Multi-swings, souped-up buggies and dropping it straight in the hole: why presidents cheat at golf

Trump isn’t the first commander-in-chief to acquire a reputation for bending the rules.

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By all accounts, President Trump is good at golf – and especially good for a man of 72 with a demanding job and a young family, who has only managed to get out on to the course… [consults notes] 178 times since taking office in 2017. But (brace yourself for a shock, here) he’s not as good at golf as he says he is.

As the American sportswriter Rick Reilly demonstrates in his book Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, the president’s claimed handicap (2.8, better than Jack Nicklaus, currently at 3.4) doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. (Somewhere between a seven and a ten would seem more likely.) Nor does his claim to have won 18 club championships. (Reilly establishes that 16 of those championships Trump definitely didn’t win at all, and the other two can’t be verified either way.)

Then, there are the claims that Trump makes for his own golf facilities. I hadn’t realised until I read Reilly that Trump golf courses are in the place they say they are in the same way that a Ryanair flight to London Southend actually takes you to London. Trump Los Angeles is in Rancho Palos Verdes, a 75-minute drive from LA. Trump Charlotte is an hour from Charlotte. Trump Washington is in Sterling, Virginia, and so on. And we haven’t even got to the way Trump cheats on the course yet.

Books explaining Trump are an industry at the moment, but Reilly’s deserves to go down as a major contribution to the political literature of the era. As a critique of Trump’s character and fitness for office, and as a measure of his seemingly instinctive mission against the truth, it arguably outreaches Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House and is certainly far funnier.

However, dedicated students of this topic will also need, for the broader context, Don Van Natta Jr’s 2004 masterpiece, First Off the Tee, which charts the history of the American presidency’s relationship to golf, from the rotund William Howard Taft (who, when swinging a club, “resembled a sumo wrestler trying to swat a gnat”) through to George W Bush, who played in a hurry, with flashes of temper, and probably preferred running.

Harding, Coolidge, JFK… with varying degrees of enthusiasm, they were all at it. Eisenhower’s spikes left holes in the Oval Office floor. Gerald Ford played Pro-Am. Nixon on a golf course exuded sweat, worry and paranoia: ‘‘His swing was as stiff as his starched shirts,’’ Van Natta writes. During a Ronald Reagan round at Augusta, an angry 45-year-old man with a gun stormed the pro shop and took seven hostages. It would have been a better story if the president had played on regardless. In fact, he was hustled off the course into his armoured car. Reagan didn’t really like golf as much as he liked horse-riding. But he was president, so he played.

And yes, Bill Clinton was a monumental cheat – although apparently he did it charmingly, and with an engaging smile. His regular practice was to hit a number of balls off the tee and then go with the one that landed in the best position, conveniently discounting all the others. He wasn’t above adopting this multi-ball approach further down the fairway, too. When Van Natta played with him one day, he estimated that Clinton had taken at least 200 swings at various balls in total. Clinton carded an 82 for that round.

Trump also seems to enjoy multi-ball golf. According to Reilly, he favours a souped-up golf buggy that can get him up the fairway and off into the distance before his partners have left the tee. Many drives that land with a visible splash in water hazards later turn out mysteriously to have found dry land. Caddies at one course saw Trump kick his ball back on to the fairway so many times that they nicknamed him “Pele”. He throws his balls out of bunkers. He also throws his opponents’ balls into bunkers. It is said that he once pretended to play a shot from deep in a sand trap and then surreptitiously carried the ball to the green and dropped it in the hole, before loudly acclaiming himself for the chip.

In some respects, golf exactly suits Trump. It’s not athletic. It comes in little bursts of action requiring only a minimal attention span. And it’s largely self-regulating, so you can cheat all you like. Which, of course, is precisely what golfers don’t do and why golf is (whatever else it is) the most honourable of sports, a sport with an actual, applied conscience, and a game in which, as Reilly makes clear, winning is respected far less than integrity.

As Van Natta argued, golf is also, in its obstinacy, something that can usefully defy a president. “Only the game of golf says no,” Van Natta writes. “Golf cannot be stage-managed or spun, it cannot be tailored by image makers or tallied by pollsters, it cannot be buttonholed or lobbied, and it certainly cannot be wowed by the trappings of the Office of the President of the United States.” But Van Natta wrote before Trump.

HL Mencken may have had a point when he said, “If I had my way, no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust under the United States.” He would definitely have had a point in Trump’s case.

Yet how lucky America is to have golf as this readily available and reliable monitor of the character of those in whom it vests its ultimate trust. Golf has never been forced on British politics as a compulsory weekend sport for prime ministers, and that’s a great shame. How well the game might have explained the John Major era or illuminated the Brown years. If Theresa May played golf – even if we only knew her to be an avid Thursday-night member of her local pub darts team – it would add grip to our understanding of her that at present struggles so badly for purchase. It’s our loss. And golf’s. 

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special