Throughout a tumultuous four years, Donald Trump often sought refuge at one of his golf clubs, where distant pool photographers zoomed in to capture his tee shots.
An avid golfer and golf entrepreneur, Mr Trump had long craved the approval of the game’s establishment. He was duly rewarded when the game’s hidebound governing authorities tapped his courses for prestigious tournaments.
That kinship shattered last week when the PGA of America announced that it would pull its marquee tournament, the 2022 PGA Championship, from New Jersey’s Trump Bedminster, one of the 19 courses making up the Trump portfolio that spans both sides of the Atlantic.
“It had become clear that conducting the PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand,” the group said in a video statement.
In the wake of the Capitol Hill siege by the president’s supporters, a golf world long burdened by a legacy of exclusion and elitism could overlook Mr Trump’s transgressions no longer.
Mr Trump had aggressively gobbled up land and distressed courses after the financial crisis left the golf industry reeling, most notably the Doral resort in Miami, hoping to revitalise them as the economy improved.
The investment paid off in 2014, the year before Mr Trump announced his presidential bid, when he was awarded the 2022 PGA Championship. “Having the PGA is a very very big deal,” he said at the time. “It’s very important to me.”
Around that time, Mr Trump’s then hometown New York City granted the Trump Organisation rights to manage a new upscale course in the Bronx which would go on to be named Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point. Appearing at Ferry Point’s opening in late 2013 were then-mayor Michael Bloomberg and the course designer, Jack Nicklaus, the golf legend. This week mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would terminate its relationship with Mr Trump.
Mr Trump’s demeaning comments about women, immigrants, and Muslims, among others, created heat for the conservative golf world. In 2015, an exhibition tournament sponsored by the PGA of America and held at the Trump resort near Los Angeles was cancelled in the wake of Mr Trump’s derisive comments about Mexican immigrants. The PGA Tour in 2017 moved an annual tournament long held at Doral to a course in Mexico City as Mr Trump’s association with the storied course appeared to spook sponsors.
Still, despite protests from women’s advocacy groups, the United States Golf Association staged its premiere women’s championship at Bedminster in 2017.
“We make decisions about where to play based on factors purely related to golf, not who the president is and not based on anyone’s personal politics.”, the USGA told the FT at the time.
But since he has been president, no elite tournament has selected a Trump property as a venue. Mr Trump’s acclaimed links, Scotland’s Turnberry, the site of several previous Open Championships, has been skipped by the R&A, the UK governing body. This week, the R&A said in a statement that it had no plans to return to Turnberry “in the foreseeable future”, alluding to the stigma of the US president.
How damaging Mr Trump’s now tarnished brand is to his hospitality empire remains to be seen.
According to his financial disclosures, Trump Doral, the group’s most lucrative golf property, took in $77.2m in 2019, up slightly from $76.0m the previous year. Data from New York City shows that rounds at the municipal course managed by the Trump Organization jumped to 26,000 in 2019 from 22,000 the previous year.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Trump’s close association with golf has come just as the sport is trying to attract younger and more diverse participants with all the major governing bodies having outreach attempts.
“It is not just that golf is politically conservative but there is a lack of cultural diversity that contributes to its sensibilities,” says Bradley Klein, a golf historian who has worked with architects that have designed Trump courses. “There is a sense in the golf world that Trump overdoes it sometimes but has been generally OK.”
While sports stars in basketball and American football have openly feuded with Mr Trump, top professional golfers including the likes of Tiger Woods have eagerly played with the president.
For this reason, many believe that the golf firmament, while staying sensitive to corporate sponsors, will remain sympathetic to Trump.
Jim Herman, a late-blooming PGA Tour pro, began his career working in the clubhouse at Trump Bedminster. After winning an event in 2019, he wrote on Twitter: “I can’t thank the Trump family [enough], and all of the Bedminster members & employees for their help the past two decades.”
In September, rising star Bryson DeChambeau celebrated his US Open triumph at a Trump course in suburban New York with Eric Trump, Mr Trump’s son who helps run the family golf business.
Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach put him in proximity to several golf stars who have clustered in the area, including Mr Woods, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, all of whom the president has played with. Mr McIlroy said in 2020 that he had subsequently declined to play with Mr Trump.
Mr Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mr Woods in 2019, a distinction that the president had bestowed on two other legendary players, Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player, who had private ceremonies just the day after the January 6 riot at the US Capitol.
Mr Nicklaus, golf’s most celebrated champion, in October announced on Twitter that he had voted for Mr Trump because he had “delivered on his promises” and had “worked for the average person”.
One longtime golf bigwig noted that the PGA of America, which represents nearly 30,000 club professionals, remains overwhelmingly white and male, a demographic that has consistently supported Mr Trump.
“The golf establishment will lay low for some months or maybe years depending on how impeachment goes,” he said. “But it ultimately would never come close to expelling someone from the fraternity.”