Game Changer: Can President Trump make golf great again?

Game Changer: Can President Trump make golf great again?

Golf

Game Changer: Can President Trump make golf great again?

(Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the January 2017 edition of Golfweek.)

NEW YORK – It’s 8:15 on a blustery, frigid Friday morning in December, and already a crush of press and pedestrians has descended on Trump Tower, where police and Secret Service officers try to bring some order to the daily chaos.

Just around the corner, at Rue 57, Eric Trump is sitting alone. It’s calm. There’s no visible security. A reporter, invited to breakfast by Trump, arrives and greets him.

At 9:20, Trump and the reporter walk into the madness of Trump Tower, this time with a Secret Service agent trailing Trump, whispering into a phone wire. They’re waved through security – the reporter’s briefcase isn’t even inspected – and board an elevator to Trump’s office on the 25th floor. When the elevator opens, Trump is greeted by more Secret Service agents. But what grabs the visitor’s attention is a glass-walled room with a large black table surrounded by two dozen high-back chairs.

You’ve seen this room a lot recently. Donald J. Trump has been meeting there with his transition team, vetting appointees to the Cabinet and other positions. On this day alone, Trump will be visited by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Vincent Viola, nominee to be Secretary of the Army, outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove.

In the insular world of The Trump Organization, some of the same people making decisions about the leadership of the next administration also are plotting the future of Trump Golf. That includes Trump’s children – Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, who stops by Eric’s office on this morning to chat over coffee.

Trump Golf is entering its most important year – hosting two major championships – while under new leadership as Donald Trump, chairman and president of The Trump Organization, assumes a slightly loftier title: Leader of the Free World.

In that capacity, Trump gives the golf industry, long treated as a punching bag by Washington, something it never has had: An informed advocate at the highest rung of government.

Will that make a difference for the industry? Will Trump’s choices, on both narrow policy issues and broader thematic decisions, benefit an industry battered by shrinking participation and course closures?

In short, will President Donald J. Trump make golf great again?

It’s difficult to reconcile the private Donald J. Trump with the public Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump could be brash, crude, vindictive, even unhinged. At various times, he mocked a disabled reporter, slandered one of his political opponents with comparisons to a pedophile and gleefully called another a “pussy.” His vile comments about women that came to light shortly before Election Day brought rebuke.

It’s a reminder that Trump is something of a golf anti-hero. At a time when the industry is preaching accessibility, Trump views the game as “aspirational” (read: rich-man’s game). While the industry has tried to convey a welcoming message to potential non-white players, Trump gave blistering critiques of Mexicans and Muslims. Those episodes make industry watcher Casey Alexander wonder if Trump’s presidency will be a “double-edged sword” for the business of golf.

“He is the producer of very high-end properties, and therefore could to a certain extent exacerbate the exclusiveness of golf in a period when golf is trying to be more inclusive,” said Alexander, senior vice president at Compass Point Research & Trading LLC. “Over the long term of his administration, that might not be the best thing for the industry.”

Donald Trump has plenty of critics and skeptics in the golf industry who believe his policies will effect positive change. (GETTY IMAGES )

Donald Trump has plenty of critics and skeptics in the golf industry. Many believe his policies will effect positive change. (GETTY IMAGES )

Former PGA of America president Ted Bishop, who played a key role in taking PGA majors to Trump properties, knows a different  Trump – one he describes as “relatable,” “engaging,” even “an average guy.”

Even during the campaign, Bishop said Trump would respond to his emails. Each time it was the same: Trump’s assistant would print out Bishop’s email, Trump would handwrite a response on that page using a Sharpie, and the assistant would scan it and email it back.

Time and again, Trump surprised Bishop with his courtesies and attention to detail. When he played in the Scottish Open pro-am in 2014, Bishop stayed at Trump International Scotland. “Whenever I got done playing the golf course, or when I got done eating, there was either a phone call or other correspondence wanting to know how the experience was,” Bishop said.

On another occasion, during a round with Trump at Trump National Bedminster, Bishop told him how much he enjoyed the Best’s hot dogs served at the course. A week later, Bishop received a crate of Best’s weiners from Trump. Those personal touches are why Bishop, a self-described “liberal,” became “an avid supporter” of Trump during the campaign.

“He had all the qualities of a great leader and, believe it or not, I felt like he was an average guy,” Bishop said.

For all of Trump’s public bluster, what’s striking are the stories of his willingness to debate and compromise. Those traits might make him more amenable to Washington deal-making than the strident persona that people saw during the campaign.

Architect Martin Ebert already was at work on changes to the Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry Resort when former R&A chief Peter Dawson informed Ebert that Trump would be buying the property. Dawson suggested that Ebert call Trump to discuss the project. Ebert got through on his first call and had a long conversation with Trump about the renovations. Trump retained Ebert, on Dawson’s recommendation, and what followed was less an owner-employee relationship than a collaboration.

“Whenever he was at Turnberry, he would spend as much time as he could on the course,” Ebert said. “It soon became clear that his passion for golf and his passion for Turnberry were pretty enormous. That’s what was motivating him.” Ebert added that when Trump was campaigning, he often checked in by phone or sent drawings with comments.

Ebert planned to make Ailsa’s ninth hole a short par 4, but he said Trump was adamant that it be a par 3 across the bay. They debated the options before making it a par 3. “That was the right decision,” Ebert said. “People remember iconic par 3s.”

Trump, however, lost some of those debates, such as his idea to move the par-3 sixth closer to the sea. He also bowed to Ebert’s desire to straighten the dogleg 18th. Moments like that, Ebert said, “led him to say I was the most stubborn man he’d ever met. That became a standing joke between us. But it allowed me to stand my ground more easily.”

The irony, of course, is that “stubborn” is one of the kinder adjectives used to describe Trump during his presidential run, and even before that. Trump has been in the public spotlight more than half of his 70 years, but he most famously ingrained himself in popular culture on the show “The Apprentice,” where viewers took a perverse pleasure in seeing him tell contestants, “You’re fired.”

Donald Trump was just another face in the crowd during the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY. (AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump was just another face in the crowd during the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, NY. (AFP/Getty Images)

In retrospect, perhaps it all makes sense. The American public was pissed off, it wanted some butts kicked, and it found just the guy for the job. Who cares if sometimes he can be a blowhard who claimed that Trump National Philadelphia “is as good as Pine Valley, if not better”? Who cares if he’s given to grandstanding, such as in 2015 when he landed his helicopter near Ailsa, disrupting play at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, then emerged in a red “Make America Great Again” cap to meet reporters?

Apparently not the governing bodies. Forget the squishy 2015 joint statement from the USGA, PGA Tour, PGA and LPGA, all of whom claimed Trump’s comments on illegal immigration “are inconsistent with our commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf.” These days the governing bodies are all aboard the Trump Train. This year alone, the U.S. Women’s Open will be played at Bedminster, site of the 2009 U.S. Juniors, and the Senior PGA Championship will be played at Trump National Washington, D.C. The 2022 PGA Championship remains scheduled for Bedminster.

“We are confident that the (Women’s Open) championship will be well supported by the community, given our history there,” USGA executive director Mike Davis wrote in an email to Golfweek.

New PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan sounded almost giddy earlier this month at Kapalua discussing a Trump presidency, which he described as “awesome.”

Jay Monahan is officially the next PGA Tour commissioner.

Jay Monahan says a President Trump would be “awesome” for golf. (GETTY IMAGES)

“We see President-elect Trump as being probably the best golfer to ever sit in office, and certainly the most golf knowledgeable. And for the game, I think that’s a tremendous thing,” Monahan said. “He’s in the highest office, and that’s his hobby. I think that’s very positive. . . . We hope he’ll play an active role in the Presidents Cup (in New Jersey in September). . . . This is very unique because of his longstanding commitment to the game.”

While it’s true, the PGA issued a mild rebuke in 2015 by pulling the PGA Grand Slam of Golf from Trump National Los Angeles, that always was a troubled event – major champions sometimes didn’t even show up to  play – and hasn’t been revived. The PGA may have done Trump a favor by terminating the near-death Grand   Slam while letting Trump keep the more visible major championships.

This brings us back to Eric Trump, who, at 33, will become “the face of our golf holdings,” according to Larry Glick, who has been running The Trump Organization’s day-to-day golf operations for more than a decade.

Eric Trump, executive vice president, development and acquisitions, will oversee Trump’s courses, hotels and winery. The younger Trump, who maintains a 13.0 handicap index at Trump National Westchester (N.Y.), according to GHIN.com, is, in looks and style, a chip off the old block. Ailsa? “Fantastic,” he said. Turnberry’s Kintyre Course, which Ebert is renovating? “It’s going to be amazing.” (Was there ever a doubt?)

Eric Trump, son of the president-elect, is slated to take over and run Trump Golf. (ROBERT DEUTSCH/ USA TODAY)

Eric Trump, son of the president-elect, is slated to take over and run Trump Golf. (ROBERT DEUTSCH/ USA TODAY)

In truth, Ailsa has reopened to rave reviews, reflecting an undeniable truth: Each Trump course might not be “the greatest,” as the president-elect often says, but they’re mighty damn good.

The Trump Organization has been a savvy vulture investor, acquiring high-ceiling properties at bargain prices, then Trumpifying the operations with heavy cash infusions. That’s been the M.O. at places such as Doonbeg, Turnberry, Doral and Washington, D.C.

On a micro-level, one of the most interesting questions is whether The Trump Organization, minus Donald, will continue to expand its golf operations. Alexander is dubious, suggesting it could be bad public relations for the 45th president, whose family could be seen to be receiving favors, internationally or domestically.

“We have likely seen the end of Trump Golf property development for the foreseeable future,” Alexander said.

Eric Trump, however, suggests otherwise. He said the company remains committed to “investment in a down market,” adding, “We are looking only at what we can make into the best properties.”

That includes two new projects in Dubai – one recently completed by Gil Hanse, the other underway by Tiger Woods.

On a macro-level, an industry that often has felt scorned by Washington now is wondering if it finally has found an unlikely champion in Donald J. Trump.

Washington routinely has treated the golf industry – a collection of thousands of small businesses – like a corporate titan run by well-heeled fat cats. For disaster-relief purposes, Congress has tossed the golf industry into the same sordid bucket as massage parlors and tanning salons. Following the 2008 TARP legislation, members of Congress raced to microphones to trash banks that sponsored golf. Corporate outings, a major source of revenues for many courses, suddenly became a béte noire.

The game’s standing in Washington reached the point of absurdity when George W. Bush was ridiculed for giving up golf while in office, while Barack Obama often was chided for playing too much golf.

Here’s a safe bet: President Donald J. Trump will play as much golf as he damn well pleases, if only for the sheer joy of tweaking the indignant media mob.

Trump, who boasts a 2.8 handicap, flouted his disdain for the media on New Year’s Eve, when he ditched the press pool for a round at Trump National Jupiter. He shot 75 that day, according to a member. A week earlier, golf’s ultimate power pairing, Trump and Woods, played together at Jupiter. The round reportedly came at the request of Woods. Trump also played with Lexi Thompson and her brothers, Nicholas and Curtis, over Thanksgiving, according to Thompson’s agent.

One might question Trump’s bombast, but there’s no doubting his passion for the game. He has told Golfweek that he used to play some 75 rounds per year, and  wished it were more. His golf business, he said, “is 2 percent of my money but 20 percent of my time.”

Golf executives would welcome a president who not only takes an unabashed joy in the game, but also understands the industry’s issues. Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, even holds out hope “that we may get his personal engagement from time to time.”

If so, they’ll have a lot to discuss. Industry executives have some bread-and-butter issues that they want addressed, and soon.

Take wages. In May 2016 the Department of Labor issued a regulation requiring employers to pay overtime to previously exempted employees if they made less than $47,476 – more than double the previous $23,660 exemption.

“That’s probably the single-biggest thing affecting golf,” said Mike Keiser, founder of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. “What will Trump’s guy do with that?”

That guy is Secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder, a restaurant executive who likes wage mandates about as much as he likes seeing mice running free in his kitchens. Several states challenged the Obama mandate in court, and a federal district judge in Dallas issued a preliminary injunction Nov. 22. A Clinton administration almost certainly would have pursued the matter in court; Trump wouldn’t seem inclined to do that, though Keiser noted that the idea “seems to appeal to some of Trump’s voters.”

Trump Turnberry in Scotland underwent an eight-month refurbishment as part of an investment thought to be worth around $250 million. (JEFF J. MITCHELL/GETTY)

Trump Turnberry in Scotland underwent an eight-month refurbishment as part of an investment thought to be worth around $250 million. (GETTY IMAGES)

Prior to the court ruling, many companies, including ClubCorp, the world’s largest owner and operator of private clubs, already had implemented the proposed changes.

“What’s fascinating so far is a lot of people who have gotten significant increases in base pay are saying, ‘I don’t want this. I would prefer to be paid overtime or be back on a commission basis because I can make more money,’” said Eric Affeldt, CEO of ClubCorp.

Karen noted that the Obama administration mandate did not consider two issues: the fact that many employees work long hours during the peak season and have sharply reduced schedules during the off season; and local-market considerations, such as cost-of-living differences between rural and urban areas.

“There’s a lot that’s really messy about this,” he said.

No doubt, though on the messiness scale, it’s about five rungs down the ladder from our dysfunctional tax code.

Six months ago, Affeldt said, “I was anticipating a probable recession in 2017.” He based that view on the likelihood of a Clinton presidency and “higher taxes across the board, and I think most people would view that as a detriment to economic growth.”

Four weeks after the election, Affeldt’s outlook had changed 180 degrees. “I just told my board last week that I’m more optimistic about ’17 than I was six months ago,” he said.

Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan agree on the need for tax reform – fewer brackets, lower marginal rates for individuals and corporations – though Trump’s plan is more aggressive. If Bishop and Ebert are correct about Trump’s willingness to debate and compromise, we could see fast-track tax reform roll through the Republican-controlled Congress over the next few months

Donald Trump plays Trump International Golf Links in Scotland in 2012. (GETTY IMAGES)

Donald Trump plays Trump International Golf Links in Scotland in 2012. (GETTY IMAGES)

“I haven’t felt this charged up in quite a while,” said Orrin Vincent, chairman of OB Sports, a course-management firm. “We should have some real opportunities. It doesn’t feel like the ‘90s yet, but it feels better.”

Aside from marginal rates, Vincent and Steve Skinner, CEO of KemperSports, a course-management firm, said they hope Trump accelerates depreciation rules, which would encourage capital investments in such things as clubhouse and course upgrades, and new amenities.

“(Faster depreciation is) good for the game, it’s good for the properties, it’s good for the consumers, and frankly, it’s good for the economy as people reinvest in businesses,” Skinner said.

Karen wants two other tax issues addressed: disaster relief and conservation easements.

It’s still a sore point in the industry that golf courses did not receive tax relief following Hurricane Katrina under the Gulf Opportunity Zone Act; Chava McKeel, director of government affairs for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, said Congress treats golf as “a sin industry.” Karen also wants qualifying courses to receive tax credits for conservation easements.

“We should not be disqualified just because we are golf,” he said.

Donald Trump surveys the action from his car at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. (GETTY IMAGES)

Donald Trump surveys the lay of the land from his car at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (GETTY IMAGES)

The industry also is looking for a better deal on water regulations. One of the key players figures to be Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who in recent years has been hounding the Environmental Protection Agency like a Sooner on a blind-side blitz. Now, Pruitt is Trump’s nominee to head the EPA. (Never let it be said Donald J. Trump doesn’t have a sense of irony.)

Issue No. 1 for Pruitt figures to be a regulation called Waters of the United States (WOTUS), which expanded the EPA’s jurisdiction to include “adjacent waters” that might have a “significant nexus” to “navigable waters.”

“It seemed to be a definite overreach in that you could interpret it to mean any puddle could be considered a water of the United States and come under the EPA’s jurisdiction,” said Craig Kessler, director of governmental affairs for the Southern California Golf Association. “The Trump administration, no matter who he appointed, was going to drop those efforts.”

Pruitt knows WOTUS chapter and verse. He was one of 27 attorneys general who filed suit to block it.

“We’re going to see an overturning of Waters of the U.S., which is a really good thing for the golf industry, including California,” said Marc Connerly, executive director of the California Golf Course Owners Association, as well as similar groups in Arizona and Nevada. “That regulation was pretty onerous and was going to impose a number of obstacles on golf courses that need to use pesticides near bodies of water.”

“The president-elect is an advocate, a supporter and promoter of golf. That should be a positive for the industry and there will be benefits specifically due to reduced labor costs and increased viability,” said Greg Martin, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. “However, the anti-environment Cabinet assembled will do nothing to encourage a positive viewpoint of golf for those outside the game. And the anti-labor sentiment could undermine all the positive outreach that has occurred in the last 10 years.”

Critics of Donald Trump worry that his environmental policies could cause long-term damage to the game of golf. (JEFF MITCHELL/GETTY IMAGES)

Critics of Donald Trump worry that his environmental policies could cause damage to golf’s reputation held by those outside the sport. (GETTY IMAGES)

Ah, “outreach.” How did we get this far without addressing the issue that dominated much of the campaign: Trump’s comments on illegal immigrants?

Here’s the reality: Course operators, including at Trump properties, don’t want illegal immigrants, but they do want legal, temporary immigrants under the federal H-2B visa program. Trouble is, the federal bureaucracy has an annual habit of three-putting the issue.

“What we find is there is often a blockage in Washington either on the number of permits or the time it takes to get them,” Karen said. “All recreation industries that rely on H-2B visas are burdened because they can’t find local Americans to do these jobs.”

Skinner is hopeful that Trump, having owned golf courses, will understand the issue and “streamline the process for H-2B visas.”

But it goes beyond that. On issue after issue, Skinner said, there’s the sense that Washington has “made it harder and harder to operate.” Time will tell whether Trump can make golf great again, but there is, somewhat ironically, the hope that this most divisive of men might bring together factions in a way that will benefit the industry and the broader economy.

“Put aside your politics and look at it from a business standpoint,” Skinner said. “I think people are more excited. I think the media underestimated what a burden these regulations were having on small business. To the extent he can quickly roll some of those back, I think he can make a difference.”

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