4:07 | Golf Plus
Donald Trump: Commander in Courses?
By Michael Bamberger
Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The game is an interesting place, these days in general and this week in particular. On Monday, President's Day, the First Golfer was in the friendly confines of Mar-a-Lago, with its cooling proximity to his home course, Trump International in West Palm Beach, Fla. Meanwhile, 17 miles north on I-95, PGA Tour players were setting up shop on the driving range at PGA National, where the Honda Classic will be played starting on Thursday on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus, with whom Donald Trump has had a significant—and decidedly down-and-up—business relationship. On their way in, the players will pass the national headquarters of the PGA of America, Pete Bevacqua presiding.

Bevacqua, the son of a dentist and a caddie in his suburban New York boyhood, has been the CEO of the organization for a little more than four years now. It's amazing what can happen over the course of four years. The PGA has never enjoyed a higher profile, at least not since the Walter Hagen-Gene Sarazen era of the 1920s.

Through a series of bold decisions and with relentless energy, Bevacqua, 45, has become one of golf's most influential figures. He is a voice, and an occasional soloist, in the massive, cacophonous golf-in-the-Olympics choir. He oversaw the process by which the PGA of America wisely turned over the golf-and-competition reins of the U.S. Ryder Cup operation to the team captain and his players. Under Bevacqua, the historic LPGA Championship has enjoyed a higher profile after being relaunched in 2015 as the Women's PGA Championship. Bevacqua, with his staff and board, is considering moving the PGA Championship from its customary August date to May, which would give the golf calendar a different rhythm. Oh, and Donald Trump has Bevacqua on his contact list, as he has for some years—and he's been in touch.

The two met at Trump Tower in New York City shortly after the election. They played golf in late December at Trump International. More recently, Bevacqua received a call from Trump—that is, President Trump—while ferrying his young children around Palm Beach Gardens.

Pete Bevacqua and Donald Trump

PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua and Donald Trump at a May 2014 press conference.
Getty Images

"It was kind of a strange situation," Bevacqua said recently. "Three kids in the car and then there's a call, 'Please hold for President Trump.' The kids just kept doing their thing. They're singing, oblivious. But at the end of the call, my daughter says, 'Was that the president?'"

The PGA of America has two of its events scheduled for Trump courses, the Senior PGA Championship in May and the PGA Championship in 2022. Trump and the Trump Organization would gladly welcome more PGA of America events. A great golf prize for the Trump family would be a Ryder Cup on one of its courses on either side of the Atlantic. (Venues have been selected through 2024. The '26 Ryder Cup appears to be headed to Ireland. Trump has two Scottish courses, in Turnberry and Aberdeen.) Eric Trump—now in charge of running his family's golf business in conjunction with Larry Glick, a Trump Organization executive—would naturally love a U.S. Open, a British Open or a PGA Tour event at any course bearing the Trump name. Long before Trump was elected, the USGA awarded Trump National Bedminster with the 2017 U.S. Women's Open. But given some of the extreme language used by Trump as a candidate and some of the positions he has taken as president, it seems unlikely that the PGA Tour, the USGA or the R&A, administrators of the British Open, will be eager to choose another Trump venue anytime soon.

Trump National Golf Club (Bedminster) is set to host the 2017 U.S. Women's Open and the 2022 PGA Championship

Trump National Golf Club (Bedminster) is set to host the 2017 U.S. Women's Open and the 2022 PGA Championship.
Brian Morgan

"We talked about golf," Bevacqua said, revisiting his unexpected call. He noted that the nature of the conversation was social, not professional, and consistent with Trump's vow to have Eric and Donald Jr. run the Trump Organization. Of course, no call from the president of the United States to the CEO of any organization that is keenly important to him could be regarded as a purely social call, regardless of what is discussed. That is why experts on political ethics have been logging so much overtime lately. It may go unsaid, but Donald Trump wants something from the PGA of America.

In golf, as in life, you don't always get what you want. In 2015, in the wake of the derogatory campaign-trail comments Trump made about Mexican immigrants, the PGA of America, under Bevacqua's leadership, pulled its scheduled Grand Slam of Golf event from Trump's course in Los Angeles. That was less than a year after the PGA, again under Bevacqua's leadership, removed Ted Bishop as president for the offense of accusing Ian Poulter of acting like a "lil girl" in a tweet. That removal seems draconian today, in view of how coarse public discourse has become, but it is one for which Bevacqua makes no apology. The removal, by vote of the organization's board of directors, led to a complete deterioration of what had been a close relationship between Bevacqua and Bishop. You don't become the head of a large public institution and expect to make everyone happy.

This August, the PGA Championship will be played at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C. The NBA moved its February All-Star game from Charlotte to New Orleans as a statement against a new North Carolina law the ended broad protection for gay and transgender people. Bevacqua has said the PGA of America is opposed to the law but that he did not see the point in moving the championship from a private club that does not engage in discriminatory practices and an event that will welcome any person, regardless of sexual orientation.

The PGA of America has never been viewed as progressive, or political, and the intersection of golf and politics is difficult for the organization. It may seem inconsistent that the PGA of America walked away from a Trump golf venue in 2015 when Trump was a candidate making incendiary, mean-spirited comments, but not in 2017, when he has been doing so as president. Bevacqua walks a tight rope. He leads a broad and conservative constituency. He is guided not only by his own value system—shaped by his Catholic faith and its Jesuitical traditions—but also by political realities, within his organization and far beyond it. Nobody said the job would be easy.

In various ways, the three months since Election Day have been heady for Bevacqua, personally and professionally. But over the course of two recent interviews he twice noted that he is keeping his eye on what he described as his single-most important responsibility, which is keeping and creating jobs for the 28,000 PGA of America members. With that in mind, Bevacqua recently hired John Easterbrook, a veteran golf executive, for the new position of chief membership officer. If the PGA of America had a Department of Labor, Easterbrook would be its secretary. Among other responsibilities, Easterbrook will oversee training and continuing education for PGA pros in an era when selling clubs and folding sweaters is becoming a minor part of the job.

The makeup of the cabinet in the Trump White House is an evolving soap opera, but the unofficial cabinet of American golf is in a good place: Bevacqua; Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA; Jay Monahan, the new PGA Tour commissioner, succeeding Tim Finchem; Mike Whan, in his eighth year as LPGA commissioner; and Billy Payne, the longtime chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club. (Yes, five white men. Golf deserves its reputation for being laggardly.) American golf is doing all right, even if it is not the fine-tuned machine it seeks to be. In recent months, rules debacles have marred tournaments, there's been a rash of injuries in a sport that is not accustomed to a DL, drug-testing on the PGA Tour continues to be widely viewed as flawed and lax and Nike exited the club manufacturing business. But in the main, golf is a remarkably stable and resilient sport and industry. Trump entered into the golf business, he has said, because he loves the game and because he views it "as an aspirational sport," one that the rich and those seeking to get there "will always want to play." Over the past decade, as more courses have closed than opened, Trump has made repeated forays into golf.

Trump's Washington, D.C.-area course, hard against the Potomac River, will play host to the 2017 Senior PGA Championship in May.

Trump's Washington, D.C.-area course, hard against the Potomac River, will play host to the 2017 Senior PGA Championship in May.
Brian Morgan

The PGA of America is a perfect fit for Trump. It is an organization with deep working-class roots, but many people affiliated with it, the card-carrying members and the golfers they serve, have broad aspirations to la dolce vita, American-style. These same qualities were part of Trump's appeal on The Apprentice and as a presidential candidate.

The path of Bevacqua's very American golfing life fits a classic mold. "Some of my happiest times came when caddying at Bedford under Walt Ronan and playing Bethpage Black with my father and best friend," he said recently. Bedford is shorthand for the oh-so-fine Bedford (N.Y.) Golf & Tennis Club, where Ronan was the legendary head pro. Bethpage Black is one of the great true municipal courses in the world, a two-time U.S. Open host, the venue for the 2019 PGA Championship and for the 2024 Ryder Cup. Bevacqua, who grew up the youngest of five in a Mass-every-Sunday Italian Catholic family, was a working kid who attended an elite prep school, Brunswick School in Greenwich, Conn., where he was valedictorian. (He went to Notre Dame as an undergraduate and Georgetown for law school.) There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of golfers in America who, like Bevacqua, were drawn to the manners, dress, rules, tradition and overall code that the game both provides and demands. The same could be said for Trump. The world of golf is an excellent place to practice upward mobility. Pete Bevacqua and Donald Trump would both tell you that.

Trump was bitten by the golf bug as an undergraduate at Penn in the mid-1960s, playing a city-owned public course, Cobbs Creek. (Designed by Hugh Wilson, who was also the architect of Merion Golf Club, Cobbs Creek has long been a center for black golfers in Philadelphia.) Eventually, Trump became a member of Winged Foot, the heaviest of the heavy-hitting Westchester County clubs outside New York City. (It is a club where personal accomplishment has meant more to the admissions committee than coming from an old-line, rich-for-generations family.) Bevacqua found his way from municipal and public courses and the caddie yard in Bedford to Seminole Golf Club, an oceanside Donald Ross gem in Juno Beach, Fla., that is a bastion of old wealth, good manners and USGA committeemen. Bevacqua, as a working man in golf, is not a traditional Seminole member. But the 45th president, who is not a member, would be far more of an outlier. Trump is often humorously dismissive of old-line clubs, Seminole among them, and he is part of the club's lore, for the day decades ago that he visited with his then wife, Marla Maples, who nursed the couple's baby in the clubhouse in a manner some members found to be too immodest.

In manners of personal style, Bevacqua, a slender runner and a careful eater with a shaved head, is Trump's opposite, though they both play golf with an aggressive and impressive swing. (Tiger Woods said of Trump, "He takes a pretty good lash." Trump, who has played about 20 rounds with Bevacqua, a 3-handicapper, has said about the same of Bevacqua's swing.) Bevacqua is a widely liked new member at Seminole in part because of his keen appreciation for the game and its history and for the conversations he strikes up with the many accomplished older members of the club. He recently asked Vinny Giles, the 1972 U.S. Amateur champion, how many Masters he had played in. "Nine," Giles replied. "Nine!" Bevacqua said, eager to hear the details.

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The golf business is all about relationships. Before he was elected president, in the years when promoting his courses was one of his main hobbies and business interests, Trump cultivated relationships with a variety of significant figures in golf, including Bevacqua and Mike Davis. As a result, Trump courses have hosted events for the LPGA, the PGA Tour, the USGA and the PGA of America.

Bevacqua's relationship with Trump, and with the Trump Organization, is one of the most important in all of golf, right up there with the Mark Steinberg-Tiger Woods relationship and the PGA Tour-Golf Channel relationship. In late May the Senior PGA Championship will be played at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., about 25 miles from the White House and the Trump International Hotel. For any competitor—including Bernhard Langer, Tom Watson and David Frost, all of whom know Trump—there will be a special group rate at the hotel. Every tournament points players to hotels with special rates. But not every tournament has the name of the president of the United States on the venue, at the hotel and on the trophy. Eric Trump will surely be there; his father's schedule is famously loose.

Earlier this month, Bevacqua played with Jim Furyk, the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Bevacqua was impressed by the deep level of communication, despite relatively few words, between Furyk and his caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan. He was also impressed by Furyk's skill as a golf instructor and his ability to identify a ball that was an inch or two out of position at address. Bevacqua has an ongoing, and expanding, relationship with Woods, who he says "will certainly be a future Ryder Cup captain." He and Monahan, the Tour commissioner, are forging a close working relationship, which will be vital if the dates for the PGA Championship were to change. The PGA of America's relationship with Augusta National, in conducting the National Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, has been significant for both the club and the organization. The PGA presents an annual award named for Deacon Palmer, Arnold's father, for a golfer who has overcome a "major obstacle" in his or her life. In that capacity and in others, the PGA works closely with Golf Channel.

For Bevacqua, his relationship with Trump, along with the PGA of America's relationship with the Trump Organization, is a thing in his life alongside many things. But because Trump is president and because he engenders such extreme reactions, Bevacqua most likely will be hearing what others think about Trump wherever his golf travels take him in the foreseeable future. He has a practiced response for anybody who wants to know the PGA's stance on the man and his courses.

"We have selected Trump courses for championships because they are excellent facilities," Bevacqua says. "We don't believe golf is a place to practice politics. We believe sport transcends politics. I set aside my own political views when weighing in on where we bring our championships. What we know now is that the KitchenAid Senior Championship is at the Trump course in Washington in May and that the PGA Championship will be at Trump Bedminster in 2022. We haven't talked about anything more. If we did, it would be with Eric [Trump] and Larry Glick, and we would do so on the basis of the facilities and whether they meet our needs.

"We haven't talked about having a Ryder Cup" at a Trump course, Bevacqua adds. It would be easy for him to predict what kind of interest there would be on the other side. "To me, the Ryder Cup is one of the great events in all of sports," he says, "and anybody with a golf facility would love to host the Ryder Cup."

Trump is capable of great charm, not that there's been much evidence of that since he got into politics. But Bevacqua has seen it, the full-monty Trump charm offensive. "After playing with Mr. Trump—now President Trump—he has you thinking that if you applied yourself you could win the PGA Championship," says Bevacqua, who speaks about his experiences with Trump with characteristic and appealing openness.

Bevacqua believes having a golfing president will be good for the game, as it was when Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were in the White House. Trump could make course-building a public-works project, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the 1930s.

One of the best things Trump may have going for him is his relationship with golf. It is smack-dab in his comfort zone. Bevacqua noted that being with Trump as president-elect was exactly like being with Trump when he was a reality TV star with a significant interest in golf. "After the election, I went to Trump Tower to talk to Eric about the 2022 PGA Championship," Bevacqua says. "He said, 'My dad wants to see you.' So I take the elevator to his floor. Ted Cruz was walking out of the office. I'm thinking, This is different. But then, for 45 minutes, President-elect Trump and I talked about golf. We talked about his course in D.C. We talked about the changes they had made at Turnberry."

A few weeks later, on Dec. 30, Bevacqua played with Trump at his West Palm Beach course. Trump, Bevacqua says, made four birdies and an eagle, when he holed an 80-yard pitch shot on the par-5 3rd. Golf is something the 45th president does well, but for now he has other priorities. Right about now, talking golf with Pete Bevacqua must seem like a reminder of a simpler time when the problems in Trump's life revolved around the rankings of his courses in the various golf magazines or the guy (Michael Forbes) in Aberdeen who would not sell his property next to the Trump International course. His recent rounds with Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy must feel about the same—a reprieve. Maybe Trump will now be more understanding of the many rounds Obama logged as president.

In any event, Trump has the Senior PGA Championship to look forward to. He may not be there, but Pete Bevacqua will and Eric Trump will be, too. Also on hand, if all goes well, will be Fred Couples and John Daly and a bunch of other golden-oldies whose names fall out of Trump's mouth with far greater ease than those of his White House chief of staff (Reince Priebus) or his new friend and golf partner from Japan (Shinzo Abe) or his new national security adviser (H.R. McMaster), whom Trump announced on Monday afternoon, while sitting on a chintz sofa at Mar-a-Lago on a beautiful, warm-wind South Florida day that was perfect for golf.

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