Golf Looks to Heal Rifts, but Trump’s Exile Lingers

Walking toward a tee box in Virginia in May, former President Donald J. Trump offered an awfully accurate assessment of the way many golf executives viewed him.

“They love the courses,” he said, forever the salesman for his family company’s portfolio of properties, “but I think they probably consider me a little bit controversial right now.”

As much as some leaders of men’s golf are trying to patch the rupture created by the Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit, a tour Trump has championed, they seem to be in no rush to end the former president’s exile from their sport’s buttoned-up establishment. Even in an era of gaudy wealth and shifting alliances in golf, Trump remains, for now, a measure too much for many.

The consequences have been conspicuous for a figure who had expected to host a men’s golf major tournament in 2022. Now, his ties to the sport’s elite ranks often appear limited to LIV events and periodic rounds with past and present professionals. Jack Nicklaus, the 18-time major champion, caused a stir in April when he publicly stopped short of again endorsing a Trump bid for the White House.

Nevertheless, on Thursday, when he was playing a LIV pro-am event at his course in Bedminster, N.J., Trump insisted he was in regular conversations with golf executives about top-tier tournaments.

“They think as long as you’re running for office or in office, you’re controversial,” he said.

Golf has been a regular respite for Democratic and Republican commanders in chief. But no American president has had a more openly combustible history with the sport than Trump, and perhaps no president besides Dwight D. Eisenhower, who is thought to have averaged about 100 rounds annually when he was in the White House, has had so much of his public image linked to golf.

In the years before Trump won the presidency, he had at last started to make significant headway into the rarefied realms of golf he had long pursued.

Trump watched his shot from the fairway.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In 2012, the U.S. Golf Association picked the Bedminster property for the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open. Two years later, the P.G.A. of America said it planned to take the men’s P.G.A. Championship to the course in 2022. Also in 2014, Trump bought Turnberry, a mesmerizing Scottish property that had hosted four British Opens, and he imagined golf’s oldest major championship being contested there again.

Once in the White House, Trump played with a parade of golf figures (though some of them appeared more attracted to the magic of the presidency than to Trump himself): Tiger Woods; Rory McIlroy; Ernie Els; Jay Monahan, the commissioner of the PGA Tour; and Fred S. Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.

Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency had given some in golf heartburn. But it was the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol that most clearly chiseled away at his golf dreams. The P.G.A., which is distinct from the PGA Tour, which has dueled with LIV for supremacy over men’s professional golf, immediately moved its 2022 championship from Bedminster. The R&A, which organizes the British Open, made clear that it would not be bound for Turnberry anytime soon.

LIV soon emerged as something of a life raft, an insurgent league with a craving for championship-quality courses and plenty of money to spend. It did not hurt that Trump had been strikingly cozy with the government in Riyadh whose wealth fund was ready to pour billions of dollars into LIV — and let some of those dollars, in turn, roll toward the Trump Organization for reasons that have been the subject of widespread speculation.

Trump became a fixture at LIV events held at his courses, routinely jawing about the PGA Tour with variable accuracy. (He did, however, predict something like the planned transaction between the wealth fund and the PGA Tour.) This week’s event in New Jersey is his family’s fourth LIV tournament, and a fifth is planned for the Miami area in October.

But the budding détente between the Saudis and the PGA Tour does not seem to be leading to an immediate one between Trump and the broader golf industry, which the Saudis could have enormous sway over in the years ahead.

The PGA Tour has not publicly committed to maintaining the LIV brand if it reaches a conclusive deal with the wealth fund, and the tentative agreement says nothing about the future of men’s golf’s relationship with Trump. The PGA Tour has a history with Trump but ended its relationship with his company during the 2016 campaign. Tim Finchem, who was the tour’s commissioner then, denied at the time that the decision was “a political exercise” and instead called it “fundamentally a sponsorship issue.”

To no one’s surprise, the tour’s 2024 schedule, which the circuit released on Monday, features no events at Trump properties. And although Trump said a few months ago that he thought the Irish Open might be interested in his Doonbeg course, the DP World Tour, which is also a part of the agreement with the Saudi wealth fund, has said the course is not under consideration.

Other top golf figures who are not bound by any deal with the Saudis somehow appear even less interested.

Trump Turnberry in Scotland won’t be hosting the British Open anytime soon, according to the chief executive of the R&A.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

“Until we’re confident that any coverage at Turnberry would be about golf, about the golf course and about the championship, until we’re confident about that, we will not return any of our championships there,” Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A, said on the same day last month when he signaled that the Open organizer might be willing to accept a Saudi investment.

Seth Waugh, the P.G.A. of America’s chief executive, declined to comment this week, but the organization has given no signal that it is reconsidering its thinking about Trump courses. The U.S.G.A. said it did not have a comment.

Some players, many of whom at least lean conservative, have suggested they would like to see Trump courses be in the mix for the majors.

“There’s no reason you couldn’t host P.G.A.s, U.S. Opens out here,” said Patrick Reed, who won the Masters Tournament in 2018 and played with Trump on Thursday. “I mean, just look at it out here: The rough is brutal.”

Even a sudden rapprochement, which would require executives setting aside the views of players like Reed that politics should not shape sports decisions, would almost certainly not lead to Trump’s strutting around a major tournament in the near future.

The next U.S. Open in need of a venue is the one that will be played in 2036; Trump would turn 90 on the Saturday of that tournament. P.G.A. Championships are booked through 2030. Between last month’s announcement that the 2026 British Open will be held at Royal Birkdale and the R&A’s sustained public skepticism of Trump, the last major of the calendar year seems unlikely to head to a Trump property anytime soon. And the Masters, which is always played at Augusta National in Georgia, is not an option.

Women’s golf offers a few more theoretical possibilities since its roster of venues is not as set, but Trump would face much of the same reluctance.

Trump has mused about the financial wisdom of golf’s keeping its distance from him. A few months ago, he argued that avoiding his courses was “foolish because you make a lot of money with controversy.”

He may be right.

But it seems golf is reasoning that it is making plenty of money anyway. Its political bent, some figure, might be better managed outside the glare of its major tournaments — and, moreover, beyond the shadow of Trump.

Trump has mused about the financial wisdom of golf’s keeping its distance from him. Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
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