SOUTHPORT, England — Greetings from Royal Birkdale. When I awoke this morning at 4:45 a mechanical but English voice was shouting, “FI-err! FI-err! FI-err.” But it wasn’t a fire. It was burnt toast. I could blame the toaster, but I know my housemate, Bertis Downs, too well.
This is my 20th Open and I’m staying this week, as I have some years in the past, in a rental house with some fellow golf bums and organized by Bertis. You can’t see the golf course from the house but through my bedroom window I could hear the sounds from it. That’s how close we are.
Two doors down, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood are staying in a grand house with a big driveway weighed down by heavy cars. An enormous lorry deposited scores of golf fans right at their front gate, but this is not a stalking culture. At Opens, you often see players, and others embedded in the culture of golf, in the local restaurants. Last night at dinner I saw John Minkley, who has been running the Darrell Survey, with his sister, for about 40 years now.
Bertis and I have both been getting around by Merseyrail and Bertis noted that the rail line from Birkdale to Formby is lined with golf courses. It’s true. In the vicinity of Birkdale is the Hillside golf course, Southport & Ainsdale, Formby, among others, private clubs by charter but semi-public in actual fact. You can get tee times on most any of them. On a morning jog I went by three courses and a grand cemetery filled with Tinsdales and other names that conjure up old England. Some surnames for streets around here include Row, Close, Fold and Circuit. Exercise caution when crossing a dual carriageway. Everything here is familiar and also a little different.
Many of the British seaside courses have ancient right-of-ways running through them that serve as public footpaths, often to a beach. There’s not much of that in the United States but one course that has it is the Trump course in Palos Verdes, about 20 miles south of LAX, a straight shot on the Pacific Coast Highway.
About a decade ago, after I had played the course, Donald Trump asked me what I thought of it. It’s impossibly difficult and hilly and I must have lost a half-dozen or more balls on it. Trying to be polite, I said I like how the surfers and the hikers and the picnicking families have a public path through the course (which is public) to the beach.
“You like that?” Trump said.
“I do. I think it’s great.”
“I f—ing hate that,” Trump said.
It was amusing and he was being honest.
When I first got to know Trump, close to 20 years ago, I often found him to be amusing and honest. It was part of his appeal. Also, we shared a love of and interest in golf. He really does love the game. The character he played on The Apprentice was only vaguely familiar to me. The character he played as Candidate Trump I barely recognized. Ditto for President Trump. But he was excellent at being a golf impresario and he liked it.
Ten or more years ago, I used to egg Trump on with the idea that he would be the first course-owner to serve as host of both a U.S. Open and a British Open, or a Ryder Cup played on either side of the Atlantic. I’m not saying I was playing the Billy Bush role with him, but I was getting him in the mood. It was a conversation he relished. I thought he would go far in golf. I told people that he’d make an excellent LPGA commissioner, because he was such a good salesman and showman. For those same reasons, I could not have imagined him as the commissioner of the PGA Tour. But LPGA commissioner, yes.
The Metropolitan (New York) Golf Writers Association presents an annual award called the Family of the Year. The Turnesa family won it 1964 and the Nicklaus family in ’92 and the Trump family in 2011. Well, the Trumps are having a pretty good golf year this year as well. In June, the Senior PGA Championship was held at Trump National, near Washington, D.C., Eric and Donald Trump Jr. presiding. Last week, the U.S. Women’s Open was held at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., with the First Golfer on the scene, stuck though he was in that glass-enclosed viewing box.
That had to be tough for him. Really, he was like a prisoner on his own property. Looking at him, I wondered how much he likes being president. Before, when he was just Trump, I know he was having a good time. There was an excellent New York Times story last week about how the White House press corps finds the private Trump is likable while the public Trump is—well, we’ve all seen the approval ratings.
You can be sure Trump will keep one eye on the Open this week. He counts Ernie Els, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson among his golf buddies. When he’s done as president, whenever that may be, I expect he’ll make a showy return to golf, playing a lot and trying to get more major championships on the Trump Organization dance card. That was his main MO before he suddenly showed so much interest in Obama’s birthplace.
I have played I think 9.5 rounds with Trump (including one 27-hole day) and have talked to him for hours. He did not ever strike me as deep or contemplative, in the tradition of Obama or Eisenhower or Lincoln. This maybe will give you more of a sense of him. We were driving from Mar-a-Lago to his course in West Palm Beach in his Bentley. Trump said to me, “Have you ever sat in more luxurious leather in your life?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Where?” Trump asked.
“On Arnold’s Citation X,” I said.
“Bamberger, you are an a–hole,” Trump said.
He will relish getting back to golf and maybe he’s already thinking about it.
The most likely Trump course for a British Open is Trump Turnberry and the most likely Trump course for a European Ryder Cup is the Trump International Golf Links, near Aberdeen. The two courses are situated on opposite coasts in the craggy, rugged austere country where Trump’s mother was born.
The day after the 2006 Ryder Cup, in Ireland—Europe, by a touchdown, an extra point and a field goal—I flew from Dublin to Aberdeen. I wanted to check out the great swath of linksland (1,500 acres) that Trump had been telling me about, land on which he planned to build at least one seaside course. One of Trump’s golf guys, in a Range Rover, picked me up. Trump had told me that his rumpled seaside tract was known as “the Great Dunes of Aberdeen.” Nobody in town to whom I spoke, lifelong residents, had ever even heard of that phrase. It was Trump being Trump, with his genius for marketing.
When I came home, Trump called. He was calling a lot then. I had something he wanted: a good write-up in SI.
“Michael, you have now completed your Trump golf tour,” Trump said. He had five courses at the time and I had played them all. (Now he has 18.) “Tell me: Of all the Trump courses, which one would you say you like most?”
“Scotland,” I said.
“That is a very interesting answer,” he said. “You did not say a course, but a property. What you are saying is that my land in Scotland has the potential to be the site of the greatest seaside golf course in the world.”
He was taking his phrase and planting it in me. He does a lot of that. It was about then I started thinking he’d make a good LPGA commissioner.
I also remember thinking it would be extremely unlikely for him to get a British Open, but then he bought Turnberry, which has had four Opens. The R&A has not said that Turnberry is out of the Open rota, but it also hasn’t hinted that a future Open is going there. Next year the Open is at Carnoustie. In 2019 it visits Royal Portrush, in Northern Ireland. A year after that, it’s back to Royal St. George’s, in England’s southeast. Beyond that, nothing has been announced.
It was really strange, seeing Trump in that glass house at the Women’s Open last week. He must have spent about 10 hours in it, over the course of three days. (The per-hour cost would surely be an obscene number.) There was no frenzy around him, at all. People waved at him genially and he waved back. You wouldn’t say he was a caged animal, but it was something. Trump may be the leader of the free world, but he’s never had less freedom. Golf, as John Updike once noted so beautifully, is “freedom, of a wild and windy sort.” Especially over here.
High noon has come and gone. Ernie will soon be on the driving range, and then the 1st tee. I’m going to toast some bread and make a sandwich, find my ski hat, walk past Darren’s house, tumble on to the course and have a look. Three serious golf people I know who have seen Trump as president or president-elect all say the same thing: All Trump really wants to talk about is golf. I can see that, and I can see the afternoon skies are brightening and the breeze is picking up. I wouldn’t trade where I am for all the tea in China.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]