes president. But certainly the situation seems unprecedented. While there have been many golf enthusiasts in the White House, no president has ever had a significant business stake in golf.
Trump has said that if he is elected, he will turn day-to-day management of his 18 golf courses over to his children, who already have a hand in his golf empire. And a Trump campaign manager told the Associated Press in January, “Should he have the privilege of being elected president, he will be spending 110 percent of his time on that.” But make no mistake: Trump handing over management of his courses to his children is no guarantee he will be fully removed from the business. Moreover, the Trump corporation cannot divorce itself from Donald Trump—that is, it would be hard for the sport’s governing bodies to look apolitical if hosting any events at courses owned by the sitting president.
Even if Trump loses the presidency, he isn’t leaving the sport. And his comments won’t be escaping public memory anytime soon, either. That leaves golf’s leaders continuing to bite their nails and hoping for a resolution soon.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.
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