In the coming weeks, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will make a major statement about Donald Trump's political future. Meanwhile, various golf poohbahs will grapple with a resolution nearly as weighty: Shall Trump be granted the privilege of hosting major golf events that will elevate his status at the expense of our grand, public nod to progressiveness? Behind golf's closed doors, no question is more pressing.
Golf is a great place to improve one's status, and Trump, like most people in the public eye, is addicted to status. The Donald figured out what golf could do for him years ago, first by playing the game with competence alongside bankers and contractors, later by buying and building a score of fancy courses. In the past decade, he has become one of the most powerful figures in the game, alongside Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, Tim Finchem, Billy Payne and Mark King, who ran TaylorMade for years. Who has been hiring more course architects, superintendents and clubhouse valet guys than Trump? Nobody. As he told Golf Channel last year, "I’ve been great for golf. I’ve been investing while everybody else was fleeing."
In March, Trump will welcome the Tour in all its finery at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. He’s already been the de facto host for events run by the USGA, the PGA of America and the LPGA. The women's British Open will be played on a Trump course this year, and the U.S. Women’s Open is scheduled for a Trump course in New Jersey in 2017. For years, he has been laying the groundwork to get a British Open, a Ryder Cup and a men's U.S. Open on his courses.
And he’s been making all this effort not as some preppy, suave insider establishment figure. The Gucci loafer crowd dismissed Trump long ago, and he has spent the last half century trying to outdo them at their own game. Shinier bathroom fixtures, hotter wives, bigger clubhouses with better air conditioning. He has made his mark in golf as an outsider, as a wildly immodest and unpredictable renegade. It's part of his peculiar appeal.
Trump is seeking the Republican nomination in the same way, as a wildly immodest, unpredictable political outsider. The act of voting is both a public and a private act. You stand in line and affix your signature or mark in a registration book, often with some kindly lady from the League of Women Voters as your witness, and then you go into a curtained booth and press levers in sacred privacy.
Few people will be watching the outcomes of these votes in the weeks and months ahead with more interest than Mike Davis of the USGA, Pete Bevacqua of the PGA of America, Mike Whan of the LPGA, Martin Slumbers of the R&A and Jay Monahan of the PGA Tour. In the weeks and months to come, those gents will gather with their minions in the most secretive of settings and try to answer a question that has vexed many: What do we do with Trump? Do we keep the tournaments assigned to his courses in place? Do we sign up events for more Trump courses? As this new year gets off to an interesting start, those closed-door conversations will be as significant as anything happening in broad daylight.
Golf’s power brokers -- these conveyors of status -- have been forced to address these questions because Candidate Trump has proven to be so wildly unpredictable and (to many) deeply offensive. After he broadly insulted Mexican immigrants last summer, a joint statement was issued by various golf agencies: "In response to Mr. Trump's comments about the golf industry 'knowing he is right' in regards to his recent statements about Mexican immigrants, we feel compelled to clarify that those remarks do not reflect the views of our organizations. While the LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and USGA do not usually comment on presidential politics, Mr. Trump's comments are inconsistent with our strong commitment to an inclusive and welcoming environment in the game of golf."
And that was before Trump called for a temporary ban on Muslims coming into the United States, and before he heaped tasteless insults on Megyn Kelly, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and several million others. Many in the Twitterverse have argued that Trump has simply been exercising his right to free speech with such lines as, regarding Carly Fiorina, "Look at that face!" Many find the candor refreshing. It seems to be helping Trump in the polls. But it's not civilized and not very golfy. That’s the heart of the conflict. This guy who owns so many courses and who can shoot 80 is not out of any well-traveled golf path.
If Trump is elected, he has said, he will turn over his business interests to his children. That answers one set of questions for Mike Davis and his brethren. But if Trump's bid falls short, he will return to his golf ambitions with a vengeance. No one has more status than the American President. The rest of the world will look boring to him if he doesn’t wind up in the White House. Of course it will. Trump is talking about being the leader of the free world. But when it's over (if it's over), golf will be there for Trump, as it was before he threw his trucker's golf hat into the ring. And we should ready ourselves for that.